With a group of Irishmen, Australian rules players (AFL), a few backpackers and a Vietnam Airlines pilot, the dawn of the Saigon Gaels GAA Club was upon us. The tournament, which included teams from Singapore and Hong Kong, proved to be a huge success. Murphy and his men, under the watchful eye of the Irish ambassador, made it to the Men’s Plate Final and overcame Hanoi B by a single point.
For years after, the concept of a permanent GAA club in South Vietnam did not materialise as each tournament saw a last-minute dash to recruit men to wear the jersey. However, in 2014 the club saw its renaissance as an influx of expats – Irish and other nationalities – decided to make Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam their new home. The club initially ran as a ladies’ GAA club, recovered by Siobhan Synott in 2014. Her efforts saw the Gaels begin with only half a dozen at training, to having almost 30 expats from every corner of the earth training in District 7 with a few soccer balls but pride in their hearts for the game. While the ladies’ progressed in numbers, the men’s team struggled to recruit members and so began the club’s affiliation with the Vietnam Swans, the Australian Rules team. The strong relationship between the two sports has been noticeable as many in the Swans and Gaels have crossed over between codes effortlessly which assisted in keeping our membership healthy for a few years. This relationship that began was matched by many other GAA teams around Asia and underlines the strong connection between Ireland and Australia.
The growth of the club became apparent within the Asian Gaelic community and that resulted in Saigon Gaels hosting the SAGs in 2017 with 25 teams from the region visiting. Saigon entered 5 teams, a huge turnout for the club and our ladies’ winning the plate final that day. The tournament was well-received by all who took part and was highly complimented by those who had been to numerous SAGs. It is always difficult to create and maintain a Gaelic team abroad especially in such a unique country as Vietnam. The visible expansion over the past 8 years has been commendable and will only improve further in years to come.
Saigon is rapidly becoming a hub for aspiring Irish expats and with that, many players with years of playing experience have surfaced in recent years and months. The club is ever-expanding and becoming increasingly competitive in both football and hurling. In the recent Asian Gaelic Games (AGGs) that were held in Kuala Lumpur in 2019, the Gaels saw possibly
their biggest appearance abroad to date, fielding 4 football teams and a hurling team. The men’s senior hurlers recorded their first-ever senior title, in their first-ever outing!, beating Thailand, while our Intermediate men and junior ladies came runners-up in heated exchanges against our neighbours and rivals the VietCelts.
The excitement was building as many of the Gaels rang in the new year hungry to do battle in 2020. Our first tournament, a Railway Cup saw a cheerful Hanoi team travel down for the festivities on a scalding hot day in Saigon. Along with the Celts, teams from other sporting disciplines such as the Saigon Raiders (soccer) and Saigon Geckos (rugby) tried their hand at Gaelic. A day of points, goals, sunburns and a bit of craic so it was. As we bade farewell to our Hanoi rivals that night what graced the minds of most was the month of April and the upcoming South Asian Games, in Bangkok. This was our chance to seek revenge for Kuala Lumpur all those months ago. Unfortunately, our time to take over will sadly have to wait as COVID-19 has put a hold on our beautiful game and life itself. The Gaels, like many teams around Asia, will fight not only to keep the club alive in these difficult circumstances but to support all our players, past and present, near and far. Many of our players were forced to return home but we are all and always will be the Saigon Gaels, a team and a community.
Words by Charlotte O’Neill
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