Irish Sports are Thriving

One club's success against the odds

Words By Alex Rennie
Photos By Viktor Richardsson

If you happen to be strolling through Tempelhofer Feld on a Wednesday evening or Saturday afternoon, you might spot something a little unusual. On a patch of grass opposite Albert Speer’s iconic terminal building, the Berlin Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) convenes twice a week to practice Gaelic football and hurling. The story behind their inception and what they’re achieving today is touched by tragedy and profoundly inspiring.

Before explaining how Berlin ended up with a fully-fledged and thriving Irish sports club, we should properly introduce Gaelic football and Ireland’s largest sporting association, the GAA. So, a history lesson:

In 1884, a group of determined Irishmen got together in a hotel in Thurles, a small town in County Tipperary, and set about founding what is now one of the most celebrated amateur sporting associations in the world. The ethos instilled in the GAA has remained largely unchanged since its birth 134 years ago: it is an institution of volunteers devoted to the promotion of traditional Irish sports within, and now outside of, the country’s borders.

Today, the GAA is an enormous entity, its headquarters standing beside Dublin’s famous Croke Park stadium. As of 2010, it owned assets worth a staggering €2.6 billion and its declared revenue fell somewhere in the region of €94.8 million. Crucially, what sets the GAA apart from the profiteering likes of FIFA, for example, is that 80% of the money made from gate receipts is pumped back into local clubs and the communities that they are a part of.

For a club to be able to compete, it needs to become affiliated with the GAA. To achieve that status, a club must have at least 11 members, a committee, and an AGM. Once it meets these criteria, it is then allowed to put the fabled acronym after its name (e.g. Berlin GAA). According to the GAA’s own website, there are more than 2,200 such clubs in Ireland, and an estimated 450 abroad.

To grasp what Gaelic football and hurling actually look like, it’s probably easiest to have a quick browse through YouTube. Nevertheless, the former is a 15-a-side hybrid of soccer, Aussie rules, handball, and basketball that involves kicking, hand-passing, bouncing and chipping the ball. The goals are like rugby posts with a soccer net in the bottom half; you score one point by kicking it over the crossbar, three by slotting it underneath.

Hurling on the other hand is quite similar to hockey, in that you play it with a wooden stick – a ‘hurley’ – and a much smaller leather ball called a ‘sliotar’. Owing to the long distance you can hit the sliotar, and the fact that you can also use your hands and feet, the game is played at a lightning pace. Being 15-a-side, it’s also definitely not for the faint-hearted!

In many respects, the origins of Berlin GAA have a lot in common with that fated meeting in 1884: a band of spirited folk collaborating to foster something extraordinary.

In a bustling Kreuzberg bar, Anthony McDermott, Berlin GAA’s incumbent chairman, tells us how the club got to its feet. It all began when he and former Berlin GAA chairman Chris Hennessy decided to forge an Irish sports association. The pair first met in an Irish pub as they were watching a Gaelic football match between their two local teams from back home – Cavan for Anthony, Kerry for Chris.

Having hit it off instantly, and after Chris spoke of his weekly sojourns to Tempelhof to play Gaelic football with his son, the two set about building the club. “Things really got going in the summer of 2014,” says Anthony. “Chris contacted the GAA, but they told us that we needed to get more members.”

Undeterred, Chris reached out to his counterpart at Dresden’s GAA, who agreed to host a tournament to raise awareness for the fledgling club. “They said they’d put it on for us, and they did,” Anthony says. “We got a team together and went down there; that was October, 2014.”

In a cruel twist of fate, Berlin GAA was dealt a huge blow not long after their trip to Saxony. “For a while, Chris had been hobbling about with a sore back – he couldn’t even play anymore,” says Anthony. “That tournament was the last day he was ever outside; a week and a half later he was diagnosed with cancer.”

On November 5th of the same year, their diligence paid off when the club was officially recognised as a GAA. “After Chris found out he was ill, we just kept going and made sure to finish the rest,” Anthony recalls. Sadly, Chris passed away at the age of 40 the following January, two months after his dream had begun to evolve.

Not only is it a sports club, it's a social community as well.

Talking to Anthony, you get a real sense that although Chris’ passing was acutely saddening and far too premature, it fuelled those involved to really kick things forward. “Chris’ father told me that one of the last things he said was that he hoped we’d do well,” he says. “Chris was the guy that brought the balls down every week, even if there might’ve been nobody there. We wanted to keep pushing on for his memory.”

Whereas others may have fallen by the wayside, Berlin GAA went from strength to strength. In April 2015, the club ventured south to Munich and played in their first official European tournament. Clad in their brand new green and white kit, kindly sponsored by Chris’ family and friends, the team ended up fifth overall, having won two games, drawn one and lost another. And that was only the start of things to come.

At last count there were approximately 95 GAA clubs scattered throughout Europe. Furthermore – and in stark contrast to Ireland – Europe is classed as one whole county, which means that teams often have to travel thousands of kilometres to play competitive matches.

To make things easier, the body tasked with organising these events – the European County Board – divides Europe into sub-regions. Berlin GAA falls within the board’s Southern Europe grouping; its rival competitors come from cities in countries such as Austria, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Given that playing a match doesn’t have the same roll-out-of-bed ease you would associate with a Sunday league kick-about, one might wonder how Berlin GAA manages to attract its members. Suffice to say, they genuinely don’t appear to be having any issues on that front.

During our initial encounter, Anthony enthusiastically invited us down to watch a training session on the proviso that we took part. More surprising than the unseasonably warm spring weather was the 30-strong horde of people, both men and women, gearing up for a two-hour marathon of Irish sports.

After an intense and very sweaty runaround, Robert Henneberg – the club’s secretary and Anthony’s right-hand man – chats about Berlin GAA’s meteoric rise: “It’s been spectacular to see how the club has grown over the last 15 months. It started out as the five of us with a ball, worrying how we were going to fund it and get players involved. Now we’re a bona fide club with 40-odd members.”

Born and raised in Köpenick, Robert speaks English with a strong Irish lilt. Impressively, the linguistics student is also fully fluent in Irish and spent some time in Wexford Town teaching German in a school. “Founding the club has taken a lot of time and effort but it’s been absolutely worth it if you see where we are now,” he says.

Robert goes on to discuss the club’s success in a range of tournaments, including the Gaelic football side making their first final, the ladies’ squad clinching their first match, and the hurling team winning their first competition last year in Dresden – the aptly named Chris Hennessy Cup.

He adds: “These milestones remind me of Chris. He’d come out all those years ago in the winter, 3°C, pissing with rain, him and his little son. He didn’t care if it was just the two of them, he’d still be here. I like to think that Chris is looking down and he’s proud of us.”

Arguably, the club’s biggest milestone is right around the corner: this June, they will host Berlin’s inaugural GAA tournament. “Because we’d travelled to three competitions last year, we’re entitled to put one on in 2016,” says Robert. “The county board told us they’d love to give us the opportunity, and we’re all massively excited about it.”

It’s a little piece of Ireland for us right here in Berlin.

As you’d expect, the majority of Berlin GAA’s players are Irish expats. Even so, on separate occasions both Anthony and Robert are quick to point out that the club’s membership is strikingly varied. “We’ve also got players from the UK, Germany, Australia, France and the Netherlands,” Robert says.

With the exception of the Antipodean cohort, their player demographic isn’t as Eurocentric as the above suggests. Upon our second visit to Tempelhofer Feld, we encounter Amjed and Ahmed Samaraie, two Iraqi brothers who have recently discovered Gaelic football. “By chance my brother met a guy who plays here and he asked us to come and join in. We were both very curious,” says Amjed. “For now playing is just for fun, but we’ll get better. It’s nice to be able to meet new people in Berlin this way.” Amjed’s comments completely confirm Robert’s earlier observation about Berlin GAA: “Not only is it a sports club, it’s a social community as well.”

The same Saturday that the Samaraie brothers are taking part, Paudie O’Neill is standing on the touchlines. Paudie, a former school headmaster and hurling coach for Tipperary GAA (a team he refers to as “the Manchester United of GAA”) is on hand to clarify the global dissemination of Gaelic football and hurling.

“It’s a worldwide phenomenon that’s happened on the back of the Irish diaspora,” says Paudie. “There was a lot of emigration due to the economic downturn and Irish people established these clubs wherever they ended up. They’re great for networking and they give people a feeling of identity whilst living in a new city.” Only in Berlin for the weekend and clearly eager to get involved, Paudie swiftly peels off at the end of our chat to breeze through a series of hurling drills with the team.

Paudie is spot on with his remarks on migration. Following the 2007-08 international financial crisis, an estimated 34,500 people left Ireland. Anthony counts himself as part of that exodus. “It’s the connection to home I was looking for when I first arrived and that’s why I love it,” he says. “It’s a little piece of Ireland for us right here in Berlin.”

Another important figure at the club is Pat O’Leary, the man who coordinates the squad’s coaching regime. For him, Berlin GAA also serves a communal function. “The social aspect is as important as the sporting side of things,” says the coach. “I wouldn’t have met so many people in Berlin if it wasn’t for the club, it really settled me here.” Still, his focus is on honing the team’s skills. “Everybody gets stuck in. Sometimes there’s a bit too much yapping but that’s OK – once they’re playing they give it their all and I get a big buzz out of that.”

Our club provides a setting for both Irish and non-Irish people to integrate and to immediately be part of a social group.

Whether it be their accomplishments on the field or the bonds formed off it, it’s obvious that the fulcrum of Berlin GAA is an unswerving camaraderie. “When Irish people come to Berlin, many of them are searching for things they might recognise from back home,” says Robert. “Our club provides a setting for both Irish and non-Irish people to integrate and to immediately be part of a social group.” After a measured pause, Robert reflects: “Maybe the sport is just the common denominator.”

Midway through the team’s customary post-training match, a father and son walk past the ensuing game. “Papa, warum spielen die da Fußball mit den Händen?” the young boy asks. It may well be a while before the German masses are initiated into the nuances of Gaelic football. Yet it’s heartening to see how Chris’ vision has been achieved and what the club means to its members. For Berlin GAA, it’s much more than just a game: it’s family.

To keep up to date with all the Berlin GAA goings-on, or to get involved yourself, follow them on Facebook.