Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gaelic Football in France

Thought I'd share some extracts from a recent piece in the Sunday Times on Gaelic football in France. And it's 110% real GAA all the way...

"...Rennes are one of six gaelic football clubs in this small region of France and every single male playing member are French. It would be a mistake to think that they’re rabble outfits, just playing a different sport for variety or a means for keeping fit; in 2007, Brittany won the Shield competition at the European Gaelic Games Championships.

Although they struggled at the top level in last year’s European Games, the standard in the region is improving all the time and so is the level of competition. Liffre were only founded two years ago and they won last year’s Brittany championship. That domestic championship kicks off again on February 7th, when the first tournament of the season will be held in Vannes. Five tournaments will take place between February and the end of May, where a points system decides who is crowned champions. “The competition is very intense and it is a huge honour to win it,” says Guillaume Kerrien, a founding member of the Nantes football club.

Although there are gaelic football clubs now in every department of the region, they hope to expand the base even more. Lannion and Vannes were only founded last year and they expect a club to be up and running in Lorient before the end of this season. Two other towns have also expressed interest in forming clubs and plans have already been drawn up to form a Breton league.


Although the growth of gaelic football in Brittany in such a short time has blown away all convention, the region always had the potential to be a fertile soil for its promotion. Historically, Brittany is a very Celtic region and its people have always been acutely attuned to their Celtic identity. As well as the cultural links through the vast number of twinning relationships enjoyed between towns in Ireland and Brittany, there is also a huge student-exchange culture.

The first GAA club in Brittany was founded in Brest in 1998 by Yann Guenneguez, a Frenchman who had spent some years in Westport. The club in Rennes was set up a year later by Dan McGuigan along with Benoit Jeannin, who is still the club president. Rugby and soccer have a strong presence in the region but Gaelic football has become so popular there now that it was passed last year as a subject choice of the Bach, which is the equivalent of the Irish Leaving Certificate.

Having such a presence within the schools is a massive promotional tool. A network of PE teachers, who play gaelic football, have introduced the game to many of the schools but the crusade was effectively launched by Anne-Marie O’Rourke. From Coolkenno in Wicklow and a member of the Wicklow ladies side which won the 1990 All-Ireland Junior title, O’Rourke is the only Irish member of the Rennes club and is pretty much a one-woman GAA promotional machine.


The clubs in Brittany get some assistance from the ECB but their budget, which comes from GAA Central funding, has to stretch over 30 clubs across the whole of mainland Europe. In the last two years, 30 French people have taken GAA foundation level coaching courses and have been trained as GAA instructors, some of which are Bretons. In Rennes on Wednesday, there was a coaching session organised by the Youth Development Officer of the Federation Francaise de Football Gaelique, which effectively governs the game in the region.

Gaelic football is taking root at all levels. INSA, a third level institution in Rennes, have created their own team and they competed in the British Universities Championships last year. INSA also hosted their own gaelic football tournament, which included three British Universities.

Unlike most other Breton clubs, Ar Gwazi Gouez (Rennes) want to be associated with all forms of Irish culture and they are the strongest club in the region. Through intense fundraising and sponsorship, their self-financing potential is far greater than all other Breton clubs. “It is quite hard because we have to fund everything ourselves,” says Nantes’ Guillaume Kerrien. “It’s difficult to get financial help from the town and city councils because the sport is not nationally known or recognised by the head sporting organisations. But we have a pragmatic approach and we help each other.”

The game in Brittany will always have to survive on indigenous talent because it doesn’t have the same pulling power that attracts Irish people to other cities and regions around the world. Brittany is one of the poorest regions in France, with the minimum wage only E1000 a month...

...Sheamus Howlin, Chairman of the Overseas Work Group has attended some games in Brittany and has been “very impressed with the quality of football,” Breton championship matches are officiated by Irish referees based in Paris and every player is well aware of official rules. Even when a beach gaelic football competition was held in Pornichet last year, which featured on the TV programme The Road to Croker, the competition was still organised under the umbrella of the ECB.

The first pioneers of gaelic games in Europe date as far back as 1747, when an Irish Brigade at the Battle of Lafelt, near Maastricht, played hurling matches amongst themselves during breaks in the fighting. But the deep embedding of such a strong GAA culture in Brittany is a first because of its dominant French influence. And given how fast gaelic football is developing there, it’s unknown where it may lead to."

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