The Korean Peninsula may be the most dangerous place in the world with the threat swapping between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un ratcheting up tensions in the region. Brian Keane is chairperson of Seoul Gaels GAA club which lies 35 miles from the border with North Korea. He tells Colm O’Connor about life — and gaelic games — in the Far East in these tense times
Q: What is life like this week in South Korea?
A: Life has been completely normal. There has been no change at all. People are going to work, getting on with their lives. The eyes of the world are on Korea but most people here have barely noticed. The Government carried out an air raid drill about six weeks ago. They told people to take this drill extra seriously because of the increased tensions. Most Koreans ignored the drill as usual. Koreans tend to treat air raid drills the same way Irish people treat fire alarms!
Q: Are you nervous?
A: No, I’m not nervous. Missile launches, nuclear tests, threatening rhetoric from the North... it’s been going on for years. I was here in 2010 when North Korea attacked a South Korean island. The South Korean military based on the island returned fire and there was a battle. That was a situation that could have escalated into war but didn’t. There have been other instances like that but the tension always dies down after a while. There are powerful people on both sides who benefit from maintaining the status quo. Public threats are one thing, but an actual war is unlikely.
Q: Are you doing anything different because of the situation?
A: No I’m not. No one here is. The only difference between this situation and previous tensions in Korea is the current President of the United States. Previous presidents didn’t respond to North Korean threats, but Trump is shouting back. It is slightly unsettling but the feeling here is that even Trump can’t start a war on his own.
Q: Do you have any regrets about moving to South Korea now?
A: Moving to Korea involved a lot of trade-offs. I’m generally happy with my life here but living here means I miss out on things that happen at home. Spending time with family, friends, going to weddings, going to big sporting events.
Q: How big is the Irish community - and what do they do?
A: There is a decent sized Irish community here. There are established GAA clubs in the cities of Seoul, Busan and Daegu. And this year a new club was formed in Changwon. There is an Irish Association of Korea which holds Irish cultural events throughout the year, most notably the St. Patrick’s day event. There are also Irish people involved in soccer clubs, rugby clubs, drama societies and many other cultural activities in Korea. This year also saw the formation of “Darkness into Light Seoul.” We held our first “Darkness into Light” event last May and we are already planning for next year. Suicide is a huge issue in Korea as well as Ireland so we are doing our best to raise funds and awareness.
Q: Tell me a bit of Seoul Gaels? How did it all begin?
A: The Seoul Gaels was formed in 2002 when a bunch of Irish lads came to Korea to watch the World Cup and decided to stay. Since then it has consistently competed at the highest level of Asian football.
Q: Is the lure of GAA abroad still as powerful as ever?
A: I think there are two main things that attract players to GAA clubs in Asia. One is the chance to be part of a team and a club. It’s a great place to make friends and develop a support network. The other attraction is the sport itself. It has more physicality and a quicker tempo than soccer but isn’t as physically demanding as something like rugby.
Q: And how many teams/members to you have now?
A: Right now we have about 50 to 60 active members. (25-30 men and 25-30 ladies). There are 12 players in a squad (we play 9 aside on soccer fields in Asia) so we usually try and field two men’s teams and two ladies teams when we play in tournaments.
Q: What competitions do you compete in?
A: Usually we compete in four competitions, but this year we are adding a fifth tournament to our calendar. Domestically, we compete in the Korean League along with Daegu Fianna and Laochra Busan. There are three rounds, each club takes a turn at hosting a round of the league. This year will also see the debut of the Korean Cup. It’s a one-off event for all the teams in Korea. We compete in two regional tournaments. The North Asian Gaelic Games is a tournament for all the clubs in Korea, as well as Japan GAA. We usually invite Chinese teams to take part as well. The All-China Games is a tournament for Chinese teams but we have been lucky enough to be invited for the last few years. The big one is the Asian Gaelic Games, for teams from all over Asia. This year it will be held in Bangkok on a weekend in November.
Q: How do you manage for pitches?
A: Pitches are very difficult to get. We are lucky to have a club member who has access to the US Army base in the middle of Seoul. His name is Oliver Cunningham and although he is originally from Waterford he served in the US Army for many years.
Training on the base is a bit surreal. When you walk through the gates if feels like you are walking into an American town. The buildings, the restaurants, the people and the general atmosphere makes it feel like the States. Thanks to his efforts we are usually able to train on a pitch on the base. But sometimes that pitch is unavailable and we have to go elsewhere. Seoul is a sprawling city and many of the pitches are located on the outskirts. This means players often have to travel up to two hours to attend training. The US Military is actually planning to move the base to a location outside of Seoul and hand back the land to the Seoul City government next year. So we’ll be on every road again next year looking for places to train.
Q: Do you have an underage section?
A: Our underage team was founded by a guy name Conor Melvin about five years ago. Since then it has gone from strength to strength. Grants from the GAA enable us to pay coaches to improve the skills of our underage players. This year, thanks to the grants, we were also able to bring a coach from Ireland who has helped the kids develop enormously. The best thing about the underage team is that most of the kids who are involved are Korean. This weekend our underage team are in Kuala Lumpur to for in the Asian Youth Games.
Q: And you hosted a Cúl Camp earlier this month. How did that work out?
A: The Cúl Camp was a great success. We had approximately 60 kids in attendance. The kids had a great time practising the various skills and playing games.
Q: Is it all football - any hurling?
A: We had a hurling team in 2014 and 2015 which took part in various tournaments. We don’t have a hurling team at the moment but there are a few dual players here so hopefully, we can get the hurling going again.
Q: What do the locals make of it all?
A: They join in! We have six or seven Korean adult members and most of the kids in the underage are Korean. Our Korean members really enjoy playing Gaelic Football and also the social side of being part of a club like this.
Q: Do you get assistance from Croke Park?
A: We get grants from Croke Park and the Department of Foreign Affairs in order to promote our underage programme.
Q: What do you miss most about home?
A: I miss my family, my friends and going to big sporting occasions. I’m from Kerry and when I lived in Ireland I used to go to all the Kerry games.
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