Where in the world would you find a weekend GAA tournament hosting 300 players and 29 teams?

A three-time All-Ireland club winner was among the big names involved
Where in the world would you find a weekend GAA tournament hosting 300 players and 29 teams?

Wellington ladies football

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern may not be a fan of Gaelic Games but she has won plenty of fans in her country’s GAA community.

Ardern’s government has been the envy of the world in their dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic with the county lockdown restrictions now a distant memory for the 4.9 million residents.

Life, for the most part, has returned to normal (with some terms and conditions) and one of the beneficiaries of this has been the GAA clubs dotted around the nation.

Ironically as all adult club GAA activities at home ground to a halt with the introduction of Level 5 shutdown, players and officials in New Zealand were back on the pitches making up for lost time.

The New Zealand GAA Championships were cancelled earlier this year due to the pandemic so perhaps it was little surprising to see the huge interest which greeted a national sevens competition in Wellington late last month.

Wellington/Hutt Valley club hosted the mammoth event which attracted 29 teams and close to 300 players from around New Zealand.

Former Tipperary star Shane Bourke was a hat-trick hero in the Wellington Sevens tournament
Former Tipperary star Shane Bourke was a hat-trick hero in the Wellington Sevens tournament

Sides from Auckland, Hamilton, Taranaki, Christchurch and Queenstown were amongst those who travelled to the world’s southernmost capital city for the two-day festival of football, hurling and camogie at Te Whiti Park which was run off with military precision by Wellington/Hutt Valley club President Denise Durkin and tournament manager Kate McCarthy, a native of Dunmanway in Cork.

Durkin said: "I’d like to thank everyone who rolled up their sleeves and organised the weekend and to the players and management teams for traveling. We’re were delighted to have Ambassador Peter Ryan, Lower Hutt Deputy Mayor, Tui Lewis, President of the Hutt Valley Irish Society, John O'Toole, and President of the Kāpiti Irish Society, Trevor O'Halloran, in attendance for the award ceremony on the Sunday afternoon."

Durkin had another reason to be happy as Wellington/Hutt Valley won four of the seven trophies available: hurling, camogie, women’s football and the men’s junior football competition. Marist Rangers defeated their Auckland rivals Celtic in the men’s senior football final while Canterbury and Marist Rangers took home the women’s football shield and plate titles respectively.

The sides boasted a mix and match of Irish and local talent, indeed Charlotte Adam, a native of the Bay of Plenty, was named player of the final in the Women’s football Cup decider.

But there were some marquee names on show as well. Former Cavan footballer – and 2019 All-Star nominee – Conor Moynagh played with men’s senior football finalists, Celtic, while Wellington/Hutt Valley hurlers had former Tipperary star Shane Bourke in their ranks. Bourke hit three goals in the decider as he steered his side to an impressive win.

Derry’s Eilís Ní Chaiside was another player with top-flight experience, having won three All-Ireland camogie club championships with Slaughtneil. Now living in New Zealand since last year she hopes to help grow the game of camogie in her adopted home.

Eilís Ní Chaiside in action for Wellington Hutt Valley against Marist Rangers
Eilís Ní Chaiside in action for Wellington Hutt Valley against Marist Rangers

She spoke to the Irish Examiner earlier this week.

Q: So how does an All-Ireland winning camogie player end up in New Zealand?

Eilís Ní Chaiside: Retirement! Travelling has always been an integral part of my life but, due to several commitments, it has never been for any significant length of time. In 2019, after my third All-Ireland campaign, I cut to the chase and followed through with my desire to live in Aotearoa, New Zealand. I am a keen hiker so this country really appealed to me for it's outdoor living and it has fewer snakes and spiders than Australia!

Q: The last few months must have been very strange/frightening. How important was the GAA community to help people cope?

Eilís Ní Chaiside: 2020 has been a strange one to say the least, our championship weekend was to be held in Auckland at the end of March and a few days out it was called off. Soon after we were in a six week lockdown. But fair dues to the New Zealand Government, they were quick to react and we soon became the envy of the rest of the world! It was a challenge being so far from home and your loved ones but the Irish diaspora here are fantastic and always looking out for each other. We were able to get back socialising and training again with little need for any social distancing and we haven't looked back since.

Q: Paint the picture of the procedures and protocols in New Zealand to allow a tournament like this to take place?

Eilís Ní Chaiside: As I mentioned, we have been very fortunate here in that we are one of the very few countries in the world that are currently partaking in many sports restriction-free. People can travel freely here within New Zealand and that allowed for teams to travel to Wellington for the Labour Weekend Seven's tournament. There was a big representation from Auckland, Queenstown, Christchurch and Hamilton to mention but a few and we hosted a very enjoyable, social weekend of Gaelic games.

Q: What was the quality like?

Eilís Ní Chaiside: I was well impressed with the standard if I'm totally honest. This was my first time playing in any competition in the southern hemisphere and so I didn't know what to expect. It was fantastic to get a chance to go out and hurl against different players, many of them aren't native to Ireland. That's another great thing about the GAA abroad, people from all walks of life sense the connection and the community spirit it creates and so wish to be part of it too. I am enjoying the coaching element to the sport and would love to see camogie go from strength-to-strength here in the capital. Heather Williamson, our Kiwi-born captain, deserves massive credit for all the work she has done and continues to do in promoting the sport. The club has welcomed a number of total beginners in the last months and to see them embracing the challenge of a new sport with all their enthusiasm definitely inspires me. It just shows that you are never too old to learn.

Q: Any plans to come home?

Eilís Ní Chaiside: Much to my mother's dismay, I am extremely happy here in New Zealand and have no plans to return to Éire in the immediate future. I am surrounded by a good network of friends and there is still plenty more to see and do in my spare time. You never know, I might hang around long enough that my Derry accent might even start to fade!

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