GAA in France has gone native
By John Harrington
The Gaelic Games scene outside of Ireland has been transformed in the past 20 years.
No longer are GAA clubs mainly the preserve of Irish migrants or the descendants of Irish migrants.
Now, increasingly, they’re dominated by locals with little or no connection to Ireland who have fallen in love with Gaelic Games simply because they’re great sports to play.
This trend is probably most apparent in France where the game has grown rapidly since the first GAA club, Paris Gaels, was formed there in 1994 by Irish ex-pats.
Now there are 24 GAA clubs in Franc and over 90% of the estimated 800 players involved are native French.
France GAA Chairperson, Nathan Begoc, is pretty typical of the majority of natives who found out about Gaelic Games by chance and quickly developed a real passion for it.
“I just heard about the game in a newspaper and I thought, 'okay, why not, I'll try it',” Begoc told GAA.ie. “So I came to the club and tried the game and really enjoyed it. It was a fast, interesting game.
“I would say that’s classical way of doing things here in France. People just come to the sport by hearing about it or being told about it by some friends and then really like it when they try it.
“I felt good when I arrived to the club because with so many people speaking French it was quite easy to get integrated. My first club, Gaelc Football Bro-Leon, was made up 100 per cent of native players. Like everyone else, I just liked the game and wanted to get involved in it.
“I think it appeals to people because it's such a complete sport. Many aspects of the game relate to many different sports. I think what people also like here is the spirit around it. Usually tournaments last all day long on a Saturday and then you have a party in the evening.
“There's a great community aspect and people really like that. You're making friends and meeting people from other teams all around the country. There's just a really friendly atmosphere and that's something we work for.”
Gaelic Games are particularly popular in the Brittany region of France where there are 10 GAA clubs.
For the Bretons, Gaelic Games aren’t just sports, they’re an expression of a shared Celtic culture, which is one of the reasons why the GAA has flourished in the North West of France.
“Yes, that really played a key role in the beginning to the development of the game and that's why it grew so rapidly in Brittany,” says Begoc.
“I started to play first in Brittany and during my first training I was quite surprised to hear people speaking Breton during the training.
“That really motivated people to come and get involved in the beginning. Now, we still have a lot of people who come to Gaelic Football because of the cultural aspect and the link with Ireland, but we're also recruiting a lot of people who have no connection with Ireland and that's where the biggest growth is at the moment.
“Most of our players now do not know anything about Ireland and have never been there, they do not even speak english, they just love the game. But, yes, the cultural aspect was very strong in the beginning.”
The growth of Gaelic Games in France is being fuelled by a defined and well-organised calendar of competitions that are largely run regionally to cut down on the amount of travel required.
France GAA is basically split in two with a Brittany region and what’s known as the 'Federal Zone' which comprises the rest of the clubs in the country.
Brittany plays its own League from September to May, while clubs in the Federal Zone are grouped into five regions who play their own Leagues from September to December and then come together as one League from February to May.
Then, based on results in the Brittany and Federal Leagues, in the month of June all the clubs in France are divided into Senior, Intermediate, and Junior grades for the French Finals.
France GAA also organises an elite 15-a-side tournament in April and a 9-a-side tournament in September for the best six French teams plus a team each from Jersey and Guernsey.
A considerable emphasis has also been placed on youth development in recent years. Gaelic Games are part of the sporting curriculum in a number of schools in Brittany, youth competitions are growing their numbers all the time, and last July the first ever Kelloggs Cúl Camp in France took place in Vannes in Brittany.
“There has been a big growth in the numbers playing Gaelic games at youth level,” says Begoc. “That's something we're working hard on at the moment.
“Now that clubs are more structured they're adding more youth players and we have youth championships that are organised mostly in Brittany but other clubs now outside of Brittany are also developing the youth aspect.
“We have youth tournaments organised every year and more and more clubs are getting involved. We're also doing a lot of work in schools. We're training primary school teachers to coach Gaelic games in schools. Sometimes teachers would contact us to tell us they're planning a trip to Ireland with their students so they would like to play a few games or have a few trainings before they go.”
Gaelic football is very much the dominant sport in GAA clubs in France but a concerted effort is also being made to also develop hurling, especially in cities like Paris, Toulouse, Nantes, and Clermont-Ferrand.
There is also a growing interest in GAA handball. Paris won the Men’s Team event at the first ever GGE European Handball Tournament in Vienna last year, while Helena Hernanz from Tolosa Gaels (Toulouse) won the women’s singles.
The Covid-19 pandemic unsurprisingly stunted the growth of Gaelic games in France for the last two years, but with those clouds now hopefully beginning to clear, Begoc is convinced there’s great potential for further development of all Gaelic games in France in the coming years.
“I think it's unlimited,” he says. “I think we have a huge potential for growth. Many people like the sport for the atmosphere, but also because most of the people who get involved have played football or rugby or handball and then they come to Gaelic football and it's an interesting sport for them because it's similar but different.
“For those who've played rugby this is a sport with a bit less contact. For those who've played football it's a bit more friendly, they always find it something better than their former sport.
“This is why we get people coming all the time and I think we'll continue to get way more players coming.
“We also have huge work to do on youth training, we're still at the very beginning of that aspect. We have to keep working on building some new competitions for players from the age of six or seven right up to 17 or 18 and then they can play with the senior teams.
“We also want to grow the number of women who are playing Gaelic Games in France.
“That's something we really have to work on in the next year. There is real potential because Ireland has such a good image in France.
“Everyone loves Irish people because they are really nice and that's another appeal of the game. When you say to people that this is an Irish sport, they are immediately interested.
“So I think we'll have a lot more clubs and teams in the future.”