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‘I’ve by no means had a lot craic’: Gaelic video games come to loyalist east Belfast | Northern Ireland

It’s 50 years since a Gaelic soccer group performed in east Belfast, and a few 400 years for the reason that final recognized hurling match – St Colmcille’s soccer group closed because the Troubles descended on Northern Ireland, and there’s been no document of hurling for the reason that Gaelic lord Conn O’Neill’s rule within the 16th century. Gaelic video games, related to the nationalist group, may look like unlikely sports activities to again within the traditionally loyalist space.

Yet final week the East Belfast GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) membership completed its first season triumphant. The membership was fashioned in May after a collection of conversations between mates Dave McGreevy and Richard Maguire, attempting to do one thing about their lockdown boredom. McGreevy, a eager participant of “Gaelic”, as Gaelic soccer is thought, had moved to east Belfast together with his fiancee. “Richard and I grew up with Gaelic games; we’re at an age where we’re both thinking about kids, so you would want a local team.”

Intent on selling inclusivity, McGreevy set up a Twitter account, made its avatar the 2 towering cranes of the town’s Harland & Wolff shipyard, and tweeted for gamers – “all ages, genders and backgrounds welcome”.

“My phone exploded! By lunchtime we had hundreds,” says the 34-year-old. Now with over 1,000 members, it’s one the area’s largest golf equipment. A big proportion have by no means performed earlier than, and are available from a mixture of backgrounds and identities.

Competitive video games started simply two weeks after the preliminary follow, however the first season – minimize quick by coronavirus – has introduced vital milestones. The camogie (ladies’s hurling), hurling and girls’s soccer groups picked up their first wins because the season closed. “Other teams are impressed by how quickly we’re improving,” says Beth Adams, 26, a participant from Ballygowan. “We’ve received pre-match welcome gifts – cakes, buns. The support from other clubs and the local community is outstanding.”

In August a hoax bomb alert was despatched to Henry Jones Playing Fields, the place the membership was practising. Both DUP and SDLP politicians condemned the act.

Establishing a membership in an space the place the GAA has been alien, or seen as hostile to unionists, needed to be carried out with sensitivity. The group wears impartial black with yellow stripes, and its trilingual crest options the shipyard cranes, the hand of Ulster, a shamrock and thistle, and the motto “Together” in English, Irish and Ulster Scots. “I’ve never had so much craic,” says McGreevy, “and everyone, no matter what background, deserves this opportunity. Being inclusive is non-negotiable.”

“Camaraderie is strong – that may disappear when we get serious next season!” says Mark Brooks, 31, a Gaelic midfielder and native from a Protestant background. “It was something I never had the opportunity to do as a kid. East Belfast GAA is the perfect storm: everyone is fresh. It feels significant that kids in east Belfast have choices.”

Dave McGreevy in a team shirt standing in front of two very large yellow cranes bearing the logo 'H&W'
Dave McGreevy in fromt of the Harland & Wolff shipyard’s cranes, which characteristic on the East Belfast GAA badge. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/The Observer

“Our coach says, ‘I don’t care who you go out with on a Friday, or where you go on a Sunday – all I care is that you’re up for playing camogie,” says Kimberly Robertson, the group’s secretary – from Boston, Massachusetts, now dwelling in east Belfast. “Being an immigrant, not having a GAA background, and being 40, I was worried about being accepted. I’ve never felt like an outlier – only when I’m dying at the end of training, and the rest are barely sweating! I was in a sorority in college, and it has that same sense of sisterhood.”

“It fills me with hope for the future,” says Linda Ervine, a number one Irish language activist and the membership’s president. Ervine, who’s from a unionist background, is a figurehead in cross-community dialogue. “I’ve had to interrogate my own internal biases of the GAA. Change doesn’t happen without challenge,” she says. “Seeing a match, tweets, knowing someone on the team – it will impact generations to come.”

In September, some group members examined optimistic for Covid-19 and the membership was shut down for per week. Throughout lockdown, the gamers say, the membership offered emotional solace. “My mental health soars when we play,” says Robertson.

The membership plans to organise junior groups, safe an area floor and set up a membership chaplain. They just lately signed as much as a multi-sport inclusion constitution, making group outreach pledges from inviting native unionist politicians to video games to bettering entry for disabled folks.

“The sustained interest has challenged my own perceptions,” says McGreevy, who hopes to recruit much more native novices. “It’s a progressive place where I’ve set up my life, with the sport I love. Let’s just get stuck in with more wins.”

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