Some highly recommended reading material on the history of Belgium GAA from former player, captain and trainer Eoin Sheanon for livegaelic.com
A friend of mine once asked me was Belgium in Brussels or was Brussels in Belgium? Indeed.
Ordinarily famed for its chocolate, the pissing boy and “the place that tells us what to do”, Brussels is not generally recognised; never mind as a GAA stronghold.
But visit any of the city’s watering holes, such as DeValera’s on Place Flagey or The Old Oak on Rue Franklin and you will see the trophies, jerseys and memorabilia of Belgium’s only Gaelic Football club.
Originally founded in 2004, Brussels Hurling club was renamed Brussels Hurling and Camogie club in 2007. A year later, this fledgling club, based in the heart of Europe, changed its name for the third time in 4 years to “Belgium GAA.” This time to accommodate football, not just camogie. The demand for the big ball game was healthy and Dave Barrett, a Cork native, working with Toyota, at their plant in Evere on the outskirts of the city, decided that the time was ripe to put a team together.
The club has grown exponentially over the years and has many individuals to thank for that. Conan MacOscair, who moved to Brussels over ten years ago, was there when the club was founded. Conan played hurling for Setanta and was used to the bright lights of that famed pitch in Ballymun, the San Siro, before his big move to Brussels. Conan runs the Delish Cafe in the centre of town but still takes the time to train the Belgium footballers whenever the opportunity arises.
The club’s chairperson is Maria Brosnan, a Kerry native who worked as a Press Officer for Fianna Fail in the European Parliament, a breeding ground for new recruits. At one point in 2011, there were 12 Members of the club working in Committees and Plenary sessions on Rue Wiertz. The European Parliament is also host to the club’s honorary President, none other than Sean Kelly –former President of the GAA.
Are they any good? Well, their ladies are the best in Europe, having just completed five European County titles in a row. They have some outstanding footballers, including Grainne Ni Fhlatharta, a former inter county Kerry footballer, Anay Rios a former semi-professional Spanish soccer player and Carragh Rowan, who is the only person in the club, past or present, male or female, who can kick a 45.
They’ve trampled on everyone from Budapest to Paris and it seems most of the other teams in Europe are plain sick of them. Just as it was for Tony Soprano, it’s tough at the top.
The men don’t have this weighty burden of being the perennial favourites but have certainly had their fair share of success.
They won their first European County Football Championship in 2008, under Barrett’s leadership. Having been beaten out the gate in the first tournament in Munich – not Belgium’s favourite ground – they made up for it with sterling performances in Budapest, Rennes and Maastricht.
Winning the county title in their first year was an incredible achievement and perhaps the enormity of that success was overlooked because thereafter would follow three barren years whilst The Hague, led by Limerick man Denis Reidy, and the Channel island, Guernsey, shared County successes between them.
That was to change in Maastricht in November, 2012, at the penultimate stage of the three European Championship Rounds. Two points down in the final against Guernsey, with a minute left on the clock, Corkman Timmy O’Donovan galloped down the field and buried the ball in the net. Belgium GAA held on and reclaimed the title they had first won four years previous.
Belgium have won two hurling county championships, in 2009 and 2010. They had an exceptional team that were unbeaten for the entirety of those two years. But things have become a little leaner since with clubs such as Zurich St Gallen putting up sterner opposition after some of Belgium’s hurlers moved on in 2011.
The Irish community that the GAA club in Brussels creates is a home away from home. Oliver O’Callaghan told this author that “It’s great just to be a part of it because when I came to Belgium first, I didn’t know anyone at all. Within a week I had met the hurlers and footballers. Now I know half the Irish in Brussels”.
Another one of Oliver’s fellow players, Brendan “Bob” Lynch spoke of thrill and craic of the weekends away, “I have travelled all over Europe, to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Budapest, Paris and beyond. But my most memorable trip was to Munich in ’09. The trip is famed because I drove a 12 seater bus down to Munich from Brussels the night before the tournament. After an 8 hour trip through the night and a couple of hours sleep in a hostel, we awoke in Munich the next morning and headed off to the pitch in plenty of time. Someone, who will remain anonymous, put the wrong pitch into the Sat Nav and we ended up in the middle of nowhere. Two hours late for the tournament our then manager Dave Barrett, went bezerk.”
“Even now if the subject is brought up it causes a divide between those who were on the bus and those who weren’t” said current Belgium manager, flame haired former Ballyboden St Enda’s man Ross Church. “Although it has ensured that no Belgian player has arrived late for a tournament since!” he continued.
Still playing and with a combined age of over 150, Martin Crowley, Derek Dignam and Fergal Mythen are among the club’s older brigade showing Ryan Giggs like longevity. But the club is built on a blend of experience and youth with many coming straight out of college to internships across Brussels. It is this blend that makes the club something special.
Transience plays havoc, however. Of the 2008 team, that won the Championship, only four stalwarts remain, Phil Cushen, Kevin Keary, Olof Gill and Colin Byrne. The rest have headed to pastures new and every year sees a big turnover of players. Because of this it’s important that those who arrive buy in quickly and they usually do.
The Belgium men won their first football tournament of the Year in the Benelux Championship last weekend. They overcame their neighbours Amsterdam in the final on a scoreline of 2-7 to 0-7. The Benelux region is generally regarded as the most competitive in Europe with football powerhouses, The Hague, generally always there or thereabouts. Luxembourg are a very strong club with many of their players involved in the banking sector and Amsterdam have a constant stream of Irish passing through to bolster their ranks. Eindhoven and Dusseldorf are relatively new clubs but appear to be going from strength to strength.
Gaelic football and hurling in Brussels is no different to any parish up and down Ireland, except your greatest rivals are 200 miles up the road. A thriving Irish community is now based around the GAA club and if you walk past the VUB University, in Etterbeek, on any Monday or Thursday night don’t be surprised to see a flame haired man from Ballyboden and a Cafe owner from Ballymun standing in the middle of a pitch roaring at their charges as they prepare for battle at the weekend.