The beacon of Ballaghadereen : The 19th with Joe O’Muircheartaigh

Oh Lisdoonvarna, Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoonvarna……ochón ó, ochón ó.
But thank God for Ballaghadereen.
The beacon that is Ballaghadereen. For hope, for the Céad Míle Fáilte Ireland, for Ireland of the Welcomes and much more.
Ballaghadereen was home to a great sports story last year, one of the most uplifting stories inside or outside sport that would make you proud to be part of or have an interest in the GAA.
Ballaghadereen is a real GAA curiosity — call the place geographically confused. It’s been part of Roscommon since the local government act of 1898, but by then the 14-year-old Gaelic Athletic Association had taken a strong hold in the town and determined to stay loyal to its Mayo roots.
That meant that Ballaghadereen has been both a melting pot for Mayo and Roscommon for well over 100 years.
And no where is the confusion more magnified that when Mayo and Roscommon go into championship battle, like they did at national level for the first time last summer when clashing in the All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park.
The town was festooned in the colours of the rival teams — the green and red of Mayo loomed large, but going shoulder to shoulder with these flags was the gold and blue hue of the Rossies, with locals and visitors alike all part of the banter amid all the bunting.
So it was that this unique atmosphere that is Mayo versus Roscommon in Ballaghadereen penetrated into the new community in the Abbeyfield Hotel in the town, the residents of which were (and still are) the Syrians who moved in earlier in the year as part of the Irish government’s commitment to accept refugees displaced by war.
The Abbeyfield Hotel is a designated Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre.
It was all thanks to Tipperary woman Elaine Mernagh, who is a co-founder of Solidarity — an Irish Volunteer organisation created to help the migrants of Calais. She visited the jungle there many times and after Ireland finally agreed to take in a couple of thousand refugees she became a point of contact with Syrians coming into Ireland.
This is how she met 25-year-old Kamel Sandaan, who is living in the Abbeyfield Hotel.
Mayo versus Roscommon in an All-Ireland quarter-final, she mused. What better way to integrate the refugees into the community than through the GAA; what better way to do it than by getting them caught up in the whole hoopla surrounding the Mayo versus Roscommon as it moved to Croke Park for the first time ever.
And the GAA wasn’t found wanting, with Croke Park eager to play its part by coming up with 50 tickets for the match. A bus was hired and the refugees set off on their first GAA pilgrimage — ‘From Syria to Croke Park’ it was called.
“This is beautiful,” the website called it. And it was that and more — it was special, it was hugely uplifting. and for those who took part and for many looking in, it was a hugely emotional experience.
Let’s just hop on board that Croke Park bus for a few minutes and hear what some of those refugees had to say ahead of the All-Ireland quarter-final.
“My name is Alla,” reveals one supporter. “I come from Syria, from Allepo.”
(It’s estimated by the United Nations that up to 450,000 people have been killed in Allepo over the past seven years — that roughly about four times the population of Clare, so it’s like everyone in Clare being wiped out, killed, exterminated.)
“We live in Ballaghadereen,” says another supporter, “and have been in Ireland for the past four months”.
“Up Mayo,” roars one supporter. “Up Roscommon,” counters another.
Then up in Croke Park, RTÉ’s Daithí Ó Sé gathered amongst all the Syrian supporters in the stand and wonders who they were shouting for. “Mayo,” bellow some; “Roscommon” bellow others.
“A really really fantastic match,” says one supporter on the bus back to Ballaghadereen. “It was grand,” says another, who was clearly as immersed in the local dialect as he was the football.
“I hope I can try this game here in Ireland,” volunteers another.
You can be sure in the seven months since that All-Ireland quarter-final some of the Syrians have tried their hand at Gaelic football with the local club — and at hurling too.
Of course, it’s not only Syrians that have been keen to embrace the GAA. Take the story of Iraqi-born Zak Moradi who lined out with Leitrim in last year’s Lory Meagher Cup final in Croke Park.
“When you play GAA, you become part of the community and part of the culture,” said Moradi ahead of his big day in Croke Park.
And there are similar stories in Clare, stories of how the GAA has played a crucial part in welcoming members of the refugee/asylum seeker population into the county and communities in which they live.
In this regard the story of 12-year-old Mahdi Malekzadah is a special one. He’s the young Afghan boy who was only in Ireland a matter of six months and only playing Gaelic football two months before he won a Cumann na mBunscol an Chláir medal last November in Cusack Park.
Mahdi was playing for Scoil Chríost Rí in their Division 4 final win over St Senan’s from Shannon — by the time the final was played he had yet to pick up much English, but in playing ball showed that the GAA speaks a universal language, one without boundaries or borders in a world without frontiers.
Mahadi Malekzadah, thanks the brilliant work that Scoil Chríost Rí in Ennis and others are doing, is a symbol and poster boy for a New Ireland; Fáilte Isteach Ireland; Céad Míle Fáilte Ireland; Ireland of the Welcomes and the GAA of the Welcomes.
Lisdoonvara, in voting down plans by Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) to house asylum seekers in the King Thomond Hotel by 197 to 15, belongs to a different time.
Oh Lisdoonvarna, Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoonvarna… ochón ó, ochón ó.

ABOVE: Mahadi Malekzadah from Afghanistan in action for Scoil Chríost Rí, Ennis, in last November’s Cumann na mBunscol Division 4 final in Cusack Park.


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