NOW based in Dubai, Macroom native James O’Connell is very much involved in the promotion and development of Gaelic games in the Middle East.
Working with Dell Technologies, O’Connell is a member of the Middle East GAA county board, which oversees the growth and organisation of Gaelic games in the region.
“The GAA in the Middle East is going from strength to strength,” O’Connell told The Echo.
“At the moment there are 16 clubs, male and female, across the whole region. They would be going from Saudi Arabia to the brand new club that was just set up in Cairo in Egypt.
“Of those clubs, there are now seven juvenile clubs as well, which just goes to show the amount of families that are travelling to the region.
“My own club I am heavily involved in is the Jumeirah Gaels based here in Dubai. From a male football point of view, we would have 80 men training three times a week.
“I train the whole club from a men’s point of view and I manage the two senior football teams that we have.
“From the ladies’ point of view, they are exploding altogether. There would be about 115 ladies training three times a week as well.
“Jumeirah Gaels is going from strength to strength and all clubs across the region are finding the same.
“For example, last year we had 60 men training and this year now we have gone up to 80. The amount of young people coming out from Ireland is staggering.
“Us here now in Dubai in the underage, we are just after going over the 100 kids. So next Saturday morning we will have 100 kids playing hurling and football down on a pitch in Dubai.
“The way we run our year out here is we would have day tournaments. There is a championship, which is a one-day event, but it is not like at home where you’d have different rounds on different weekends.
“So we’d run a day championship event and teams would fly in from all the different regions. So a team would fly in from the likes of Riyadh, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and we’d go out to those regions too.
“For the last few years the championship has been held in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi. All teams would go there and you’d play off your entire championship in one day.
“It is a great day out. It is a fantastic community sense as well. You could have anything up to 2,200 Irish people in one place celebrating the GAA. You’d have live music afterwards also.
We have four league events in the year and play up to five matches in that one day. At the end of the four tournaments, you add up how many points you have and you’d have a league winner at the end of the whole thing.”
Between his coaching role with the Jumeirah Gaels looking after the men’s football teams and his involvement in the Middle East county board, O’Connell has plenty of GAA activity to keep him busy.
“On the Middle East board, I am currently the juvenile officer. So I would be looking after those seven juvenile clubs and trying to get other clubs on board as well.
“From a board point of view in the Middle East, our main objective really is to keep games going and support the clubs as best we can.
“Every few years there is a World Games that would be our kind of inter-county competition. But, ultimately, it is creating a community out in the Middle East through Gaelic games.
“It is about keeping the young people out playing and for the older generation like myself, it is about having a sense of community and just giving back really.”
O’Connell had a well-regarded playing career for Macroom. He comes from a family steeped in Macroom GAA, with his father Pat the current Macroom GAA president, while his brother Brendan still plays with the Mid Cork club.
James started in goals for Macroom when the club won the Cork intermediate football championship title in 2010.
“We won a county in 2010 and that was fantastic. It was a great achievement for the club. It was a great achievement for me because I had been at it for 18 years at that stage. So that was a great lift.”