Breaking barriers: The Stirling University story

Stirling University is a shining example of why those from a unionist background shouldn’t fear the GAA. Niall Gartland finds out more

ALUMNI of the Royal School Armagh, an East Belfast man from a staunch Unionist background, a Catalonian and more than a few Scots thrown into the mix.

It’s not the typical make-up of a Gaelic football club but Stirling University does things differently. It isn’t a behemoth like Glasgow or Edinburgh so their natural instinct is to think outside the box when it comes to bolstering the GAA scene in the college, and sure aren’t they all the better for it?

Oisin Curran, a native of Tullysaran in County Armagh, is in his third year studying History at the College. The present chairman of their GAA club, he gives a bit of background to why there’s such a diverse spectrum of backgrounds involved.

“Stirling isn’t as big as an Edinburgh or Glasgow where they have an influx of new students every year from Gaelic backgrounds. We have to pull in anyone we can to make up a team. We’re up at 30 members and we’re being competitive this year. It’s a team with half-Irish and half-Scottish lads and everything in between.”

“We have a Freshers’ event every September. There’s 50 sporting clubs in our university, Frisbee, Tennis, Hockey, all sorts. We chat to loads of students and try to entice them into trying something new where they’ll get to meet new people and try their hand at a new sport.”

The club, which has been going since the mid 90s, compete in both hurling and football and have a ladies team. Executive Director of sport at the Uni is Cathy Gallagher, ex-Tyrone footballer, and they’re sponsored by Molly Malone’s Irish Bar, a great source of assistance.

Stirling GAA has proven itself particularly adept at attracting lads from a Unionist background. Hugh is one such example, and Jay is another.

Curran said: “Hugh’s from Portadown from a mixed marriage. His mum is Catholic and his dad is part of the British Army. He went to the Protestant School in Armagh – I went to St Pat’s, Armagh and then only a mile or two up the road is the Royal. He went to the Royal because he’s from Portadown which is mainly unionist, but he’s been playing football and hurling since he was no age.”

He continued: “Young Jay is in his first year. We were walking about the campus in Freshers week, a few of the lads were giving out free pizzas. We got speaking to Jay’s mum and dad and they found out he was from Armagh and called me over, and we had a bit of a chat.

“Jay played rugby with the Royal School, that was his sport. The rugby culture in Universities, especially over here, isn’t great, there’s all sorts of initiations and you hear really negative stories.

“It’s not very welcoming to newcomers and a lad like Jay hadn’t been away from home before. I pestered him to come and give the Gaelic a go, and once he started, he absolutely loved it right away.

“He has an Armagh jersey, he loves the sport now and back home he wouldn’t even have thought about giving it a go.

“We’ve a photographer as well, from East Belfast, he has a proper unionist background, he loves getting out there and taking photos, he’s played a few games with us as well.”

Indeed, Curran believes that Stirling is a shining example to cautious unionists back home that the GAA isn’t some sort of bogeyman.

“There is a concern of the unionist community about the power and influence of the GAA, but I feel they need to see that the GAA is open to integration and actively encourages it.”

He also says that those with a rugby background prove particularly adept at adjusting to Gaelic football.

“The lads who play rugby take to the sport very, very quickly. Lads with a soccer background don’t tend to have the same hand-eye coordination.

“We’d a Scottish lad, Jack, from Edinburgh, and he was so good we had him playing centre-half back. Game awareness and positioning seemed to come naturally to him, in a way it doesn’t with those who have only played soccer.”

The GAA club is also represented by natives of Zimbabwe, England, Catalonia, Wales, Czech Republic and Croatia. Curran says it’s heartening to see the GAA thrive in the small Scottish city.

“You see Scottish lads walking about wearing Kerry jerseys, Wexford jerseys, showing me what they want to buy on eBay. It’s unbelievable to see the sport growing, seeing people take an interest. Hopefully they carry it on through and keep an eye on it once they leave university.

“There is a recurring theme among our members, all of us have arrived at Stirling not knowing anyone, far away from family and the GAA team has become our family.

“We are all from very different backgrounds but what unites us is sport and the craic that comes with it.

“I take great pride in sharing our native sport and doing my best to grow it outside of Ireland.”

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