How Immigrants Are Shaping the Future of Ireland’s Gaelic Sports

Lee Chin of Wexford during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 4 match between Wexford and Galway at Innovate Wexford Park in Wexford.

Source Ramsey Cardy/Getty

Why you should care

Gaelic football and hurling now have a new, multicultural face.

When Shairoze Akram landed in the west of Ireland from Haroonabad, Pakistan, at age 4, no one around him could have imagined that one day, he’d play an instrumental role in one of the finest sporting achievements of his county, Mayo.

In 2016, he became the first Pakistan-born player to win the under-21 All-Ireland football title after appearing regularly on Gaelic football-mad Mayo’s highly competitive underage county teams since he was 15. “Not many guys around the country get to do that,” he says, “especially from my background.” But Akram, now 22, is doing more than just winning medals.

He’s among a growing set of emerging foreign-born and multiracial stars who are helping revive Ireland’s ancient sports of Gaelic football and hurling, which suffered following the 2008 recession when clubs and teams witnessed an exodus of players. The recession forced Irish workers to leave in droves, mainly to Australia and Canada. By 2012, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) — which governs Gaelic football and hurling, Ireland’s most popular sports — was losing more than 200 registered players a month to immigration. Yet Ireland continued to remain a draw for immigrants, and by 2017, the country was gaining more people than it was bleeding. Its native sports are now reaping the benefits.

It’s good for us because they’re great footballers.

Yvonne Healy, Rosemount GAA club secretary

Take Lee Chin, who captained the hurling team of Wexford in southeast Ireland to a major provincial title this year. The performances of the 27-year-old, whose father is Malaysian, were integral to beating out Kilkenny, the country’s most successful hurling team of all time, in front of almost 52,000 spectators last June. This year, Iraq-born hurler Zak Moradi scored a crucial point for Leitrim at the 82,000-seater Croke Park stadium in Dublin, helping secure the northern county’s first ever national title.

The central Ireland county of Westmeath boasts two outstanding Gaelic football players in Israel Ilunga from Democratic Republic of the Congo and Boidu Sayeh from Liberia. At the local level, the pair line out for Rosemount GAA and helped the club of just 200 members reach a major provincial final in 2016.

“It’s good for us because they’re great footballers,” says Rosemount GAA club secretary Yvonne Healy. “They are both examples of the all-inclusiveness of our club and are great ambassadors for Rosemount and Westmeath GAA.”

For immigrant players, there are few quicker routes to acceptance than through success in hurling — a stick and ball sport — and Gaelic football, which bears similarities with Australian rules football. With around 2,200 local amateur clubs across the island of Ireland’s 32 counties, as well as top-level teams that compete against each other at the county level, nearly one in 10 people are members of the GAA. Each summer, more than 82,000 people attend the two senior competition finals in Croke Park while a million more watch on TV.

A compilation of some of Lee Chin’s best plays in 2018.

“One of the defining features of the GAA is that it’s much more community-based than other sports,” says Pat Daly, the GAA’s director of games development and research. “It does help to ground foreign-born players and immigrants in the local community.”

The traditionally parochial, rural sports first started opening up to a multicultural identity when Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy began attracting immigrants, refugees and Irish returnees and their non-Irish partners in the late 1990s. But it was the recession that turned migrants into important elements upholding the future of Gaelic sports. The GAA’s challenges at the time were symptomatic of the country’s broader economic decline: By November 2013, Ireland had the highest net emigration rate of any EU member state, with close to 90,000 people leaving every year.

Originally from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel Ilunga lines out for Rosemount GAA and helped the club of just 200 members reach a major provincial final in 2016 (1)

Originally from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel Ilunga plays for Rosemount GAA.

For its part, the GAA has unveiled a swath of programs to cater to Ireland’s burgeoning diversity. Though it doesn’t track the number of foreign-born members, it has hired inclusion officers for its provincial setups and launched anti-racism and inclusion education initiatives such as International Days and communication strategies with “nontraditional groups.”

Still, it’s not all smooth sailing. The Federation of Irish Sport this year reported that foreign-born residents of Ireland were 61 percent less likely to be a member of a sports club or organization than those born in the country. Daly says cultural differences are the reason for that divergence in membership rates, at least in part. Migrants from Eastern Europe and Africa, for instance, tend to stop playing Gaelic sports at the age of 14 or 15, he says. “Their culture tends to kick in, and the GAA wouldn’t really be a part of that,” he says. “It depends on how well people are integrated into the community.” He says people who come through “direct provision” — the Irish government’s much-maligned asylum process — are “not very much integrated.”

But racism is a lived reality for leading players too. Chin, Ilunga, Sayeh and Akram all say they’ve been subjected to racial abuse at one time or another on the field of play, though many say there’s been a vast improvement from the time they played at junior levels.

Today, Akram is looking to break into Mayo’s senior football squad while studying for the final year of a degree in sports science at Dublin City University. He says the immigrant-Gaelic games relationship works both ways. Immigrant parents get to meet locals at their kids’ games. “They’ve a chance to get to know the local community, to make friends which they mightn’t otherwise have without the GAA,” he says. “But it also helps broaden the horizons of the GAA itself.”

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