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GAA stars flowering in the desert

By Declan Bogue

Published 30/11/2016

Stars of the east: A group of children, who had played in games earlier, with GAA President Aoghan ÓFearghail and the Sam Maguire Cup prior to the GAA GPA All-Stars football tour sponsored by Opel at the Sheikh Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Stars of the east: A group of children, who had played in games earlier, with GAA President Aoghan ÓFearghail and the Sam Maguire Cup prior to the GAA GPA All-Stars football tour sponsored by Opel at the Sheikh Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

If there's one thing the GAA All-Stars' experience of touring Dubai and Abu Dhabi teaches us, it's that this is a mass Irish emigration of a distinctly different hue.

In the 1950s when Irishmen left to work on the roads and Irishwomen in the hospitals of England, the exploitation of labour by fellow countrymen was a scandal. Contractors would assess the state of the men gathered in front of a pub and select some for that day's work. Many were forced to turn and trudge home to their lodgings.

At the end of the week, many casual labourers were forced to pay for the pints of the charge hand, to butter him up for another week's work. Meanwhile, they would later discover that they had been paid 'on the lump', with no tax or insurance, leaving them vulnerable and in ill-health.

Another journalist warned us that before we left for Dubai we might have to 'park our principles'. And while we were astonished by the monuments to capitalism, the vast skyscrapers of sandstone and glass, we caught enough sights of exhausted labourers with heads slumped as they were transported from labour camps to building sites in packed buses for exhausting 12-hour shifts, six days a week.

A building contractor friend who has made a good living for himself out there said there are hundreds of thousands of these men, of Bangladeshi and Indian origin, who are brought here on the promise of riches and have their passports confiscated. A typical monthly wage for them is 1,200 Dirham, which converts to £261.

The Irish that we met are not suffering that awful state of affairs.

Instead, they are thriving, earning between £2,500 to £4,000 per month, tax free.

GAA President Aoghan ÓFearghail told reporters at a press conference in Dubai that the GAA is a central plank of the emigrants out there, and that at times their lives contained a bit of 'drudgery'.

We were thinking about that word 'drudgery' as we scraped the ice off our car windscreens in Dublin airport yesterday morning. Not to be facetious, but waking up every morning to blue skies and stacks of cash is an odd kind of drudgery.

But the GAA has a crucial role to play in the lives of what outwardly appear to be confident, wealthy young emigrants. One even told a reporter on tour that it 'kept them right' with regular training sessions and games that they had to maintain a level of self-sacrifice.

Expanding on that thought, he said that Dubai was the kind of place you could easily get caught with alcohol, and certainly the brunch scene is one of hedonism.

Those involved in coaching men's senior teams told us how the standard of football is always increasing, but hurling is showing a rate of improvement that is off the charts. One club official reported that they now field no fewer than 21 senior teams across football, ladies' football, hurling and camogie.

Taken in terms of games and players, the Middle East board has better participation levels than some county boards here.

But the story of GAA in the Middle East is not how the lads and lasses from the next townland are making a real go of it over there. It lies in the figures from the Irish Embassy that holds that there are almost 4,000 Irish teachers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Valued as teachers in that demanding role, they are capturing the imagination with their indigenous sports.

Through the Irish and United Arab Emirates Embassy, Gaelic games have now been adapted into PE lessons in schools. For the curtain raiser before the All-Stars exhibition match, there were a smattering of young Arabian children already a product of that system.

In Ontario, Canada, similar work has Gaelic games on the official curriculum.

Throughout the tour, unusual stories popped up. Jacques from France met with the GAA President. Michelle from Toronto was present at an ambassadorial function, having founded a club in Sharjah.

ÓFearghail acknowledged: "I think we learn a lot from overseas. And overseas learns from us."

In a shrinking world, this is how the GAA can truly become an international concern.

Belfast Telegraph

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