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New Gaels: Finding a home in Ireland through the GAA

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While it remains a novelty story for now, it’s becoming increasingly common. People who began their lives in other countries have found their homes in Ireland and have discovered a love and passion for GAA along the way.

That is the focus of the ‘New Gaels’ documentary, which airs tonight (Thursday) on RTÉ One at 10.15pm and showcases the lives of four GAA players.

Among those featured is Mayo’s Shairoze Akram who won an All-Ireland U21 medal with the county in 2016. He moved to Ireland from Pakistan with his family at the age of four and was catapulted into the life of an ordinary Irish child almost immediately.

After some consideration, he decided to take part in the documentary so others who have found a home in Ireland might learn from his story.

“Initially, I did think about it and I wasn’t too sure what was involved at the start but after talking to the guys and seeing what was involved, I decided to take part. Obviously with my background of coming to Ireland and then having been somewhat successful in the GAA, it made me just think about it and after taking a step back, I thought it would be worthwhile. Not just for myself, even for other guys that have come to the country.

“There are loads of guys who have come into the country who play GAA and I suppose it would help. In my case, Mayo was such a supportive county and I was actually one of the lucky ones to win an All-Ireland with the U21s and that helped my case a bit.

“So I just thought I could be a role model for young guys who might look up to me and see that as an example. Then that might help diversity and integration in the GAA and in the country, I suppose. So I thought, why not go out there and set an example for other people and let them see what I’ve somewhat achieved, I suppose, between college and club and county, and let’s get all the guys doing the exact same thing and get a bit more diversified.

Though work on the documentary began last September, before being delayed by COVID-19, the timing of its release couldn’t be more appropriate.

At the end of July, Croke Park opened its doors to the Muslim community so they could have a space to maintain social distancing while celebrating Eid Al Adha.

In Akram’s eyes, it was a major gesture on the part of the organisation.

“It was brilliant to see the GAA and Croke Park actually opening up for Muslims to come in and practice their religion and, and get their Eid celebrations in. It’s a bi-annual event, there are two Eids throughout the year and we missed our first one because we were in complete lockdown, so there were no prayers done for that.

“So it was nice to be able to get out and even in Ballaghaderreen, the local soccer club let us use their facilities for the prayer. So it’s brilliant to see that the country’s moving on and opening up to other cultures and religions.”

From his sporting background to his education, the GAA has influenced every aspect of Akram’s life. More importantly, it helped him settle in Ireland completely. And the local GAA community assisted his family in whatever way they could.

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“For me, GAA has played a massive part in my life, not just in a sporting element, like even for education, the choices I made in college, they were based around GAA. And then my friends outside of football and education are mostly GAA people. It helped me in all aspects of life, not just football. Um, yeah, like there’s guys from the club here that helped my family and myself get settled in at the start.

“You talk about role models, Andy Moran from the club has been a role model of mine. He has done anything and everything for me and still does.

“Irrelevant to football, I might just drop him a message and meet him for coffee, just to bounce ideas off or just, just to get his opinion on it. But it wasn’t just him, it was the GAA parents and everyone else in the community.”

Overall, the former DCU student enjoyed a mostly positive welcome to Ireland but over the years he has experienced his share of racism, even if he did not realise it at the time.

To ignore it, he admits, would only add to the problem.

“To completely ignore the racism part would be wrong on my part, I suppose. Once the light came to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign, a lot of guys opened up and talked about their experiences and then you go back and think, ‘well, maybe I did experience some of those things’, and then it kind of makes you think, ‘Oh wait, that was maybe a bit racist’.

“At the time you don’t think of it like that. But 90% of the people were completely the opposite. They were very good to us and very welcoming. In Ballaghaderreen we have a Syrian refugee centre here, so it’s a very open community. They’re very welcoming and open to other cultures and other people. So I was lucky on that behalf.

“But again, you had the minority that you might’ve had run-ins with, just mouthing or a few bits and pieces like that. I suppose that’s part and parcel.”

‘New Gaels’ tells an important story and it highlights a large group of people in Ireland who often do not get a voice in the national media.

Akram is on a mission to change that so that children growing up, whether born in Ireland or not, can view people of all different races on television as the new norm.

“I’m nervous, but I’m looking forward to seeing the final product. I think it’s an important step. Like you don’t see a lot of non-nationals or multicultural people in the media. So I think it’s important for kids.

“Just like the 20×20 campaign for female athletes, I think it’s important to see colored people or people that come from different backgrounds in the media so it’s more open and more welcomed and people just get to know it as a norm rather than a difference.

“That’s what I’d be hoping for. And then kids growing up can look at that and say, ‘Oh, well, you know what? I can actually go and do that.’ People always look to inter-county players as role models. You see the status that players from Dublin, Mayo, Kerry have. Why not have people that are from different backgrounds like that too?”

‘New Gaels’ tells the unique stories of four GAA players who began life in different countries. They came here for varying reasons, but all now share a common love of Gaelic Games. Tune in this Thursday 10th, RTE One at 10:15pm. 

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Author: Marisa Kennedy

Marisa is a Digital Journalist with Pundit Arena. You can contact her at marisa@punditarena.com or on Twitter