As Ireland changes, so does the GAA

Irelands changing GAA face
Oladimeji Olajubu (left) and Miguel Kaguako with Garryowen’s Sean Igoe

Born in Nigeria and Angola, brought up in Co Louth, now Oladimeji and Miguel are playing their GAA in London

By Damian Dolan

For years Ireland has been synonymous with emigration. In the last decade or two it has seen a great deal of inward migration meaning young Irish faces are becoming ever more diverse.

A small part of that modern Irish diversity has been in evidence on London’s GAA pitches as the season gets underway in earnest.

London club Garryowen’s line-up includes two Irish players who grew up in County Louth but were, respectively, born in Nigeria and Angola, Oladimeji Olajubu and Miguel Kaguako.

Like so many players who grew up playing the game in Ireland – and who end up playing here – their ball skill handling is obvious to the trained or untrained eye.

But Oladimeji is happy for opposition players to underestimate him and judge him as a newcomer to the game – but “then they see me play,” he says.

He plays soccer for West London side Hayes and Yeading FC in the Evo-Stik Southern, East Division, but Gaelic football has always been a huge influence on him.

“Because of the way I was brought up I have a never back down attitude, and Gaelic promotes that. They love the 50:50. You can’t back out of a shoulder [challenge],” says Oladimeji, who is studying sports science at Middlesex University.

“Black players are strong and athletic in soccer, but they don’t like being fouled. They don’t like that part of the game, but I don’t mind. If you can give it, you should be able to take it and Gaelic has helped me.

“If I didn’t have Gaelic, I wouldn’t have my strength in football. I work hard, I’m aggressive, I’m athletic, I’m ruthless. I put my life on the line when I play.”

Irelands changing GAA face
Oladimeji Olajubu in action against Thomas McCurtains

Anyone who has attended the All Britain Competition in Greenford, or seen first-hand the work of the Community Development Officers across Britain, knows the appeal of Gaelic Games to children at primary and secondary school, whether they be first, second or third generation Irish…or have no family connection to Ireland at all.

Oladimeji’s and Miguel’s stories require telling.

Originally from Nigeria, Oladimeji came to Ireland in 2004 when he was ten. He and his older brother joined their mother and sister, who’d had already been in the country for three years.

Ireland offered an opportunity to “take refuge” and to “start afresh” for Oladimeji and his family.

They were reunited at the Direct Provision centre in Mosney in Co Meath, initially sharing two-bedroom accommodation with another family.

The only time he and his siblings were allowed to go outside of the centre was to attend Whitecross Primary School in Julianstown.

GAA skills

It was there he came across Gaelic football for the first time – up until then he’d only played soccer and basketball – and he was so struck by the skills and ability of one of his classmates (Shane Dowling) that he would secretly practice GAA of an evening.

“He [Shane] was amazing; he was the best player on the team. He had it all. He could carry the ball and had a good range of pass,” recalls Oladimeji.

“I would never play [GAA] in school because I didn’t know how, but I would take a ball home and practice it and try and do what he did.”

Miguel and his family had arrived in Ireland two years earlier (in 2002) having made their way to the country from Angola when Miguel was ten.

“My family decided to leave to find a better situation for us kids at the time. Angola was in a bad situation,” he says.

The family moved from Dublin to Birr in Offaly where they were ‘housed’ in a similar centre that Oladimeji’s family had been placed. The family moved on to Dundalk before finally settling in Drogheda, Co Louth, when Miguel was 13.

Miguel says: “It was a culture shock. It was completely different. For the most part growing up I was the only back person in my class and I was probably the only black person on my estate.”

Irelands changing GAA face
Miguel Kaguako prepares to compete for a high ball against Thomas McCurtains

When Oladimeji’s family received confirmation that they could remain in Ireland, they moved to Balbriggan in Dublin and he started at St Molaga’s School. Coaches from the local GAA club, O’Dwyers GAA, would come into the school to coach the children and Oladimeji recalls one coach calling him ‘a natural’.

“I wasn’t really aware of the rules, but they saw the way I soloed the ball,” he adds.

He started training with O’Dwyers and it was over the next three years that he learned the technical aspects of the game.

Improving his skills all the time, he helped St Molaga’s reach a Leinster schools final at Parnell Park.

Miguel came to GAA more by chance – he and his family had settled on the West Court Estate in Drogheda and it was while out playing on the estate’s green that he was roped in to tog out for Newtown Blues GAA, by club “legend” Danny Nugent.

Miguel explains: “Whenever the team didn’t have enough players he’d [Danny] come down to that green. Because he also lived on that estate and knew some of the lads, he’d say ‘Lads, do you want to play today?’. They’d be like ‘aright’.

“He just kept saying to me ‘You’ll be grand, you’ll be grand’. I didn’t know what was going on.

Carrying the ball

“I didn’t find it that difficult to pick up – I just got on with it. I enjoyed carrying the ball and the speed of the game was fun. I really enjoyed the way it’s played at a high pace. Ever since then I’ve been playing.”

A keen basketball player, Miguel says playing Gaelic has helped his tackling and awareness.

“In Gaelic there’s always someone running past you, there’s always someone there. And it’s helped my strength in soccer – you’re tougher. It does help with other sports,” he adds.

Miguel won an Under 15 league title with Newtown Blues and went on to win a senior championship in 2013. GAA took a backseat, however, when he ruptured his cruciate ligament.

Miguel adds: “When I first started there was a Nigerian guy who played for a different team in Dundalk, and then there was me and a third person. Only three of us in the whole county at my age level.

“But when I go back now there’s young African kids. You can see they’re starting younger.”

The reason Oladimeji’s family moved to Dundalk was to be nearer to friends from their time in Mosney. While there he went to secondary school at O Fiaich College.

Irelands changing GAA face
Oladimeji Olajubu closes down his man against Thomas McCurtains

His parent’s friend’s son, whom Oladimeji refers to as his ‘cousin’, introduced him to Clan na Gael GAA club in Dundalk, and he joined the club at Under 16 level. But a lack of opportunities left him disillusioned.

He says: “I was new in town and new on the team, and I didn’t really get the chance to prove myself.”

He gave up the game for a year but was tempted back by the coach. He came into his own that season and helped the club win the championship and league double.

Oladimeji had made his mark and he was swiftly elevated into the college’s Minor team. He points to one game, in particular, which made his name in Louth GAA circles, when he marked out of the game Ciaran Burke, who was being touted as the next big thing in Louth football.

“I kept him quiet and he only scored one point from a free. After the game my name was in the newspapers – it was crazy,” Oladimeji recalls.

Byrne now plays Aussie Rules for Melbourne club Carlton.

Remarkable

Oladimeji’s performance against Byrne brought him to the attention of the Louth Minor manager and he remembers playing against Meath and Kildare. One of his contemporaries, James Stewart, has since gone on to play senior football for Louth.

He says: “The training at Louth Minor was remarkable – the best I ever got. It was like training for the army. After the gym we’d be straight on the pitch doing obstacle courses, carrying tyres and pulling kegs, and then we’d go into ball work and everything has to be done at high tempo.

“There’d be coaches shouting at you ‘Do you want that jersey?’.”

Oladimeji became the first black captain to lead a side to Leonard Cup success, a prestigious schools competition in Louth.

During the final he looked up and was stunned to recognise Shane Dowling playing for the opposing team – that same Shane Dowling whom he’d wanted to emulate several years earlier at Whitecross Primary School. Now here they were sharing the same pitch in a GAA final with Oladimeji now more than his equal.

Oladimeji recalls: “I said ‘Shane! He said ‘We can’t talk now Ola, we’ll talk after the game’. This is the guy I learned how to play Gaelic from…. it was amazing that I played against him.”

Broken hearts

His studies took priority after that. Louth Under 21s made enquiries about him, but injury prevented a call up.

He continued to play senior for Clann na Gael and in 2012 helped them reach a Louth intermediate championship final, only to lose out to O’Connell’s by two points.

The following year he played in the Louth Under 21 final, scoring 0-2 from half back. But it wasn’t enough, St Brides won by a point.

Oladimeji says of his club Clann’s missed opportunities: “There have been a lot of broken hearts because we always got very close. There was one game I even cried, and I’ve never cried for anything in my life. Proper tears. We’ve been very unlucky at the Clann.”

Garryowen

In 2016 Oladimeji arrived in London. A chance meeting with a former O’Connell’s adversary and Louth senior footballer, Cian Doyle, led to Doyle passing Oladimeji’s number on to Garryowen’s Sean Igoe. After a few conversations, he transferred to the club last year.

As is so often the way of these things it was Oladimeji who introduced Miguel to Garryowen when he arrived in London last October.

Now, two players born in Nigeria and Angola, who learned their GAA in Louth, will try to help a Sligo man win a London intermediate championship with Garryowen. That’s today’s Ireland and today’s GAA.


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