Setanta Berlin are reaping the rewards of grassroots work
By John Harrington
Growing up in Monaseed, County Wexford, Sinead Kavanagh played very little Gaelic games.
There was no local Camogie club, so her only outlet was to occasionally puck around with her brother.
It’s a bit ironic then that it took a move to Berlin to really ignite a passion for Gaelic games to the point that she now couldn’t imagine her life without it.
It started with a puck around in a local park with her children in 2015. Fast-forward seven years, and she’s Chairperson of Setanta Berlin, one of the most innovative and progressive GAA clubs in Europe.
Now with over 100 members, what makes Setanta Berlin special is the way they have engaged with the local population.
The majority of their players are German born and bred, and they’ve put a huge focus on youth development with great results.
A generation of young players have been brought through their underage ranks to senior level and now both coach as well as play, in what’s an admirably self-sufficient way to run a club.
How have Setanta Berlin so successfully engaged with their local community? Word of mouth of a well-run club and a strong social media presence has helped, but even more innovative has been their use of school programs as a recruitment tool.
“Here in Germany they have an initiative where schools either go out and do an activity or invite people in to do the activity,” explains Kavanagh.
“So we wrote to a lot of the schools and they would then reach out to us and say they want thi becuse it's a bit of a novelty so we would go into the school and do workshops.
“We usually do it with the like 15, 16, 17 year olds who are introduced over a day to the sports where they do the basics and play a couple of games.
“We've also done longer workshops, where we would go in every week during the semester for an hour or so and do it and we got quite a few people from that.
“We've also done University workshops. It's called Unisport, where our sport is advertised on the University website and offered to their students.
“We just need to make sure that we have certain things to facilitate that and then they would sign up and come to us for a very cheap rate because it's almost like a sport that's being offered by the university.
“This weekend we did a presentation with our youth at the President's Buergerfest, which is basically the President's Folk Festival here in Germany. We were there for two days with the youth and put on demonstrations along with the Irish embassy because Ireland was being featured as a partner country. So that was kind of cool.
“A youth section is about maintaining people's dedication and motivation to keep going and to help out and you have to have the social aspect side of it as well. And that's why events like this weekend were so important.
“It was a huge event for the families to go along to and see the kids play in front of the President of Germany and in front of all these people. We push to do events like that as well so the families are getting something out of it.”
Kavanagh feels like they’re preaching to the converted, because wherever they have gone they’ve been greeted with positivity.
Gaelic football is usually an easier sell than hurling and camogie outside of Ireland, but the Germans seem to have a natural grá for hurling as the growth of clubs like Darmstadt has shown.
“There tends to be two reactions,” says Kavanagh. “One is people absolutely love it and get such an adrenaline kick out of it. They almost see it as an extreme sport because of the pure athleticism of it and everything. And then the other people think that we must be totally mad!
“But the general spectator's perspective is they just think it's pretty fascinating and amazing sport.
“Quite a lot of German people have an affiliation with reland and Ireland culture generally. And the fact that hurling has such a history and is so old, I think they just kind of find it fascinating, to be honest.”
Setanta Berlin play Hurling, Camogie, Gaelic Football, and Ladies Football at all levels, but the majority of their players are youth players who benefit from a really well-run coaching infrastructure that includes an annual Cúl Camp.
“This was our fifth year of running a Cúl Camp,” says Kavanagh. “We do it from ages three to 16 because we have such a broad age group. I have trained up our teenagers and now youth coaches to do it. And they're pretty much now running the show.
“I'm still Cul Camp coordinator but what would have been our participants are now the trainers and they're all qualified with the foundation/introduction to Gaelic games coaching course.
“We had a couple of kids who've done Cúl Camps at home and they said that ours was much better, so we were delighted to hear that.
“I’m one of three coaches who’d take a week’s holidays every year to run the camp and I actually can’t imagine not doing that at this point because it’s so much fun.”
The Covid-19 pandemic underlined the importance for clubs based outside of Ireland of engaging with their local population rather than mainly making up their numbers with Irish migrants.
Many clubs who relied largely on Irish students or migrant workers struggled when they returned home in droves when the pandemic hit, whereas it wasn’t an issue for Setanta Berlin because they’re so rooted in their local community.
Kavanagh believes that sort of self-sufficiency should be the model for all clubs based outside of Ireland.
“I always argue the need to have coaches trained within the clubs, not bringing people over to do this. You ned to have local coaches and local referees as well as local players.
“It’s important to set up the infrastructure here so that you can keep people going and stop this reliance on Ireland because it's not sustainable and it's too expensive to keep things going by doing that.
“I know there's other clubs that have run some Cúl camps weekends, but they brought the people over from Ireland, hence making it a very expensive endeavour.
“We're all about the grassroots. And that's why everybody gets to play regardless of how good they are. We could put just Irish players out, but we're not going to do that because that kind of ruins the whole point of what we're trying to do here.”
They’re building on solid foundations because they’re very much a family-driven club, which helps ensure a continuity of commitment.
Kavanagh doesn’t just hope her own club can grow further in the coming years, she believes its possible for Gaelic games to put down new roots across Germany.
“I hope we continue to see a proliferation of the clubs in Germany,” she says. “And, with that, then, hopefully more youth coming on. I mean, you see the success of it in France, right? It's phenomenal what they've done there.
“But I think in order to do that here, we need to continue to put the investment into training of coaches, providing systems to get facilities. One of the huge things in Germany is trying to get access to pitches. So however that can be supported, we need to support it.
“We were very lucky to have a lot of people with a lot of influence in the city that we were able to get a pitch. And then once you get your foot in the door, you can work on it. So that's a huge thing.
“A lot of our players are going off to university and we're giving them the skills that they can then introduce it when they are in university.
“So, I hope that we'll start to see a greater network and something to go towards at that level.”