Cairde Khmer has been making waves across social media as of late following a recent video of theirs that went viral on TikTok. But the club’s history and its continued success in Cambodia goes much deeper than that, its chairperson Ronan Sheehan tells me.
Founded six years ago and based in Phnom Penh, Cairde Khmer has both male and female GAA teams and is currently raising funds to visit Derry in 2023. But how did Ronan become its chairperson and how did the club come to be?
Ronan was raised in Kanturk, a small town set in the rural meadows of Duhallow in north Co. Cork. As a child, he was very early steered towards music and sport. He grew up in a large family of seven where he shared a bedroom with his brothers.
The walls were adorned with music posters of bands of the time like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, with plenty of Man Utd posters and Cork GAA newspaper pullouts.
Both music and sport were key to his childhood and there were guitars, balls and hurleys scattered around the house. “It didn’t take very long before I began plucking on strings, kicking winning points in the back garden and taking the heads off all the flowers with a hurley in the front garden!” he says.
As Ronan got older he got more into sports and GAA and there was a huge buzz surrounding their under-14s teams. In fact, they had future Cork stars in their ranks including Lorcan McLoughlin, Aidan Walsh and Anthony Nash.
It was the beginning of the rise of the club which at the time was junior and now sits proudly in the senior ranks in both codes. From spring right through to winter you were guaranteed to be involved in some fixture or other because of the strength of the teams. “Magical days really for any sport-minded teenager,” Ronan adds.
Despite this strong sports pull in Ireland, Ronan had to leave in 2011 during the recession and banking crisis. He worked as a retained firefighter at the time but grew severely frustrated with the cutting of public sector wages and so took off around Europe, working in Manchester before doing seasonal work in the French Alps during the winters and the lakes of Northern Italy during the summertime.
But what Ronan really wanted to do was head to Asia.
And so, he saved up enough to do a TEFL course in Thailand and then packed his bags for Cambodia, eight and a half years ago.
Initially planning to do short work in a language institute before moving around Asia, he remained working and developing in education here and now works as Student Support in an International school called CIA First. “Absolutely no affiliation with Uncle Sam, I promise!” he jokes.
Cairde Khmer started in 2017
Ronan began as a member of the club from the off-go as a player. The club initially just started as a coming together of some Irish ex-pats and friends who could enjoy GAA in Asia. It soon became apparent however that it was going to become so much more.
Ronan began to help out behind the scenes around 2019, at which point it was an only Irish affair with three Cork men and a Corkwoman and a man from Tyrone running the show.
“I took over as Chairperson in 2020 and it has been an eclectic mix in the backroom since then,” he says. Since its inception, there have been English, Canadian, American, Australian, Cambodian and Irish people involved in Cairde Khmer.
Ronan tells me that he feels very lucky to have had such dedicated and passionate committee members over the years.
Initially, the club was made up of friends of the founders and even now how they gain traction is mainly through word of mouth. But a newfound interest appeared when they rejigged their training time.
“We attracted the attention of young Cambodian players who were training AFL just before us,” explains Ronan. “They saw us getting our gear and balls out after they had finished and they were intrigued. Of course, we invited them to play and the Cambodian connection really grew from here.”
Ronan adds that coaching has been very amusing for the most part. He says that watching people from so many different backgrounds trying to wrap their heads around the “solo” has been quite the challenge.
As Ronan and Conor (founder and president) speak Khmer, training is led in both Khmer language and English but it also includes plenty of dramatic hand gestures and sweeps of the leg in demonstration.
According to Ronan, one of the biggest successes Cairde Khmer have had so far has been managing to keep the club going.
“We’ve been successful in Asia as we won the 2019 South Asian Games and Asian Gaelic Games tournaments in the men’s junior categories,” he says. “Obviously being chosen to represent Asia at the upcoming World Games has to be the crowning achievement so far, yet when I see a young Cambodian perfect the solo, even if only for a fleeting moment, it ranks right up there also!”
The challenges Cairde Khmer face revolve around many things. Holding onto players can be difficult as players from the ex-pat community come and go. However, they usually retain the Cambodian contingent for the most part.
Ronan says that funding is also another big challenge. Their Khmer players come from tough backgrounds and getting passports, flights, accommodation and such at overseas tournaments around Asia certainly takes its toll.
So, what about getting Cairde Khmer to Derry?
Cairde Khmer received the momentous news that the club has been chosen to represent Asia in the upcoming World Games in Derry in July 2023. But this in itself is no easy thing to organise.
“The campaign to get players to Derry has been monstrous and magical in equal measure, to say the least,” Ronan says.
“I remember clearly receiving the invitation. The initial excitement was curbed by the thought of just how much work this would all involve. We spoke about it and decided to go for it. That excitement came
rushing back as we put the GoFundMe live and announced to players and our small audience of the momentous news.”
The reality came roaring back in rather quickly after this though and Ronan admits that it’s been a tough slog. Passport arrangements, fundraising, visa applications, sponsorship proposals, and embassy meetings can be overwhelming at times.
“And the little things, like food. Rice is king here and Cambodian cuisine is unlike other cuisines around the world. Uncle Ben’s Boil in the bag just won’t cut it!” he muses. The committee have even been reaching out across Derry for Asian restaurants to try and arrange meal packs.
“If anyone has ever been involved in the pursuit of an All-Ireland ticket, and how you can be led almost around the entire country through the great granny of your dog twice removed on your father’s side to even get a sniff of getting your hands on one. There are similarities with this!”
“As grim or as impossible as it has seemed at times, there has always been a way,” he says. “To watch the story grow legs and work its way around the world has been mesmerising. We’ve been very fortunate that so much media has jumped on the story and given it the voice it deserves”.
Cairde Khmer have just selected the squads also that will travel as they are limited to 13 players per squad.
Though the players not selected were disappointed they were ultimately overjoyed for their teammates.
“And of course for the players travelling, well the news of making the cut has seen excitement levels go through the roof,” he adds.
TikTok has been a great tool for the club with more recent videos reaching over 100,000 views.
“The responses from people to various social media content have been uplifting also,” Ronan tells me. “To see the connection grow between what’s going on here to someone in a far-flung corner of Ireland or otherwise is modern life essentially”.
Ronan describes it as heartwarming that people feel some sort of connection or association with a whole tribe of people about as far removed from their situation as could be.
“It enforces that we are all one on this planet and essentially no matter your background, our similarities are far greater and more powerful than our differences”.
And Cairde Khmer’s long-term plans for the future?
Ronan says that the ultimate goal would be to pass the baton to the Khmer club members. While there are Khmer people involved, the bulk of work has been through the main Irish founders and runners of the club.
“It would be fantastic to grow the interest in the behind-the-scenes work amongst the Khmer members and let them take it over and push the club out in their own unique vision,” Ronan says. “Watching how they overcome challenges on the field and continue to excel and grow, we imagine the direction they would take the club would be special indeed.”
“It would be even sweeter if this could grow beyond just being a one-club town/country. If it could expand enough so that other clubs started to mushroom around the area and provide this wonderful sense of community that we all bask in that is sport, would be the icing on the cake. Baby steps….”