Friday, July 31 2020, will forever be remembered as a historic milestone in Irish history.
Two hundred members of the Muslim community descended upon Croke Park to celebrate the Islamic festival of Eid. O’Loingsigh
The prayer service, which marks the festival of sacrifice, was held at the iconic stadium so that Eid could be celebrated in a safe and socially-distanced way.
It was a momentous occasion for the GAA and Irish Muslims. As Shaykh Umar Al-Qadri eloquently put it in his addressing speech, it sent a strong message to the world.
“Thank you to Ireland because today this Eid prayer is sending a very strong message out to the whole world that Ireland is indeed a country of céad míle fáilte,” Dr Al-Qadri said.
For one man however the celebration meant so much more. Abood Abdullah Aljumaili AKA Bonnar O’Loingsigh is a devout Muslim, but arguably more so Ó’Loingsigh is a devout hurling man and a truel Gael.
The Iraqi-born hurler is as Irish as you and I and it only takes a minute of conversation to realise that. Bonnar O’Loingsigh himself gave a speech on Friday where he called upon people from all denominations to give hurling a try.
“The decision to make the speech, I thought that it was vital as a GAA man. It’s all about integration, diversity, peace and bringing communities together.
“I thought that it was vital for me as a hurling man to make use of that for the Eid festival as Croke Park is the Mecca for hurling, so to speak.
“I went there with the intention of sharing my story first of all. But also to show people that are coming into this country, a guy like me who, once upon a time, was in their position.
“Then took up hurling, didn’t like it at first but kept practising and fell in love with it. I wanted to show how big a factor it was in integrating me into the Irish culture, Irish society and the local community.
“So that was my intention because Ireland, in my opinion, has a better handle on diversity, certainly than most other EU member states.”
Hurling is about more than just a game for O’Loingsigh It helped him adapt to a new life having grown up in a time of war.
He arrived from Baghdad with his family five years after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
O’Loingsigh couldn’t speak English and admitted he was somewhat of a loner at first. Hurling not only found him a purpose. It found him a community. It also taught him the language. Hurling is responsible for everything.
“We left for a better life. To escape the war that was going on at the time. The civil war that broke out four years after the American invasion.
“I came here in 2008, I think I was about nine years of age. Started off in primary school, not a word of English except ‘hi’. I saw some of the lads out with these sticks, their hurls. I just thought it was normal enough, it didn’t really register with me.
“A couple of weeks passed then the primary school championships were starting. The teachers asked me if I was interested in trying out. So I said: ‘sure why not’.
“I went down but it didn’t really appeal to me, I couldn’t hit the sliotar, couldn’t even hold the hurl properly.
“Eventually, I thought this wasn’t for me but for some reason I got attracted to it and went back. I just stuck at it then. I remember getting my own hurl and sliotar and practising out the back. Just trying to lift the ball. I kept trying and trying and trying.
“Eventually, I lifted it and realised I’d fallen in love with what I believe to be the greatest game on earth.
“My involvement in the GAA helped with my English. It helped me integrate within my local community and I got to know a lot of people through it.
“It’s absolutely excellent what the GAA has afforded me.”
O’Loingsigh remembers first stepping foot on Irish soil, like so many, the weather struck him. Which is exactly why he loves to hurl in the rain.
“Coming out of the airport. The first thing that hit me was the weather. It was raining and the weather was freezing at the time. Still is.
“I hadn’t experienced that in my life, thankfully I got used to it. I always say, my best days are rainy days, you know. I often say that to people and they look at me like I’ve 10 heads. There’s nothing better than playing a hurling match on a rainy day. There’s something so beautiful about it.”
His sporting hero in many ways is as unique as his love of Irish weather. O’Loingsigh cites Clare’s two-time All-Star midfielder Colin Lynch as hurler he looks to mirror himself on.
“The person I look at before every match is Colin Lynch. For me, he was a warrior, iconic. His hunger to get the ball every time. The physicality he brought to the game.
“I love the physicality of it. Sure I’ve been knocked out by boys bigger than me more times than I care to remember but you just get up and get on with it. That’s what I love.”
It’s obvious the passion Bonnar O’Loingsigh has for the GAA. From the vigour with which he talks about hurling in the rain and Colin Lynch’s bravery, it is evident that hurling means everything to him.
The Ballinteer St. Johns man, who will commence his final year of a four-year Law degree at DIT next year, credits the game with giving him an identity.
“Back in the town where I am from, people just played soccer on the road. Just kicking the ball around basically. So sport was in my life but there weren’t any teams. There was no FC this or FC that.
“I would just go out for the craic, just to get a kick of the ball. But joining a club wasn’t something that I intended on doing coming to Ireland.
“But when I got into hurling properly, you know, it’s just became everything to me. It’s about more than a sport though. It has given me an identity as a person. It goes way beyond the field, way beyond it.”
O’Loingsigh helped to make history on Friday. He showed the world how he was the living embodiment of a modern-GAA.
That is something he wants to use his platform and voice to promote. He wants to show others how Gaelic games offered him a better life.
“I encourage everyone that is in Ireland from a foreign background to try the GAA. Whether you’re a man or a woman. No matter what your religious beliefs are that you try out the GAA.
“It’s an absolutely great community to be a part of. It would be excellent to have people from different backgrounds within the GAA because it really is a huge factor in terms of integration
“It also sets an excellent example for diversity and Friday was an iconic example of that.”