Tootlafrance talks to secretary of the Paris Gaels GAA Club Eileen Jennings about enjoying Irish sport in the French capital
“The club was initially founded in 1995 by a group of Irish ex-pats,” says Eileen Jennings, secretary of the Paris Gaels GAA Club.
Although that’s the official story, Eileen explains that playing GAA games on the continent – and in Paris in particular – goes back to the mid-1970s. At that time, Irish people based in places like Luxembourg, The Hague and Paris would agree to all meet somewhere central like Paris and get together to play their beloved Gaelic Games.
The continental GAA scene thus grew out of Irish immigrants looking for a way to continue playing their beloved sports while they were abroad.
Initially, the Paris Gaels club only involved Gaelic football for men, but it now encompasses much more of the GAA repertoire. Having won their first European title in ladies football in 2007, the club now fields teams of football, hurling and camogie.
Eileen hails from Turlough near Castlebar in Co Mayo. Although it’s a county more known for its footballing prowess, she proudly points out that the county won a divisional All-Ireland title in hurling two seasons ago.
She has been living in Paris since 2004, working in the banking sector in the city. One of the first things that she did in her adoptive country was to get involved with Gaelic Games. It wasn’t always easy to field a full team:
“Even before my time, there were often situations where you’d be relying on other players to make up a team… Teams would assemble at the venue and you made up two teams with whoever turned up on the day. That’s the way it was with ladies’ football for a lot of years. Men’s football was better off because, basically, every lad wants to continue to play football.”Now, however, the situation has matured somewhat, and fielding a team is no longer the trauma that it was. There is also a growing number of French nationals getting involved in these foreign games:
“It’s still seen very much as an ex-pats’ thing but it’s something we’ve worked on very much in the last few years – bringing in more and more French people”
It seems to working, with a lot of French taking up the relatively simple skills of football and even some taking on the more complex game of hurling.
“We’d have six or seven French members taking up hurling in the club,” she says, “and there are more and more of them – getting involved in the administration side of it too, which is very important for the continuity of the sport. If you want the club to continue successfully into the future, you have to get the locals involved.”
She describes the level of proficiency that they’re at as the equivalent of “Junior level”. The GAA on the continent is run under the auspices of the GAA in Ireland in that it receives a certain amount of promotional funding and assistance from Dublin, but it is an entirely different operation and clubs on the continent don’t do battle with clubs in Ireland.
“We’re totally separate. We participate in the annual pan-European league competition and we also participate in the French Championship. I think that there are about 60 clubs in total all over Europe, with about 12-16 clubs in France… but you’ve got clubs popping up all over the place; you’ve got the likes of Toulouse and Liffré – just outside Rennes – which is an all-French club.”
There are enough Gaelic Games teams in Brittany now, she says, that it has its own individual championship. The national French competition is run with two halves of the country fighting it out for the right to face one another for the overall title.