‘People were saying they don’t want non-Irish people playing their sport’

“I’M A BIT nervous about it,” says Boidu Sayeh. “I haven’t done anything like it before. This’ll be new for me.”

The Westmeath GAA star is referring to an annual conference for the Federation of Irish Sport taking place today at the Helix Theatre in DCU.

This year, the topic is inclusivity in Irish sport, with a press release from the event’s organisers highlighting a stat that members of the non-Irish-born population are “61% less likely to be a member of sports club”.

The corner-back will be speaking at the event and believes publicity and making people aware of the opportunities within the community is key to encouraging the involvement of a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds. 

“My mam was saying to me the other day that she knew a lot about the Community Games and the GAA and all that [when Sayeh was a child]. It was easier for me to adapt and go and do it, but a lot of African or non-Irish people might not know what’s going on in the community, or what the Community Games or GAA is about. It’s harder for them to take part, because they don’t know what’s going on. So to get people more aware about the different things that are going on is probably key to it.”

In addition, Sayeh rejects any suggestion that minorities might feel less welcome or comfortable than Irish-born athletes when competing in sport on these shores.

“I think Irish people are very good at welcoming — if you’re new to something, they love including people in things.

“I don’t think it’s the welcoming part, I think it’s more the not knowing what it is part than anything else.

“In my experience with the GAA, it was more people guiding me towards it. 

“I’ve always felt very welcome. Even in my little area, it’s such a small area. It was always: ‘There’s something going on in the community, do you want to pop along?’

“There are asylum seekers living near Rosemount [in Westmeath], where I’m from. Even the Rosemount community people went down to the place they’re staying just to give them information on what is happening in the community and [providing] them with that option to join or not.”

Having progressed through the underage ranks, Sayeh is now part of the senior Westmeath panel. This development, and the publicity he has garnered as a result, has caused his profile to grow. What he has experienced since has not been all positive. He featured in a recent documentary produced by Eir Sport — ‘That One Day’ — in which former Ireland rugby star Tommy Bowe meets inter-county footballers.

Some of the comments underneath [a clip from the documentary] on YouTube, I didn’t realise how much there is a good bit of racism,” Sayeh says. “It was one of those online things. People were saying ‘he’s not Irish’ and whatnot. I didn’t realise it was such a big thing.

“If a lot of people are reading those comments, they’re going to think: ‘I don’t want to start playing Gaelic if I’m going to get that kind of abuse.’ Looking at those comments, it was: ‘Jesus, I’ve never experienced anything like that.’

“I was laughing at it. I wasn’t really [affected] by it. But Eir blocked the comments section, because some of the stuff they were saying was so bad.

“Even the comments on the Facebook, because you can see who is writing it, there are a lot of nice comments and people are friendly. But on the YouTube where you can’t see who it is, there are horrible comments and people were saying they don’t want non-Irish people playing their sport… It’s an Irish sport, not a foreign sport. I was kind of shocked at that, because I’ve never experienced any of that. I have friends who have experienced it, but for me it hasn’t happened.”

Sayeh’s Gaelic football stardom did not come easily. Coming from an impoverished background in Liberia, both Sayeh’s biological parents have passed away, while he lived in the country of his birth with his sister, before being adopted by his Irish-based aunt and uncle in 2004

“My mum’s Irish and my dad’s Liberian,” he explains. “They moved over and they decided to bring me over here to live a better life with a bit of education.”

Sayeh was introduced to GAA in school, shortly after arriving in Ireland, when he was “around nine”.

“Very early on, I was terrible,” he laughs. “I remember playing in goals at U10s, because I could kick the ball, but I couldn’t solo or bounce or anything. Then I started practising a good bit more. I’m a perfectionist. If I want to do something, I’ll try my hardest to do it. I started practising more, so the skills started developing and I started playing better as well. I started developing and got into the Westmeath development squad.”

Sayeh cites July 2013 as a key moment when he started to consider a long-term career in GAA to be a realistic aim. He helped his side pull off a stunning 0-11 to 1-6 victory over Meath in the Leinster MFC semi-final. The subsequent climactic match against Kildare — their first appearance at that stage of the competition in 13 years — proved to be a historic occasion, as they became the first team to field three black players in a provincial final. Israel Ilunga and Sam Omokuro joined Sayeh in the team.

It was then when I started realising: ‘I’m not too bad,’” he recalls. “We beat Meath by a couple of points and it was a bit of a shocker, because we hadn’t beat Meath in so many years at minor and that was our first time getting to a Leinster final in so long. Then playing in Croke Park, it was like: ‘Jesus, I do like this sport. I want to stick at it.’”

These days, Sayeh remains as devoted to GAA as ever. Currently studying Sport and Recreation in Waterford, he regularly makes the two-and-a-half-hour journey back home for training.

And all the hard work appears to be paying off. The season has begun promisingly for Sayeh and his team-mates, after they recently gained promotion from Division 3, beating Laois in the final in Croke Park to take the title. They meet the same opposition again on Sunday in the Leinster Senior Football Championship quarter-final, with Westmeath aiming to be crowned champions of their province for the first time since their sole victory in 2004.

“We’re confident, but we’re just playing it game by game at the moment,” Sayeh adds. “We just have to get over Laois first and then we can start looking ahead.”

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