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Naoise Ó Baoill: Japan, Australia and the Ulster final

GAOTH Dobhair. The edge of the earth. A place where rain clouds go for their summer holidays and the smell of turf hangs in the air like a protective ozone layer.
Gaoth Dobhair. The antithesis to the blazing sun of Sydney and the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Gaoth Dobhair. After Japan and Australia, now home to a young Naoise Ó Baoill who is confused by the weather, the language and this sport called Gaelic football that dominates conversation amongst muintir na háite.

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Ó Baoill’s journey to Sunday’s Ulster Club final hasn’t exactly been the road well travelled and to discover the journey you have to take a 20,000-mile trip around the globe.
“If someone asked me where I’m from I wouldn’t know what to say,” said Ó Baoill who has Irish, Japanese and Australian flags adorning his Twitter bio.
“My dad (Colm) is from Gaoth Dobhair, he was born in Dungloe and my mum (Kumi) is from Japan, she was born in Tokyo. Her parents now live in Fukuoka, which is a south-western island.
“Dad did a degree in Irish in Trinity and Limerick when he was younger and he decided that he wanted to travel.
“My mum, she did PE teaching in college, gymnastics, and she also worked with an airline behind the desk in the airport to save money because she always wanted to learn English.
“She booked a flight in Australia and that’s where they met.
“Things started to take off. Dad brought Mum back to Ireland to meet the family and Dad did the same in Japan.
“I think Dad got offered a job in Japan with Toshiba or Hitachi, one of them anyway, and they moved to Japan.
“My older brother (Caoilte) and sister (Mide) were born in Tokyo and Dad always wanted to have a son born in Ireland.
“So they came back to Ireland and I was born in Letterkenny in 1997.
“I stayed there for a few months and then we went back to Japan and we were there for a few months as well.
“After that Dad got offered a job in the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney so we moved to Australia at the start of the 1998.
“I lived there until 2009, my whole childhood was in Sydney, and then it was back to Ireland.”
When it came to sporting endeavors, the soccer pitch – and the odd excursion to the Aussie Rules field – was where Ó Baoill spent most of his time.
“Me and my siblings had a lot going on, we just loved sport growing up,” he said.
“Mum, we were so thankful for her, she drove us around everywhere for sports.
“My brother was big into Aussie Rules and played at a fairly high level at underage.
“I only played one year of Aussie Rules, I was more into soccer.
“I played as a striker, I was small and fast so that’s all I could do. It was just club and school level really.
“Dad took us to some GAA day in Sydney, I just did not know what was going on.
“That was my experience of the GAA until I was about 12 years of age.”
His next experience could not have been more different.
Standing on the exposed Magheragallon pitch, where the chilling winds from the Atlantic Ocean always paid a visit, Ó Baoill watched unfamiliar people playing an unfamiliar game using an unfamiliar language and he pined for the warm comfort of Schofields in New South Wales.
When the shivering finally stopped, the boots were put away – and they were to stay away, he declared.
“It was really, really tough because I had to leave all my friends behind,” he said.
“I remember crying a few times and wanting to go back to Australia.
“I still remember my first training session, it was absolutely pissing rain, freezing.
“I was going to quit. There was no way I was going to do that ever again.
“You wouldn’t get that in Australia. You were going from pure heat to that and it was just pure nuts.”

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Naoise Ó Baoill to Odhrán MacNiallais to Daire Ó Baoill – goal. Gaoth Dobhair 1-2 Crossmaglen 0-3.

Odhrán McFadden-Ferry to Naoise Ó Baoill to Daire Ó Baoill – goal. Gaoth Dobhair 2-3 Crossmaglen 0-4.

The relationship on the pitch between the Ó Baoill cousins shouldn’t come as any surprise.
They have lived in each other’s pockets for a decade now, and it’s a safe bet that if it wasn’t for Daire, Naoise wouldn’t have an Ulster Club final too look forward to.
It may also be a safe bet that Gaoth Dobhair wouldn’t either given that Naoise has been directly involved in five of their seven goals in the Ulster Club Championship.
“One of the main things that helped me through was Daire because he’s the same age as I am,” he said.
“We went to school together and brought me to football where I met so many good friends.
“I had no Irish at all. I finished sixth class in Australia, or it was near the end of the year anyway, so when I came over here I decided to do sixth class again.
“That gave me an extra year before going into the secondary school and that allowed me to build up my Irish.”
Others had an influence too, like Daire’s father Brendan and other coaches in the club.
Then there’s Tom Gillespie, or Tom ‘Beag’ as he is known around the Gaeltacht.
Every club has their Tom ‘Beag’, the man that isn’t just a coach, but an inspirer, a guider – a father figure.
Carlow coach Steven Poacher recently told the story about the time Tom ‘Beag’ attended his coaching conference in the heart of the Mournes.
Tom’s journey from one part of paradise to another involved three buses, a taxi and a night in a B&B near Kilkeel. All in search of that one nugget that he could take back to the coaches in Donegal.
Those nuggets picked up over the years added up to success with the club enjoying a number of underage triumphs, most notably an Ulster U-21 crown last March.
“I was introduced straight away to Tom ‘Beag’ and the boys,” Ó Baoill continued.
“Daire’s dad Brendan had a big say in the underage thing too, so it took off from there.
“It became life then, just playing football and enjoying myself.
“It definitely took a while to get up to speed.
“I remember the first game I went to. We were playing Termon underage and Cian Mulligan took the ball in the middle of the park, ran the whole way and scored a goal. I didn’t know what was going on.
“It was maybe u-14 or u-16 where it started to click for me, Tom really helped me to develop.
“We see him as such an icon in our club. All the u-21 boys appreciate just how much he has given up for us. I don’t mean to sound cringey, but I feel like we’re his family in a way.
“He finds joy in seeing us succeed so we’re just trying to make him proud and pay him back for all he has done for us.
“The year we won the minor I think we completed over 100 training sessions. The Donegal minors made it to the All-Ireland final against Kerry so the competition was dragged out, so it meant we spent so much time together.
“We were all so close to each other.”

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There’s a tension in the air and Ó Baoill doesn’t have to try too hard to pick up on it.
It’s 2016 and Gaoth Dobhair’s devotion to self-destruction remains unshakable. Two county titles (2002 and 2006) since 1961 is a pitiful return given the talent that has come through the club, and now St Eunan’s have moved level with them at the top of the Donegal roll of honour.
In-fighting, fondness of the drink, a lack of commitment – Gaoth Dobhair have had the ‘reasons for failure’ track on repeat and there’s no sign of the volume dipping.
The jukebox is playing a new song now – ‘them and us.”
The dressing room has been completely transformed thanks to an influx of players that have been winning all the way up but it has been far from a smooth transition.
Their hopes of getting out of the group stages are squashed by a humiliating 13-point loss to Naomh Conaill. 2016 has been a year to forget.
They actually made it to the semi-final in 2017 but the Glenties men again prove their undoing.
Manager Mervyn O’Donnell had seen enough shoots of recovery in his first year of charge though, and he set about breaking down the barriers.
Old hands like Kevin Cassidy were talked down off the retirement ledge, and the mission statement of unity was preached.
In the past it had fallen on deaf ears but this time the message seeped through.
“I don’t want to be cocky but we’re used to winning,” Ó Baoill said of the young players coming into the senior squad.
“That group didn’t lose a game from u-15 or something so we have that winning mentality. There’s no panic, we know we have the ability to win games.
“Transitioning into seniors was extremely difficult at the start though.
“I think there was almost like two different teams, ourselves and the older ones, and we couldn’t really gel.
“Now it’s completely different and we have such good relationships with the likes of Cass, the two McGees, Odhrán MacNiallais, ‘Ginger’ (Christopher McFadden).
“I think we were missing that bond over the last couple of years.
“My first year (2016) was just a complete mess, boys were just fighting against each other. It was painful to watch.
“We didn’t have that at underage at all, we were just one unit.
“It may have taken a while, but this year at senior we finally turned it around.”
Who better to test that belief on that Naomh Conaill, the team that seemed to always be waiting at every crossroads?
Seven unanswered second-half points helped them to a 0-12 to 0-6 group win back in the summer and when the sides met in the Donegal final, O’Donnell’s men were in complete control as they won by seven points to secure Gaoth Dobhair’s first county title in 12 years.
A first-ever Ulster Club win followed against Cargin before they raised four green flags to defeat Crossmaglen in the semi-final.
Four goals, the same number as they had managed in the Ulster u-21 quarter-final against Antrim’s Rossa and in the final against Derry’s Lavey.
Now they were doing it against the most successful club in the history of Ulster football.
People were now sitting up and taking notice, not least Joe Brolly who has never hidden his love for the Rangers.
“Your wee number 11 could get in and out of the house through the cat flap,” he tweeted about Ó Baoill in reference to his small stature.
As a fragile youngster playing underage football, jibes about his height used to feel like a punch in the gut.
Ó Baoill had two options. Take the bait and react or play out of his skin to show that smaller players can be just as effective. He chose the latter.
The last laugh has been his. Titles flooded in at underage level and now they’re arriving at senior level too.
He’s played minor and u-21 for Donegal and also represented his county in the 2017 Dr McKenna Cup when Declan Bonner opted for an experimental squad. There can be no doubting that he will now be back on Bonner’s radar when this club season eventually ends.
“In some cases when I was underage my marker would be laughing at me before the game even started,” he said.
“That annoyed me and I just wanted to show that I could play good football, that I could be an asset to a team.
“I’ve always been a small person and it’s been frustrating. What can I do?
“In recent years Ryan McHugh has shown what you can do. Obviously he’s not as small as me but I feel I’m a similar type of player.
“I try and model myself on him, pick up what I can from his game.”

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Ó Baoill may have only rocked up to the Tír Chonaill county in 2009, but his assimilation is now complete.
When he’s not studying biomedical science in Maynooth, he’s serving pints in Teach Mhicí along with teammates Daire Ó Baoill, Niall Friel and Dan McBride.
Travelling is still very much at the heart of his family’s story with his brother Caoilte now residing in Berlin while his sister Mide spent five years touring with the Riverdance and Lord of the Dance troupes.
For now though, Naoise’s heart is in Gaoth Dobhair and helping to bring more pride back to the area.
Beat Scotstown in Omagh in Sunday and the bonfires will once again be lit in the townlands.
“You can just tell that the locals are really, really excited,” said Ó Baoill.
“The weekend before the county final, there was a man in just shaking talking to us about it.
“That’s how much it means. It’s a big time for the club and we’re determined to do them proud.”
No mater what happens this weekend, the 2018 team will be talked about in An Bun Beag, Cnoc Fola agus Na Doirí Beaga for years to come.
Ó Baoill doesn’t want to stop now though. He’s simply come too far not to finish the journey.
n.mccoy@gaeliclife.com

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