South Korea’s hidden GAA gem

There is a pocket of GAA in the seas off the coast of South Korea. Michael McMullan takes a look…

IT all began when Jason Lisko made the move from Seoul to Jeju Island, South Korea’s largest island. Either side are the Yellow and East China seas.

To the west is Shanghai. Japan lies east. Those words of Micheál Ó Mhuircheartaigh come to mind, neither a GAA stronghold.

Lisko had already joined the GAA family with Seoul Gaels. It was the same club that hooked former Derry minor hurler Joe Trolan, the travel bug bit over 15 years ago.

Trolan made sure Lisko didn’t travel to Jeju alone. He had bagS of Gaelic footballs for company.

A few casual training sessions on the campus of Jeju University followed before Covid-19 pushed pause on the work in 2020.

Chaewoon Go, a local university student, is another of the eight founding members and fell in love with the game.

He has since become Inis Jeju’s Korean Officer, the first to ever be appointed on the Asian GAA Board.

Early conversations about starting a club began in 2021.

With the relaxation in travel restrictions, there was soon an influx from Ireland.

Bronagh Deeny from Craigbane in Derry is the current PRO and Social Officer. She recently got married to current club secretary Colm Doherty from Derry City.

Along with Antrim native and current Development Officer Alex McGreevy, they were also among the founding members when Inis Jeju formed in 2022.

Kevin Tobin, Steven McKeogh and David Lloyd were the others to put Inis Jeju GAA on the map.

Tobin, Doherty, Deeny and McKeogh had been involved with GAA clubs across Asia and got the wheels in motion.

“After meeting other Irish people who had been living on the island, Alex and David, we started to get really excited about possibly starting up a club,” Deeny said of the beginning,

“With Steve, David and Kevin as coaches, we ran our first training session at one of the local International school community pitches on August 28, 2022 with over 30 people attending.”

Of the Irish involved, the Ulster contingent hailed from Derry, Antrim and Down. Mark O’Reilly (Down) has brought the curtain down on a stint as Men’s Liaison officer while Antrim man Ciarán Bradley is the fitness coach.

There are currently 35 members on the club’s books. Close to 10 who have moved from Ireland with many married and have started families abroad. Some of the children play for the Inis Jeju underage team.

The majority of the team is made up from ex-pats coming to the island as teachers. There are four international schools and educational academies where Korean children learn and study in English.

“As our weekly Sunday training session takes place in the GEC (Global Education City) we appeal to lots of teachers,” Deeny adds.

The remainder of the team is made up of local Koreans, some of which have moved to Jeju from the mainland. Others of which were born on this small island.

“For many of them, this is a completely foreign sport which they have fallen in love with,” Deeny explains of the GAA appeal.

“They have been spreading the word to their friends and our numbers have been growing weekly.

“Our committed Korean members often break down the rules for beginners and act as translators to our coaches.

“It has also sparked many local Koreans’ interest in Ireland, its language, food, drink, music and culture.”

For now, there are three teams – men, women and the ‘Inis Jeju Kids’ that caters for ages five to twelve.

Jeju compete in the North Asian region where their main rivals would be our neighbouring mainland teams Busan and Seoul.

The hope would be to start an All Korean League later this year after last season’s friendly tournament in Seoul between the three clubs.

The club await their first title since hosting their first invitational tournament in 2022.

“This was made up of mixed co-ed teams made of people from different clubs,” Deeny explains.

“We repeated this the following year and played for the first time as Inis Jeju men and women’s teams. Our first win was for the ladies in which we beat Seoul Ladies.”

The tournament is proudly named the PJ McGlinchey Cup in memory of the Raphoe priest who arrived to the island in the mid-1950s as a missionary.

After his death, McGlinchey was named an “honorary citizen” and the club still have strong links with the St Isidore farm he founded.

“We have their logo on the sleeve of our jersey and host regular fundraisers to support the work of St Isidore Hospice,” Deeny explains.

The club designed its crest last year and kit, both with the input of club members. After many designs were submitted, the club settled on two colours – orange which symbolises the “tangerine island” and turquoise to represent its crystal clear waters.

A tranquil and beautiful island, Jeju has a close and welcoming community where Gaels from Ireland and local Koreans share a love of GAA together.

There is also a range of social events and a successful St Patrick’s Day event on the island with Irish food, dance, music, poetry and storytelling.

“It was a chance to showcase Irish culture to club members and beyond,” Feeny added.

Inis Jeju, although small and in its infancy, are now hosting the North Asian Gaelic Games next month, welcoming teams from across North Asia.

They’ve come a long way from Joe Trolan sending a bag of footballs from the mainland to plant the GAA seed. Now they’ve a chance to showcase their club and put Inis Jeju on the map.

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