Asian Gaelic Games Land in Korea
With strong Irish communities in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, an idea to try and bring together the Irish from all over Asia for an Asian Gaelic Games tournament emerged in the mid-90s. The founding members of the Asian Gaelic Games saw this as an opportunity to get the Irish in Asia together for a weekend of football, and maybe have a few sociable drinks, too.
The first Asian Gaelic Games took place in Manila during the summer of 1996. Half a dozen teams arrived from all around the continent to start a tradition that has since thrived. And this year, the tournament comes to Korea for the first time, as Suwon hosts the Fexco Asian Gaelic Games 2011.
The aim is what it has always been: to fill the weekend with football and craic.
There are eight trophies up for grabs along with individual all-stars, MVP and club awards. The top teams in the competition will compete for the Derek Brady Cup, the Ladies Cup and the Hurling Cup. The opening ceremony will take place on Oct. 14 with the actual tournament running Oct. 15-16.
The support of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in Ireland has been invaluable in keeping the Games growing year on year - as well as dedication and enormous efforts of clubs in the region. After 15 years, the tournament has grown from five teams in 1996 to 54 last year.
Gaelic football goes back to at least 1712 when the first reported match took place, but it was mentioned in the Statutes of Galway in 1527. The game in its full form is played by two teams of 15 on a pitch about 137 meters long and 87 meters wide. The goalposts are the same as for rugby, but with a slightly lower crossbar. The aim of the game is to get the ball by hand/fist/foot over the crossbar for one point or under the crossbar and into the net for three points. The Asian Gaelic Games is a nine-a-side tournament, with matches lasting 14 minutes each.
Irish ambassador to Korea, Eamonn McKee, spoke to Groove Korea about how he feels about having the AGG in Korea. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to showcase Ireland and Irish sports,” he said. “But it also shows some of the best qualities of the Irish abroad. We get together to support each other, but also to reach out to the local community and to expatriates. In the Seoul Gaels, for example, you will find not just Irish members, but Koreans and other expats. Of course the main focus is sport, but the social side is very important too.”
McKee elaborated on what the sport means to the Irish in general and painted a picture of what spectators and newcomers to Gaelic sports can expect. “We are very proud of our Gaelic sports. Their revival in the 1870s was part of our national struggle to develop our identity and seek political independence, which we did in 1922. But the Gaelic Athletic Association that sponsored the revival did far more than that. It built a volunteer movement based around sports involving every village, town and county in Ireland.”
He said the sporting tradition and folklore is passed down from one generation to the next. “It boosted the Irish language revival. The local GAA club is also a focus for young boys and girls. It gets them involved in their community and in sports. The GAA is really an integral part of Irish life.”
Helen Cooke, the director of the tournament, who has been in Korea for three-and-a-half years, praised Ambassador McKee for his role in making the Games possible. “Without him and his staff, the AGG may not have happened at all or indeed would have proven much more difficult to organize.
He and his wife Mary have been very kind and supportive to the Seoul Gaels, even hosting a wonderful dinner in their home to help raise awareness of the AGG among the Irish community in Seoul.”
Joe Trolan, assistant tournament director and chairman of the Seoul Gaels, thanked Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (Global Campus), Dr. Nam Su Kim and the students of the Division of International Sport and Leisure (ISL) for their efforts in helping make the AGG possible here in Korea. “They have for several months now been working on securing pitches and hotels and helping order items needed for the events success. Certainly, it would have been much harder to organize without their help and experience. Dr. Kim was very excited in helping us bring the Games here to Korea and played a major role in securing the fields at the Suwon World Cup stadium. The students have been fantastic in helping and the event will be a great practical application of what I teach them in class. I am extremely proud that the university and ISL have supported this event.”
There is expected to be around 700 people at the closing ceremony, which will include a group of children with various intellectual disabilities who will be flag bearers. The kids will travel up from Mokpo as part of a delegation from the Columban order in Korea, a Catholic society of missionary priests who first arrived in Korea in 1933. The order has been chosen as the benefactor of funds raised at the AGG.
“We chose the Columban Order in Korea as our tournament charity because of the Irish connection,” said Cooke. “Being a tournament celebrating Ireland's games and culture and they being Irish sisters and priests, we thought it was fitting to link the two organizations together. Some of the children play a little Gaelic Football, too, so it will be exciting for them to see all the action.”
The tournament will test people’s love for the sport as all the players have to pay their own way, including flights and hotels. These costs aside, the tournament is still going to cost around $100,000 to put on. Various companies have lent financial support and, unsurprisingly, the main sponsor is an Irish company, Fexco Ireland. Korean companies have also got involved, however, with Korean Air and Hyundai putting their hands in their pockets to help make it happen.
“Hopefully Korea is waking up to the fact that we are moving away from being a transient predominantly young, single population to a permanent organized community who are doing exciting and large-scale events and projects which will not only benefit the English-speaking community but also their Korean counterparts and is highlighting Korea in a positive and dynamic way,” said Cooke.
Ambassador McKee will be in attendance with some fairly prestigious names.
“I will indeed (be attending),” said McKee. “Our deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, Eamon Gilmore, will be opening the Games. I was at the Hong Kong Games last year, so I know how seriously the competitors and their supporters treat the Games. It’s a great event for all to see.”
There will also be exhibition matches of hurling, and for the first time in AGG history, there will be a challenge camogie match, a variant of hurling for women, where women from all over Asia who can play will mix and divide into two teams.