“Paris Abú!”: joining a GAA club during Erasmus

Cameron Hill outlines the benefits of playing Gaelic football while studying abroad

Joining a GAA team may not be your immediate priority when you set off on your Erasmus adventure, but it definitely should be. When it comes to achieving a rich, enlightening experience, the approach varies from person to person. Some choose to simply throw caution to the wind and let the world carry them gently down the stream of adventure and excitement. Others start building comprehensive itineraries of cultural activities, sights and trips as a means of cramming as much into the exchange as possible. While different people will have different interests and goals, it’s likely that joining the local GAA team might not feature too highly on the to-do list.

It’s easy to understand the argument against it. With so many other activities on offer, to ditch those for something you can easily do at home seems unimaginative and perhaps ignorant. Mark Brannigan, long-serving player-coach at Paris Gaels, can empathise. Brannigan, from Whitehall in Dublin, admits he was reluctant to join when he first landed in the French capital: “When I arrived in May 2011, I told myself: ‘I don’t want to hang around with just Irish people, so I won’t go to the Gaelic football team’, and by January of the following year I had zero mates! So, I said I’d try it out, and the first training session I went to, there were about three or four Irish lads out of about 25, so I realised it wasn’t going to be just Irish guys – it was almost all French!” 

Founded in 1995, Paris Gaels is one of the most successful club sides in continental Europe. Playing football (both men’s and women’s) and hurling, while occasionally dabbling in camogie, the club compete regularly against teams both from around France and the rest of Europe. The club is made up of mostly French players, with a steady stream of Irish members joining and leaving the club regularly. Some come to Paris for internships, some are here as part of their Erasmus exchange, while others, Brannigan blushes, are “here for love”. 

Whatever the reason, Brannigan believes that signing up to the local GAA club in any city is a great way to meet and befriend local young people. Speaking from experience, he confesses that in some places, it is hard to break through to the natives: “What you get in Paris, and what you get with French, without trying to generalise, is that it is harder to meet people than it would be in Ireland or other countries, so to create that group of friends isn’t the easiest thing. When you come to Paris Gaels…it’s quite a good atmosphere, it’s easy to talk to the guys and get to know them; that’s what we try to build and put in place – that sort of friendly, accessible atmosphere.” 

“You’ve got clubs where there’s only Germans playing hurling – I don’t know how that started!”

Gaelic games are experiencing something of a boom in Europe right now, with people seeing them as engaging, rewarding and fun alternatives to rugby, football and handball. In France alone, there are 25 registered clubs as of 2018, and plenty more dotted all over Europe, from southern Spain to Scandinavia. Initially set up by the Irish communities in various cities, the clubs have now taken on a life of their own. Outside of Paris, some teams have become predominantly, and exclusively in some cases, made up of homegrown talent. Brannigan explains that in certain regions, the locals have completely taken over clubs and even have their own governing bodies: “In France, you’ve got a lot of French players and you’ve got your own federation [Fédération Française de Football Gaélique] who want to do their own thing; in Italy, you’ve got some clubs where there’s only Italian players, and in Galicia in Northern Spain, a huge amount of teams with only Spanish guys playing. In Germany, you’ve got clubs where there’s only Germans playing hurling – I don’t know how that started!” 

More interesting still is how teams in different countries approach the game. It is worth mentioning that in Europe, games are usually played 11-a-side, as opposed to the 15-man variation at home. Apart from the Rule Handbook, there is no proper manual or training guide on the best way to play Gaelic football, so players must come up with their own game plan and tactics. “In certain clubs,” Brannigan explains. “There may be an Irish guy who knows (or doesn’t know) how to play the game; some Irish guys might think they know how to play the game and don’t necessarily do. Some of the other teams who have no outside influence will just pick the game up. They know the goal is to defend one end and score at the other, so they figure out the rest themselves.” 

Some teams construct a game plan which tries to harness skills they learned from other sports. Teams with players of a rugby tradition, such as Clermont-Ferrand, opt for a relentless running game, relying on constant short passes to close in on goal. However, these players have very little kicking experience and lean on players who used to play out-half or full-back to convert their chances. 

“Faced with a common set of rules and conditions, each team plays the game with their own unique identity.”

Other teams take the traditional tactics of one sport and adapt them to Gaelic football. Brannigan recalls a Galician team whose style of play borrowed heavily from soccer: “They played with a back four, a holding midfielder, two wingers and a striker, and we had no idea what was going on…we were about four points up on them, and they played by passing along the back four, trying to probe to get the wingers on the ball to run up the line and float a ball into the parallelogram – and you would think it would be easy to counter, but they persisted, scored goal after goal after goal and they beat us!” It can be said then that watching teams from different countries devise a playing style offers a great insight into how their minds work. Faced with a common set of rules and conditions, each team plays the game with their own unique identity. It is perhaps as good a cultural study as any museum, art gallery or wine tasting. 

On top of this, another benefit of joining a GAA club is that it can help you draft some sort of routine and allow you to get settled into your new, unfamiliar surroundings. Erasmus is a positive and enjoyable experience, but it can be quite lonely and even a little frightening at first. Ronan Quinn, a third year PPES student, joined Paris Gaels as soon as he arrived and feels it helped him get comfortable during the first few weeks: “It can often be difficult to find your feet in such a strange new environment, particularly one with such a dynamic culture and a language barrier. So, joining Paris Gaels has certainly allowed me to establish a structure to my week and also to get a break from studying.”  

I’ll be honest, it’s quite comforting having a little bit of Ireland out in France.”

Quinn also found his new membership helped him improve his French while staying on top of his fitness: “It’s fantastic to fit in a bit of exercise as well and to improve my French along the way…Everyone involved with the club has been so accommodating in helping me settle into life here and I’ll be honest, it’s quite comforting having a little bit of Ireland out in France.”

Another Trinity Erasmus student, Mairead Malone, joined the club a few days after she landed in Paris in late-August and is currently the only Irish player in the women’s team. The third year Business Studies and French student was particularly surprised by the level of understanding the French players had of the importance of Gaelic football in Irish life: “A lot of the girls who play would have initially got involved through working or studying in Ireland. The majority had never heard of the sport before going to Ireland and getting involved allowed them to immerse themselves fully in a key part of Irish culture… All the girls are so committed and determined to improve their performance, and it’s great to see these French girls practising an Irish sport!”

Contrary to what people may think, joining the GAA team may prove a creative way of exploring your adopted country. It is a great example of how different cultures interpret the same set of rules, and how they have left their own stamp on a distinctly Irish activity. It can also be a vital resource as one tries to navigate those first few lonely weeks away from home and helps build a strong network of friends from the local area. Whether you’re heading abroad next semester, or considering an exchange for the following year, make sure to pack a pair of O’Neills shorts and a sliotar; you may need them.

Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill was the Sports Editor of Trinity News for Michaelmas 2018. He is a Senior Fresh English Literature and French student.