The Viet Celts, of Hanoi, held theirs against the Singapore Gallic Lions.

Love the Irish: Why are Gaelic Games so popular in Asia? | Thailand

IIn the lit field, 20 women run along the field kicking, kicking and passing the ball at a game of Gaelic soccer. By sweating hard, experienced players “make friends” with new members to show them basic skills before they hit the pitch.

It’s a weekday training session just like any other, except that it takes place in the humid Bangkok, where Gaelic games – including tossing, handball, thunder and kamoji – are growing in popularity.

“I love the historical aspect of that, and how there is so much love about your community,” says Rajveer Chaudhry, a strength sports science and conditioning consultant from India, who began playing Gaelic football with the Indian Wolfhounds in 2018.

After practice, on a Tuesday evening, the guys hang out for a beer, catch up on weekend weirdos and enjoy “crazy” as much as they keep fit. “A welcome and accepting feeling from GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] “Communities around the world are the reason I love GAA,” says Mozz Piokliang, a business development manager who has been playing Gaelic football in Bangkok for six years, bowling for four, and now referee matches.

Similar scenes are repeated across Asia. According to the Dublin-based Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) – Ireland’s largest sports organisation – there are 22 Gaelic sports clubs in Asia.

Women’s Gaelic games are currently experiencing the largest growth in Asia, says Gerard Doinan, president of the Thai GAA. For example, the Vet Celts Hanoi Gallic women’s soccer team has grown from 12 players in 2018 to over 30 in 2022 and is coached exclusively by women.

The Viet Celts, of Hanoi, held theirs against the Singapore Gallic Lions. Photo: supplied

The games provide an opportunity, especially for women, to escape any potential cultural restrictions, says Seoul-based Joe Trolan and former president of the District Council of Asia, or Asian GAA, which was founded in 2012. “Sports in general can be a place where you can walk through the stadium gates and leaving the solidity of culture behind.”

In Vietnam, playing sports for fun is no longer uncommon among women, Vong Nguyen, an NGO worker and member of the Viet Celts, explains, but realizing that a woman can play Gaelic football is a “cool feeling.”

Nguyen says the lack of pressure to start at a good level is a contributing factor to its popularity. Beukliang agrees, noting that rugby and football come with the expectation of a certain degree of knowledge. “But in Gaelic football…everyone understands that this is a new sport and no one has played it before in Thailand.”

Trolan says the majority of players at most Asian clubs are non-Irish. He believes that the appeal is the spirit of the community carried over from Ireland.

The Asian Gaelic Games have been taking place since 1996, and the South Asian Gaelic Games were established in 2008. At that time, the number of participating teams increased from about six to 72.

While players cite the community spirit of Gaelic sports, sociability and inclusivity as reasons for its popularity, it is likely that a push from Ireland itself is a contributor as well.

The Irish government, under its 2020-2025 Diaspora Strategy and Immigrant Support Programme, aims to “strengthen the international Irish community and its relationship with Ireland” and provides millions of funding annually to Irish diaspora organizations, including the GAA, in the hope of doing so.

The Vet Celts (Hanoi) vs Thailand GAA
Diaspora Strategy Ireland has provided millions in funding to help organizations such as the Gaelic Athletic Association. Photography: Matthew Walsh

Doinan says that renting pitches, training first aid and acquiring equipment means there are significant costs involved in running a Gili gym. Off the central artery in Bangkok, the team rents out stadiums belonging to an international school. Support from the GAA and the Department of Foreign Affairs is what he calls a “lifeline”.

Trolan explains that the department understands how to connect with communities through sport. “[Its goal is] To improve the Ireland brand here they know GAA can be the face of the Irish abroad.”

The GAA now has over 400 clubs outside Ireland.

“We’ve had ministers and local chiefs come to our games and that’s how the brand is built,” Trulan says. It may be working. Beukliang says he was only aware of Irish stereotypes before playing the Gaelic sport but now knows more about the country and plans to visit. “It changed the way I see Ireland, the Irish people, and Irish culture.”

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