Exploring the role of sport in historic Irish identity and modern community life

This month I started work on my master’s thesis. I am studying the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and its impact on towns in Ireland. Specifically, I’m looking at the degree to which non-Irish immigrants find that GAA clubs increase their sense of belonging in Irish towns. 

The GAA is an amateur sporting and cultural organization that promotes indigenous Gaelic sports, music, dance, and language. Established in 1884, the GAA has long been associated with Irish national identity and anti-colonialism, and it played an interesting role during the War of Independence. In the 138 years since its founding, the GAA has meant a lot to Irish communities, with some 2,000 local clubs throughout 32 counties. The clubs and stadiums themselves often double as event spaces and community centers. Many clubs are also home to onsite preschools and adult learning centers. Communities often invest heavily in the construction of new stadiums, in the hopes that it will promote sustainable economic revitalization in their areas. 

Something I find super interesting is that while GAA clubs have historically played a significant role in solidifying a sense of national Irish identity in response to colonialism, today they also play an important role as places for non-Irish immigrants to build community and gain acceptance in their new homes. This has been especially true since 2008. The economic crisis caused populations in many rural Irish towns, and membership in their GAA clubs, to dwindle. At the same time, soaring numbers of refugees and immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe have found themselves trying to build new lives in small Irish towns. Many clubs are recruiting migrant youth and adults to keep clubs and traditions alive. In turn, many migrants are finding that their participation in GAA helps them acclimate and access important employment, social, and educational opportunities. 

Over the next six months, I will be traveling to GAA clubs throughout Ireland and interviewing athletes, coaches, and volunteers, as well as those impacted by GAA beyond the stadium walls: business owners in the surrounding areas, community organizers, politicians, and especially members of migrant communities to find out whether or not GAA clubs have opened doors for them. I also joined a women’s team at my local club, the Ranelagh Gaels, and have Gaelic football training every Friday. Already, I’ve learned a lot about the role the clubs play in day-to-day community life (especially for newcomers like me).

I am excited to learn much more about this fascinating institution, and to become more familiar with Irish community. When I complete this project, I should have a much deeper understanding of what strengthens neighborhoods, improves people’s quality of life, and opens doors for migrants and vulnerable populations. My hope is that this experience will make me a stronger advocate for valuable community programs in my life and career.

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