Rivals find common ground in Ethiopia

They were back on familiar ground last Saturday. On a chilly evening in Sixmilebridge, Gavin O’Mahony and John Conlon were launched into Waterford Crystal Cup action as substitutes under floodlights at the East Clare venue.

With the Banner and the Treaty refusing to be separated, acquaintances were renewed onTuesday night in the Gaelic Grounds. This time the duo were at close quarters, Conlon leading the Clare attack and O’Mahony manning the Limerick defence.

“I was only inside on him for ten minutes before I ended up wandering to the wing,” said Conlon. “But to be fair we’d seen plenty of each other over the previous two weeks.”

Last Friday morning, the pair flew back from a 12-day trip to Ethiopia organised by Playing For Life, the charity established by RTÉ sports presenter Tracy Piggott in 2005. Amongst the other volunteers were Limerick attacker Graeme Mulcahy, former Clare goalkeeper Phillip Brennan and Dublin defender NiallCorcoran. The group was based in the northern territory of Tigray that skirts the Eritrean border. In this region the ancient Ethiopian game of karsa, which is similar to hurling as it involves using a wooden stick and ball, is played and the GAA stars conducted hurling coaching sessions while also sampling the local sport.

“It was inspirational really to see people with so little to be so content and working so hard,” said O’Mahony. “They’re such happy people and there wasn’t a sour word passed in the whole trip.

Conlon reflected: “It really makes you respect how lucky you are. I gave one young lad a Clare jersey in one of our last few days and you could see how much he treasured having it.”

The group flew to the capital Addis Ababa from Heathrow on January 22 before attending a reception at the Irish Embassy in the city. The following morning they flew to the northern Ethiopian city of Mek’ele and took a bus that snaked through dirt tracks in the mountains for six hours bound for the city of Adigrat.

“The scenery was spectacular,” revealed O’Mahony. “Tourism could be huge there in years to come as it’s pure paradise. The reception when we arrived in Adigrat was unbelievable. They were waiting for us on the back of Hiaces a few miles outside the town, singing and dancing alongside the bus the whole way into the city.”

They soon got to work. Coaching sessions were conducted at a local school where the numbers of students stunned Conlon, who started his training to be a primary school teacher in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick last Monday.

“They have 1,000 kids there in the morning from nine to 12 and then there’s another 1,000 from 12 on. Some children walk up to seven miles to get to school. It’s a surreal and the teachers put in some effort to teach so many kids.

“During our coaching we worked closely with a group of 18-19 year olds,” outlined O’Mahony. “We were just getting them used to the hurley. They were brilliant by the end of the week in rising the ball, soloing it and striking it. I’ll have to go back in a few years to see if we can sign a few up for Kilmallock!”

The Irish players received their introduction to a foreign sport when they played in an exhibition game in front of thousands of spectators.

“The stick that’s used for karsa is really thin,” stated Conlon. “Then the ball is made out of a car tyre, which is twisted into shape, put into oil and left to harden. They strike it one-handed and the ball travels miles.

“We played one afternoon in a game in a big meadow outside the town which had no ditches and stretched for miles. At one stage during the game an army officer was going across the field with an AK-47 and there were a lot of goats around. It was mad stuff.”

There were other activities to fill their days. Conlon enjoyed a six-hour trek through the mountains outside the city. O’Mahony marvelled when at the achievement of an 18-year-old who had dug a 30ft well on his own over the previous week with only a small chisel and sledgehammer to blast through the rock. 1986 All Star winner John Lynch from Tyrone took Gaelic Football sessions.

The group raised nearly €30,000 from extensive fundraising in Ireland before they left with the money allocated to projects such as the improvement of sports facilities and assisting single mothers in business.

“We’d great banter out there,” said O’Mahony. “You only come across these hurlers once or twice a year and it’s not really on friendly terms. Graeme is from my own club but I wouldn’t have known John, Philly or Niall that well. I’d recommend it to anyone.”

Conlon agreed: “It was an amazing place to experience.”

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up