Ballyhaunis hurling gets a boost from Muslim hurlers
By Mikey Stafford
It's the morning of the First Holy Communion in Ballyhaunis and the numbers at the training session of the Under 10s and Under 12s hurlers are less than usual. Most of the panel is at the church, scrubbed and obedient, watching their siblings perform the Catholic rite of passage.
Watching Trainer Pete Higgins, aided by his son Keith – a Mayo football and hurling star – put the remaining lads through their drills, it becomes apparent that for many of these youngsters; the First Holy Communion is unlikely to ever be an impediment to a match.
Among the Mayo GAA jerseys and ubiquitous Premiership replica shirts are the Pakistani cricket kits favoured by team's Muslim members.
The establishment of the Rafique meat plant 30 years ago led to the attraction and subsequent integration of a large Muslim population to the east Mayo town.
In the eyes of most of the country, Mayo hurling ranks as highly as Kilkenny football – not at all. For the majority of the Ballyhaunis hurling club's 20 years in existence, the Pakistani puckers have bolstered the faltering underage numbers. And according to Pete Higgins they're not just making up the numbers.
“Their striking of the ball is superb, because of the cricket, they've a great eye for the ball,” he said. “Maybe in that one aspect of the game they're even better than the Irish lads.”
Indeed, six of the Ballyhaunis primary school's 11-a-side county finalists are Muslim. But it's their attitude rather than their skill that has endeared them to this veteran campaigner. “The young fellas have fantastic discipline and manners, their parents are very cooperative, the lads are always collected on time and never left waiting after training,” says Higgins.
But many of these natural hurlers will never line out for the club's senior team. “When they're younger we get great commitment, but as they get older it's harder to get them to come to training.”
“They're expected to pay their own way from the age of 15 on, so they work or go to college,” says Higgins
Thus, for the Muslim teenager hurling is relegated to childsplay. And as the minors candidly discuss, childsplay can often be rough.
Mayo County minor, Kamran Af Zal, told of a Mayo championship match three years ago throughout which racist insults were thrown at himself and his three Muslim teammates.
“We bet them and afterwards we told the manager that they were being racist towards us, so they got banned for a while,” says Kamran.
Familiarity has breed acceptance and the boys report that less racist incidents when they play within the county.
The GAA operates a zero-tolerance policy in such cases spearheaded by Croke Park's multicultural taskforce.
And it appears to be working, the teenagers agree that, while widespread, racism on the pitch is less prevalent than before. “It's not just in hurling, it's in football too. It's getting better though, people are more understanding,” says Ayaz Ul Hussan.
The Mayo minor championship ended recently, with Ballyhaunis enjoying a convincing victory over Ballina in the “B” final. While happy with the victory, the lads were disappointed not to get a crack at Tooreen – the kingpins of Mayo hurling. The final against Ballina was particularly satisfying for Zia Shafique.
“I normally play corner back, but in our last game in the county final I played full forward and scored a goal and two points when we beat Ballina – I was lucky.”
The 17-year-old is touted as an incredible natural ability but the boys believe it's an ingrained love of cricket that enabled them to pick up hurling quicker than most.
Ballyhaunis Club Chairman Donal Moran said the GAA was the only method of integration for many of the local Muslims. “They don't go out for a pint, but that is changing,” he said. “You'd wonder would that [hurling] be changing the way they perceive themselves, could it lead to a loss of culture?”
“Or will they be like the Irish when we went over to American and Britain, who kept their Irish identity? I suppose the GAA had a lot to do with that too.”
Religious obligations might not inhibit their hurling in May, but Higgins says it's a different story later on in the year: “One thing is Ramadan falls right in the middle of our under-16 season in September. The boys turn up to training and they're barely able to hold a hurl.”
But they still turn up – their year-round hunger for hurling undiminished by the September fast.