Liam O’Connell was on a night out with friends, sometime last year in Groningen, when he realised he was seeing more and more Irish people around the city. The first-year physiotherapy student was surrounded by them in class, and kept bumping into them around the city. And that’s when he came up with an idea.
Liam decided to start Groningen’s first Gaelic football team together with his Irish friends. “I thought because there were so many Irish people over here, it would be a great idea. The club is like a home away from home,” he says.
The Groningen Gaels club, which started out as a fun idea between friends, now boasts a men’s and a women’s team that have already competed in The Hague and have big plans for the future.
But what is Gaelic football exactly?
“It’s kind of a mixture of sports I suppose,” Liam says. “You can hand pass the ball like volleyball, you can kick points like Australian rules, and you can bounce like basketball.” What most people might not know, is that Gaelic football and its sister sport, hurling, aren’t just played in Ireland, but there are teams all over the world.
“Our first proper competitive tournament was in The Hague, and there were teams from Dublin, Glasgow, Copenhagen, Moscow and of course, the Netherlands.” It was Groningen’s first competitive game and Liam believes both the men’s and women’s teams put themselves on the map for future competitions. “We won a few games and lost a few games, and there was a big gathering after in the clubhouse with the teams. We all had a few beers and enjoyed ourselves which is all part of it too.”
Next stop: Europe
But the Groningen Gaels aren’t resting on their laurels and they are targeting more tournaments in the near future. They’re hoping to go to Luxembourg in the summer to compete in the Benelux league, which will involve teams from Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Liam tells me there will also be teams from Germany and France, invited to make the competition even tougher. “It’s going to be a big aim for us, alright. We did well our first time out in The Hague, but we’ll be looking to be better in May.”
It’s not just about the sport though. As with everything Irish, the craic (Irish word for fun) is an integral part of everything Groningen Gaels do. “It’s a great opportunity for travelling too. I was looking at the map on Gaelic Games Europe and I saw maybe 50 or 60 clubs in Europe, so I thought it would be a great excuse to go see all these clubs with all my friends.”
Groningen Gaels have made leaps and bounds in their short history. They have already received sponsorship from PM group, a construction company, and O’Malley’s Pub, a local Irish pub in Groningen. From this, they were able to buy 50 brand new jerseys, and other training gear they needed, to start training and competing.
The club now has 50 members and they have big plans for future competitions. But what will happen to the club when Liam graduates? “I hope when I leave, I will have left the club with a good foundation and obviously, I hope it will continue on.” Liam hopes a group of people similar to himself and his friends will be able to carry it on.
There was an attempt to set up a team in 2008, but it was unsuccessful. ”I wouldn’t want that to happen to Groningen Gaels,” Liam states. “Me and the lads have put so much time into it, so I just hope that the club can continue on well into the future. I think there’s so many Irish people coming to the city that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. There’s always people looking to play Gaelic and have a bit of fun.”
Groningen Gaels are always looking for new members and you can find out more on their Facebook page.