Starting Monday, 13th June at 8pm on RTÉ 1, Le Chéile tells the story of the groundbreaking East Belfast GAA Club. Clíodhna Ní Chorráin writes about the foundation of the club as a pivotal moment in Belfast's sporting history.
I grew up surrounded by Gaelic Games. Like most children in my parish, I played camogie from a young age and my brother played Gaelic football. It was just a normal, unremarkable part of life, something we took for granted. In Macha Media's latest two part series for RTÉ, however, we had the privilege of documenting the beginning of a brand-new GAA club in an area which hadn't had one for more than 25 years. It’s a story that has given us a fresh appreciation of the importance of sport, and of the GAA in particular, as a way of improving mental and physical well-being and in bringing individuals and communities together.
East Belfast has long been seen as a unionist stronghold. There hadn't been Gaelic sports in the area since the collapse of Sean Martin’s in the Short Strand in the 1990s. When a single Tweet in May 2020 launched a brand-new club called East Belfast GAA, the interest on social media astonished the founders. Macha Media Producer and Director, Antaine Ó Donnaile, has many years of experience in making observational documentaries based in the world of sport, and together we immediately recognised the potential of the story as a pivotal moment in Belfast’s sporting history.
As we delved deeper into our research, we met many Gaeilgeoirí involved in the club, making the story even more compelling for us as an Irish language production company. Of course, Irish in east Belfast is nothing new; over the past decade the Irish language project Turas has done significant work in making the language accessible to the unionist community. Turas was set up by Linda Ervine under the auspices of the Methodist Church in Ireland’s East Belfast Mission. Because of her track record, Linda was invited to become East Belfast GAA’s first President and even though some people warned her against it, she was delighted to be involved: "It shows that if you're one thing, it doesn't mean that you can't engage with something else. Coming from the background that I did, I never heard of GAA, I didn't know anything about GAA, but that has changed."
Over the past year’s filming we have got to know some of the players really well and have heard so many amazing stories. The people we have met included a rookie camóg from Boston who is now club chairperson, a primary school teacher from East Belfast who told us how she turned up to training with "no boots, no hurl and no helmet, because I didn’t really know that you needed those things!", a well-known seán-nós singer from the Waterford Gaeltacht of An Rinn, and a former officer in the British Army who was inspired during his time in Germany to learn Irish and take up Gaelic sports. With more than six months of filming, choosing which stories to feature was the hard part!
On one level, Le Chéile, meaning 'together’, is the story of a Gaelic club – a combination of management issues, of difficult training sessions on wet winter nights, of crucial championship games, of victory celebrations and of defeats. On a deeper level, it’s a story of community and respect for diversity in a divided city. While Belfast still has a long way to go regarding community relations and respect for other cultures and political views, East Belfast GAA could be an example for us all.
Le Chéile starts Monday 13th June at 8pm, the second part is on 20th of June on RTÉ One and is available to watch anytime on the RTÉ Player.