Tell people you are playing gaelic football in the middle of the desert in the United Arab Emirates and up until a few years ago, not too many people would have believed you.
Now, though, it is officially a thing thanks in no small part to a large Irish community scattered across Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Al Ain.
Playing GAA in 40 plus degrees heat is certainly no mean feat but that’s exactly what hundreds of Irish across the Middle East are doing, as they bring the core of their Irish roots to the country.
Speaking to Her.ie, founder of Sharjah Wanderers Ladies gaelic team, Derry woman Claire McWilliams, explains how playing gaelic football in the sunshine has turned out better than she could have ever hoped.
“I’ve been living over here for nearly seven years now,” she explained. “I’ve always had a huge interest in GAA, but when I got here, the nearest club was situated in neighbouring Dubai and, with the busy Sharjah traffic, this could be quite a drive.
“A few of us were talking about it, and we decided that we really needed a past time for the huge pool of female Irish teachers here in Sharjah and so Sharjah Wanderers Ladies GAA was formed,” the player/coach smiled.
The Sharjah Ladies A team pictured in Bahrain earlier this year. (Pic: Creina Hayes)
“The club has flourished since it was established and has allowed many Irish (and indeed other nationalities) to keep fit whilst at the same time instilling a strong sense of camaraderie. It also helps the girls settle in away from home where they know they can play the game they love and have a sense of home.
“We cater to players of all ability levels and we want everyone to feel part of the team. Back to the first year we had two teams and our A team were very successful as we had a few very experienced county players on the panel.
“The team were very experienced and with the likes of Una Harkin (Derry), Betty Nash (Limerick) and captain Sarah Coakley (Cork) playing for us, we were unstoppable. That year we were crowned Middle East champions which was quite amusing as we started off the year in plain white T-shirts as we had no kit!” she laughed. “We went on to win again in 2011.
“Since then, we have just grown and grown. It has gone from strength to strength in recent years and overall, there are now over 20 ladies gaelic football teams in the Middle East which is incredible. We estimate that there are over 800 people playing GAA under the Middle East board.
“The board is affiliated with Croke Park and I am currently the Ladies Development Officer on the board. I’ve been doing this role for three of the past four years now. The job itself is to work in conjunction with other members of the board to promote ladies gaelic football in the Middle East.
“We have made sure that ladies football is run as professionally as the men’s and that the ladies rules have been incorporated into the Middle East rules. The county board here has flourished in recent times and under the guidance of James Kennedy (Chairman) and Paddy Darcy (Secretary) things are really starting to take off. This year Abu Dhabi will host the first World Gaelic Games which is a huge coup for the region.”
Fun times at the tournament. Players enjoy the fun on the sideline earlier this year. (Pic: Reanda De Beer)
“Back to Sharjah, at the moment we have a great mixture of players. We have experienced and brilliant players like our captain Tricia Murphy (Cork) and Caomhie Joyce (Dublin) playing for us. In both the Senior and intermediate teams, we also have new players who have become great footballers since joining the club. The club has grown and become more international. We have had players from South Africa, Australia, England, Scotland and America playing for us.
“We are currently going through a rebuilding stage as many of the crop of players which were there at the club’s beginning have now moved on. This is to be expected in such a transient environment but we are still thriving and competing in senior and intermediate leagues.
“We have two ladies teams at the moment and we hope to make that three in the near future. We have American, English, Scottish as well as Irish players on our panel.
“It’s really brilliant here. There’s a lot of travelling involved for the games – we get to fly off to different countries such as Oman and Bahrain to play football and the Middle East board and the GAA at home have invested a lot of money in making sure that coaches and referees come over from Ireland.
“We have also been trained by numerous visiting coaches which is always refreshing and challenging. The nature of the game here requires high fitness, but it’s also good fun. We play tournaments and they run all day on a Friday (the weekend here is Friday and Saturday).”
Claire McWilliams in action for Sharjah against Al Ain.
“You gain league points based on your performances per tournament and each team has 12 players per panel with the matches lining out as 9-a-side. We play numerous games that last 14 minutes in total but in this heat, that’s more than enough. It is definitely an exhausting, but fun way to spend your weekend!
“In the last two years the Sharjah Ladies Wanderers also played host to the Sharjah Gaels men’s GAA club who are very successful in their league. GAA in Sharjah is really thriving!
“We really have a strong ladies board at the club this year too. I am still treasurer, coach and a player so my involvement is still pretty heavy! I held the position of chairperson of the club for the last number of years, but this year I have taken on more responsibility at the school I teach at so the chairperson is now Tara Ryan (Tipperary).
“Tara is our rock in goals, a great GAA player and supporter. I know that with her connections and knowledge of the game she will take the club from strength to strength.”
So the highlight of it all?
“The highlight was winning the Middle East League at our home pitch in Sharjah three years ago. We were behind on points on the day but after we beat Abu Dhabi in the final of our tournament we were crowned champions! That was an amazing feeling.
“Up next, we have a tournament in Abu Dhabi which is going to be huge, that’s coming up on 28th November. Aside from that we are always looking for new players. Our club website provides all the links and info new players need. We train twice weekly in Sharjah, but if anyone is moving to the region just get in touch as I am also happy to set people up with links to other clubs in the region.”
Ann Marie Hickey wins possession for Sharjah ahead of Abu Dhabi at last year’s tournament.
“You can also get information on Middle East GAA through their Facebook page or on their website,” she said, before adding, “I would definitely recommend people to come over here – the standard of life here is great. The weather is amazing and people enjoy the laid back life style. As you can see, you can easily join a GAA club to make connections and all the socializing that goes with that is great.
“There is a unique and social dimension to playing GAA abroad and the UAE is no exception to anywhere else in the world. There are some great nights out with the teams and after tournaments we always have a great laugh! Oh and of course (most importantly) it is great for contributing to a fit and healthy life style!” she finished.