‘THE sands of time’ is a particularly fitting saying for the Naomh Alee GAA club as they celebrated their silver anniversary last weekend.
Once again proving that you can’t go anywhere in the world without bumping into an Irish person, the club has been in desert-dominated Saudi Arabia for 25 years now and marked the occasion with a special weekend of festivities in Dublin.
Riyadh, their base, has a population of 6.9 million, which is very close to that of the entire island of Ireland – but it’s a few dozen of those who are keeping Gaelic games alive in this particular part of the Middle East.
Established in 1994, Naomh Alee is the longest established affiliated club in the region.
A founding member and active participant in the Middle East GAA programme, it runs twice weekly training sessions for men and women between August and May.
The club contests the Middle East League (MEL) and Championships with men’s and women’s teams travelling to the likes of Dubai, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain for matches and tournaments.
Winning is one thing but equally as important is the sense of identity that the club brings to Irish people living in the Kingdom.
A home from home, a place to build friendships, working opportunities and, of course, discuss whether or not anyone can stop Dublin from winning five in a row.
Pairc Ishbilia in the Ishbilia Compound is their Croke Park. Randalstown native Aine Sheerin was returned as club PRO at their AGM last month and she explained why the club had become such a beacon of community for those living in Saudi Arabia.
“Like the GAA anywhere it’s a community, but for us in a country where ‘normal’ life is hard to find it helps to give us a sense of normality and the feeling of home,” she said.
“For me personally I wouldn’t have been too familiar with a size four, but I decided to try my hand at it in Riyadh to enhance my social circle too. It certainly has done that.
“Travelling to tournaments across the Middle East and the UAE has not only given me an opportunity to see more countries but the craic and banter that comes both on and off the field is what really makes it special.
“Luckily in my time we have rarely left a tournament without a medal or cup but even if we didn’t it wouldn’t make any difference to the celebrations that night.
“Everyone looks forward to it. I wouldn’t say I’ve ‘played’ a lot of football but I’ve been there, been a member of the team and, more importantly, made friends for life.”
Like many GAA clubs around the world, female participation is steadily growing both on the pitch and in the boardroom. The recent AGM returned five women to the committee, amongst them Sheerin
(PRO), Sandra McGrath (vice-treasurer), Aoife Morley (player’s rep) and Deirdre O’Reilly (youth officer).
The fifth, Brid O’Riordan, was a particularly significant appointment as the Cork native became the club’s first female chairperson.
“It is an honour to have been elected the first female chairperson of Naomh Alee,” she said.
“I was just recently elected back at our AGM. Previous to that I was secretary and I have worked alongside a great team through the years.”
O’Riordan has long been associated with the Naomh Alee and in 2016 she was named Club Person of the Year. The Saudi Arabian club has provided her with a home away from home.
“It has been a great honour to be a part of a hugely successful club in the Middle East and the GAA community world-wide,” she continued.
“I’m sure those that have lived in Riyadh will agree that Naomh Alee is the closest thing you will get to family while living in Saudi Arabia. It is when you travel to tournaments throughout the Gulf that you will really sense the special relationship Naomh Alee players and supporters have amongst each other.
“For the smallest club in the Middle East, we seem to be the closest and never short of the craic.
“On a personal level for me it was an honour to captain the ladies’ team with Orla Noonan and Sinead O’Hara. With a great bunch of ladies as we went on an unbelievable journey of 22 games
undefeated in the Middle East League and Championship during 2016, ‘17 and ‘18.”
And that’s the thing, community is one thing but winning is also held in high regard in the club – and they feel that they are doing a lot of things right in the pursuit of glory.
They enter three teams into the Middle East League, men’s, ladies’ and social men’s, while they operate four teams across a round-robin Riyadh Railway Cup competition each year.
They have an active men’s and ladies’ 40×20 GAA handball club, having commissioned the first Middle East Interclub Handball competition in November 2018, while they also operate the Naomh Alee DCU GAA Academy for six to 13-yearolds having started a partnership with the Dublin university.
The Moynaghs from Cavan have held a long association with the club and current vice-chairman Patrick Moynagh is well known on the Middle East GAA scene.
Administration has been in his blood ever since his days back in Ireland and his support for Cavan – and New York – has certainly kept his interest high in the intercounty game.
“I was chairman of Drumgoon back in 2011 when the club won its second Intermediate Championship title with two of my sons, Killian and Conor (both former Naomh Alee players), lining out that day against Crosserlough in Breffni Park.
“With Killian later lining out with New York to give the Rossies the fright of their lives in Gaelic Park and Conor pushing ahead with Cavan minors, u-21s and seniors as well as Railway Cup duty with Ulster, there is still plenty to keep me on flights to big championship matches back home.”
Moynagh’s journey to Naomh Alee is similar to so many who have emigrated Irish shores in recent years, but he admits that Saudi Arabia rather than the likes of Canada or Australia, was a more unusual choice.
“I joined the Saudi Arabian Central Bank team as Economic Adviser back in 2010. At that time, Ireland was experiencing its own challenges, maybe just beginning to bottom out after the heights of the Celtic Tiger, with the impact of an austerity regime opening the door to emigration to a new batch of Irish emigrants “Dublin’s distress was the stimulus that led a new breed of young, energetic and educated Irish to the emerging, oil-rich environment of the Middle East.
“Now Riyadh, at the heart of Sunni Islam and the capital city of the homeland of Mecca, was probably not the first destination of choice for the young Irish.
“In fact, geopolitical unrest in the region during the early ‘noughties’ had seen a significant reduction in the number of ex-pat citizens in Saudi Arabia.
“But now, as Europe and the US sought to navigate a road to recovery from the economic crash of 2008 and ‘09, the relative wealth of the ‘energy economies’ in the Middle East offered opportunities for professional engineers, architects, financiers, medics and teachers.”
The Kingdom has often made headlines for all the wrong reasons and Moynagh said that the club had not escaped those negative moments.
“Naomh Alee had been established primarily as a hurling and camogie club and affiliated with Croke Park back in 1994. And for nine or 10 years, it thrived.
“But post 2002 following a number of terrorist incidents in Riyadh and the eastern region of Saudi Arabia and up to 2009, the club operated in subsistence mode.
“The membership numbers and GAA players were few as ex-pat sources dried up and the wider Middle East region was adjusting to the new post Sadam Hussein era in Iraq and the pre-Arab Spring tensions simmered.
“I joined the club in 2010, alongside founder and long-time club member Charlie Sullivan, and a bright-eyed Wicklow girl, Gerraine Poole – initially coaching our men’s team.
“This was a mixed group of Irish and non-Irish ex-pats with a wide range of abilities and equally wide age-range.
“But, we pushed ahead, and working with Bahrain and Dubai, structured a series of bi-lateral competitions.
Somewhat to our surprise the team performed well, and was competitive.
“Back in Riyadh, we focussed on getting the club structures right. We pulled a structural committee together, aligned with the Irish Embassy and then Ambassador Niall Holohan, and the other Irish community association, The Riyadh Irish Society.
“The first task was to source a long-term lease on facilities that would allow us define a ‘home’ for the club. Sounds easy except, this was urban and a desert climate and 50 degrees centigrade in the summer.
“There was no grass but, we secured a small, astro-turf hockey pitch. It was behind secured walls which meant we could accommodate men’s and women’s football and hurling.
“Our men’s squad won the Middle East League and Championship in 2012 and ’13 and continued those winning ways. Our ladies’ squad began to flourish and in 2015/16 went on a 22-match unbeaten run, to match the lads’ double.”
Since 2015, Moynagh has also been chairperson of the Middle East Board and was at Croke Park in 2016 to see the Middle East football and hurling teams claim the World Games titles. An added bonus was that they were presented by his fellow Drumgoon clubman and then GAA President Aogan O’Fearghail.
It was just one of a number of exciting moments for Naomh Alee GAA and a bright future awaits.
Moynagh had a message for any Gaels who may be considering Saudi Arabia as a destination or anyone, from any nationality, who may be living in Riyadh and looking for some friendly faces.
“We work hard and train hard as a GAA club. We run the sprints, repeat the drills, fight for dirty ball and yes, we compliment the referee in our own inimitable Irish way.
“But, the Naomh Alee club is about much more than sport. It’s about a broadscale identity, a declaration of community. It’s collegiate, it’s family.
“The Middle East, and Saudi Arabia is very different to Ireland, in lots of ways. It’s different culturally and socially. There is no chapel, no pub, no nightclubs, but Naomh Alee provides a safe, secure network and environment in which many of the norms that we take for granted back home can be exercised.
“A past club member, Imelda Kelly, a wonderful ‘Galway Girl’, once described the GAA club as ‘a bandaid for a homesick heart.’ “So, if you’re coming across to Riyadh or the Middle East, check in and register with the Irish Embassy as step one. And step two, chase down to Pairc Ishbilia on Sunday and Wednesday night from 8pm and be part of the family that is Naomh Alee. You won’t regret it.”