I recently interviewed Diego Fernandez Meijide. Diego is the Press Relations Officer for Galician GAA. I was already fairly aware of the Gaelic bond Galicia and Ireland shared but speaking with Mr Fernandez – Meijide has shown me just how much we have in common with this Spanish region. Throughout this article I will make constant references to our conversation.
There are many cultural links between Spain and Ireland. Whether you believe the myth of the young spaniard Breogán son of Ith and his followers who discovered Ireland and took it back from the clutches of the tuatha de danann, or perhaps you appreciate the joint celtic past of the two nations or maybe you’ve simply been a Spanish student or au pair. Regardless of the reason, there is no denying we are two very closely related countries.
The celtic region of Galicia in Spain is without doubt the most closely linked though. Galicia shares many celtic traditions with Ireland. Diego told me pipe playing and trad music are but a few things we share with our Iberian neighbours. You might say, in fairness, that is standard celtic stuff and may not be seen as exclusively similar to Ireland. However, los gallegos have been taking like a duck to water with one of our own dearly loved celtic traditions, Gaelic football. There are Gaelic football teams in other parts of Spain too. However, with a staggering 11 clubs and 18 galician teams, TV coverage of matches and a mostly native playing pool this is a very intriguing case indeed. In this article we will focus on appreciating the resounding success gaelic football is having in Galicia, why this has happened and we will speculate as to how the GAA could nurture this golden opportunity for expansion.
How did this all start?
During the interview Diego informed me that Wences Zapata is largely credited as the matchmaker in this love story. Wences came to Ireland and immediately fell head over heels with the sport. He then went back to his home city of Coruna and set up his team Fillos de Breogán of A Coruna. Initially it was just a few lads having a kick around. Then another few teams set up and rivalries began. Rivalries, as we all know, are the cornerstones of a competitive sport and they are a particular important motivation in amateur sports. The clubs have quickly multiplied, this would be beyond explanation in any other region or country. However, it seems Zapata’s introduction of Gaelic football has awoken an irresistible celtic attraction to Gaelic football for the people of Galicia.
There are now 18 teams in Galicia and, 1 exiled team in Catalonia (gaélicos do gran sol) that are available for selection on the Galician county team . This county team represents Galicia in the GAA world games every three years. This is a blitz like, week long competition played on an adapted soccer field. The interest in the Galician team peaked recently in March 2017, when Galicia matched up with the ( heavily brittany influenced) French side ( This is another well connected celtic stronghold possibly worth developing further ). Galician TV actually negotiated tv rights and aired the match as an International GAA Final. In 2014 the same TV channel actually aired an Irish selection V Galicia match too. Before you ask, no, the galician team is not just Irish people living in the region. Diego assured me there are more than 400 GAA players in the league and less than 10 of them are Irish, Remarkable stuff! As you can see, unbelievably, Galicia is pretty much a fully functioning Gaelic football county. Where to now ? Well if the GAA want a proper county to develop, they will have to treat them like a proper county.
Should we let Galicia enter the Munster Championship?
The opportunity is there to make Galicia into a serious county and possibly a part of the All Ireland Championship. Galicia and Ireland are well connected by boat and plane and they could be a great addition to the sparsely populated 6 team Munster championship. Galicia is also reasonably close to Santander, where there will be two ferry sailings a week from and to Cork starting this April. Diego agreed with me and said it would be a dream come through to one day see Galicia compete in the All Ireland Championship. Possibly in the future the GAA can make Galica to Munster what London and New York are to the Connacht championship. For example, they could have a different team visit the region every year for a first round preliminary stage match. This move would no doubt boost interest exponentially in the region and also provide one lucky Munster team with a nice little trip to Spain once a year.
What about the Travelling?
Upon a glance the obvious pitfalls of allowing Galicia into the Munster championship are logistics. Sure, it sounds crazy, a spanish team in the All Ireland, It could never work, wrong in my opinion. Both Spain and Ireland are two countries who have embraced this idea of overseas travel within their national sports already.
International GAA County teams are the norm these days.
For years the GAA have embraced foreign All Ireland contenders. As stated above New York and London are testament to how international countries can successfully be included. Just last year New york came furiously close to beating Sligo in the opening round of the connacht championship. Also in 2013 London contended a Connacht final against Mayo. Galicia is arguably as well connected to Munster as London is to Connacht and definitely better connected than New york. This shows it’s certainly no problem on the GAA’s side to allow the Iberian – Celts in.
Galician Clubs are no strangers to Travel either.
The GAA is not the only national league in the world which requires teams to cross seas. The teams of Tenerife and Las Palmas have at different times required Galician teams such as Deportivo Acoruna and Cetla Vigo to fly south to the Canary Islands to play soccer. The city of Vigo is 2 hours 20 minutes from Dublin via a direct Ryanair Flight and the neighboring region of Cantabria as stated already provides a ferry to Cork. Both options are shorter than their canary counterpart. The traditional inclusion of the Canary island teams in la liga shows that a trip to Ireland would be completely natural for the Galicians and probably seen as a lot of fun. Myself and Mr. Fernandez joked and compared the professional budgets of soccer teams v GAA teams. We agreed that Galicia entering into the all Ireland is a few years away yet. But it is the dream.
The Future is Bright .
At the moment the Galician league is played on converted soccer pitches. This was a good place to start, but the galician board now believe they will have to make the change eventually to the bigger pitch. If Galicia want to make the move into the heavyweight division of Senior intercounty football they must start playing on full size GAA pitches. For this to happen Diego believes they will need more political support and funding. How well this change goes will determine the future of Gaelic football in Galicia but I believe they will take to it like a duck to water. Personally I hope that one day soon we will be talking about Galicia the same way we talk about London and New York and maybe even more so…
Diego ensured me the future is bright for Gaelic football in Galicia and they are certainly striking while the iron is hot. Training spanish referee’s, getting gaelic football into the Schools and applying for GAA Grants to run Cúl camps are all very positive moves indeed. This reiterated his main goal of developing the sport starting with the children.
All the GAA have to do is facilitate the Galicians and provide an incentive. While speaking to the PRO I could really feel a sense of passion and joy. It is this love for Gaelic football & celtic pride that makes me certain Los Gaelicos are destined to make a success of this themselves. Perhaps it could surpass even our wildest expectations.
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Thanks very much to Diego Meijide Fernandez for all of his help.
By Cathal Fitzpatrick and Carmen Ruiz Hurtado