From Down to Shunde: A story of GAA progress

In our latest look at the GAA scene overseas, we take a look at the story of four Down men and Shunde Gaels in China

By Michael McMullan

IT’S a long way from Castlewellan to Shunde, south of Guangzhou and north west of Shenzhen on the Southern tip of China.

That’s where Castlewellan’s Ciarán McCann, now chairman, and clubmate Sean Brogan were among five men to float the idea of Shunde Gaels just five short years ago.

Bryansford’s Philip Brennan, the club’s treasurer, and Kevin Gregory of Liatroim were the other Down men. They had Kildare man Kevin Stokes involved too.

Gregory died suddenly two years ago. His family set up a crowd-funding page to raise money to take him home. There was also support from the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust. The club had a specially commissioned number seven jersey designed in his memory. The ‘Kevy G’ Memorial Cup was again played for in recent weeks. The Gaels fielded both a men’s and ladies’ teams. A new record.

With 10 Irish lads working in the Guangdong Country Garden School, it wasn’t long before there was an idea to start a club.

There were members from both London and North Cyprus. A gym was sourced and the fundamentals were rolled out.

“The idea of the smallest GAA club in the world came from here being only members from one school on the outskirts of the city,” said McCann, who coaches the men’s team.

“A few of us had previously played with Beijing in tournaments as we didn’t have our club established yet.

“We saw the potential of what we could create once we finally had enough friends in our local area who could play.”

The club has grown to 80 members. A dozen are Irish, including players from Derry, Down and Tyrone. Add in their nine locals. The rest are made up of various nationalities.

There are a few Australian ringers with an AFL background. There are battering rams coming from American football. The Gaels also have ‘ice-cold’ Serbian basketballers and soccer goalkeepers from Georgia.

“We’ve even a few hurlers we managed to convince to see the light,” McCann adds. “You can really see at the club how Gaelic football is the perfect melting pot for people all sort of sporting backgrounds.”

The Gaels compete in the China, North Asia and Asia Games. Getting someone from the club to the World Games is a target for the future.

There have been many games against Shanghai who have been very supportive of Shunde and all things GAA in China.

“They are always up for traveling for games and helping with combining teams and sharing players at tournaments,” McCann said. “When we are playing, it’s all very competitive but off the field it’s nothing but respect.”

Shunde’s 2023 has been the most decorated to date with the China Plate Asia Gaelic Games Junior Cup in Malaysia.

There is the pride of the club sending a squad to Kuala Lumpur for the Asian Games in their first year, 2019. With the help of, their jersey went viral, helping fund the trip.

Like every sporting team across the world, Shunde were faced by the challenge of Covid-19. The threat of being aware under quarantine was very real and getting out to train as a group was a solace in the dark days.

“Covid could have easily been the end of the club, but as it turned out, it made us stronger than ever,” McCann points out.

“We were training week in, week out whenever we could and we hosted plenty of in-house tournaments and socials when we were able.”

Once the borders opened, it gave the club a whole new catchment area. They’ve linked in with a local AFL side in Guangzhou. One feeds off the other and there is a bond that helps growth.

Being away from the bigger population centres of Shanghai and Beijing brings the challenge of funding. They’ve leant on local sports bar ‘Goat’ with funding also coming from the GAA and the Department for Foreign Affairs.

“We travelled with a ladies’ team for the first time to the Asia Gaelic Games in Malaysia last year,” McCann added. “Through our limited club budget, we managed to financially support our local Chinese players with entry fees, flights, and accommodation.”

The club “strongly” feel it’s unfair to ask locals, on low salaries, to fork out for travel. There is a hope to find the extra funding to help grow the games in China.

Shunde is well known for its kung fu. The area is also known as the Cantonese foodie capital with tourists coming from all over China to try the local dishes.

“It is even the ancestral home of Bruce Lee,” McCann points out. “We always try to carry a bit of that kung fu spirit in our jerseys, although the lads are not quite as flexible as Bruce Lee, admittedly.”

While the Covid lockdown was a setback for the progress of Shunde Gaels, McCann feels there is the potential for GAA growth in China.

“In a short space of time we’ve already seen new clubs emerge in Hefei and Sichuan while other clubs like Suzhou and Shenzhen are back training again,” he said.

“With 1.4 billion people here, the sky’s the limit really. Asia as a whole is such an exciting area for growth for the GAA.

“There are active Irish communities in so many countries where there’s a real interest from locals to learn the game. There are good people at the Asian County Board too who really live and breathe GAA and are always supporting the clubs.”

From five Irish men five years ago, Shunde Gaels is thriving. They’ll keep remembering Kevin Gregory. He’ll always be in their thoughts as they step into the next chapter.


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