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The story behind the Pope’s meeting with Lazio GAA and the pic that went viral

Cormac McLaughlin tells The42 about how an O’Neills ball ended up at the Vatican.

Sergio Corsini of Lazio GAA presents the Pope with an O'Neills ball.
Sergio Corsini of Lazio GAA presents the Pope with an O'Neills ball.

Updated at 11.29

GAA WAS ONCE Ireland’s secret pleasure, but such is the nature of modern media that the sport is increasingly being exposed to a wider audience.

Whether it’s British people tweeting about hurling, or China’s biggest reality TV show turning up at a GAA club in Dublin, people are increasingly becoming aware of the existence of arguably Ireland’s most popular pastime.

It consequently may not come as a huge surprise to learn that the GAA’s reach extends to Italy and specifically, Rome. And not only is it played casually, there is also an official Lazio GAA team who were part of an audience with the Pope recently.

The club’s president, Sergio Corsini, even got to meet His Holiness, and the subsequent picture taken, replete with an O’Neills GAA ball, ended up going viral.

“We were astounded,” club secretary, Cormac McLaughlin, tells The42. “People were on our Twitter account. My phone died very quickly, because it was just red hot with notifications. People from Australia and America were retweeting it, the various websites were covering it, we were getting texts from back home…”

It was a big step for a small GAA team who had only earlier in the year applied for membership of the Polisportiva of Lazio, a society of over 50 sporting clubs representing the name of ‘Lazio’.

This year, for the first time in 15 years, the association were invited to an audience with Pope Francis on 7 May in the Vatican City.

It was a special moment, with over 7,000 people in attendance. The club were represented by Corsini, McLaughlin and PRO Renato Boschetti, who were located near the front of the hall; along with 20 other club members, players and families, who were seated further away.

And was the Pope impressed with his gift of an O’Neills ball? What exactly was said during the encounter?

“Sergio said: ‘Well, pleased to meet you, your Holiness, I’m Sergio Corsini, I’m from Lazio Calcio Gaelico, this is an O’Neills ball from a sport in Ireland, it’s a very proud moment to give you this ball.’

“I think the Pope just said something kind of mutual, like ‘pleased to meet you, thank you very much, it’s a very pleasant gift.’ As you can imagine, he was given hundreds of gifts. But it’s a great photo.”

lazio

(The ball that would eventually be presented to the Pope)

The considerable publicity Lazio GAA received from this memorable moment will likely help ensure that the club continues to go from strength to strength in the near future.

The team were set up just four years ago by Chris Taggart, a Rome-based Irishman originally from Castlederg in Tyrone. When he left to teach in Hong Kong, Corsini consequently took over, with McLaughlin appointed secretary.

“Sergio joined the club about four years ago, I think primarily to improve his English,” McLaughlin explains. “But he was very dedicated — he loves Gaelic Football, loves Irish culture. He’s been to Ireland loads of times.”

Corsini is also a big fan of the Lazio soccer team, so one of his first decisions as president was to change the name from Rome to Lazio.

McLaughlin says that while there are “five or six” Irish people involved, the team are comprised of “expats from America, England and Scotland, but are mostly Italian”.

“There was a guy a couple of years ago with us who had played for Laois minors and he was vital to us in terms of demonstrating and making sure everyone knew what they were doing,” McLaughlin explains.

“A lot of our players are American and they’ve all got basketball backgrounds, so they find Gaelic not easy but very attractive. Some of our best players are American. But they just use their hands, as they’re not especially good at kicking.

“We’ve played a couple of Irish teams, we played a team from Wexford who just found us on Facebook, and we actually did ourselves justice. We lost by about seven or eight points, even though these guys had been playing their whole lives.

“We played Castlederg — Chris and I actually grew up there. They came over a couple of months ago and absolutely annihilated us. They beat us by about 30 points, but it was a good experience.”

And given the team’s relatively swift adaptation to Gaelic Football, have they ever considered giving hurling a go as well?

“For our own club, there’s an Irish guy from Dublin, there’s a guy from Louth, I’m from Tyrone, so there’s not much hurling in us.

“But Éamon de Valera’s great grandsons, who are half Italian and half Irish, play with us.
They grew up in Dublin and went to a Gaelscoil, so they’re fluent in Irish, but their mother is from Rome, so they’re obviously fluent in Italian and English too. They’ve brought a few hurls, but I was of the opinion that if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be quite dangerous. So we kind of poured cold water on that one — we did think about hurling, but just decided ‘no’.”

ball

(Lazio GAA pictured ahead of a game in Munich)

However, they are not the only GAA club in Italy — there is one each in Padua and Rovigo, while there has also been talk of a Milan-based team being established.

“[Rovigo] have basically grown because their founder went to Dublin about five years ago and it was the weekend of a big game in Croke Park,” McLaughlin explains. “He saw the crowds and thought: ‘I need to be a part of this’. So he managed to get a ticket, went to a game, and the next day, bought an O’Neills ball, came home and just got all his mates to establish a club.”

McLaughlin, who admits to being more of a soccer player in general, and once played reserve-team football for Finn Harps, explains how they regularly rent a pitch from Roma rugby club and have survived thanks to occasional generous donations from people such as Paddy Power. On occasion, “die-hard Lazio fans, with their big massive flags, wearing their light blue” have even been known to come along and watch the games.

They often play in tournaments abroad and are hoping to travel to Tyrone in order to compete next year, while they may also revisit Kerry, after they were informally invited to play there following a chance encounter in a local pub with Páidí Ó Sé’s son.

A recent tournament in Munich, featuring teams from places such as Warsaw, Bratislava, Vienna and Berlin, was a particular success.

“In Munich, there were 10 teams that played and we came sixth. The team that won it was Warsaw and they were 100% Irish. We had three Irishmen from our club out of a squad of 14 and we had two Irish weekend players. The rest were Italian and American. We shouted all our instructions on the pitch in Italian to try to put our opponents off.

“We finished almost at the top end of the tournament. All the referees were Irish and most of the other teams were all Irish and they were coming up to me, as well as the other Irishmen on the team, saying: ‘Jaysus Christ, fair play to you, this is unbelievable! How have you managed to get all these Italians playing Gaelic and how the hell did you make them so good?’”

You can follow Lazio GAA on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

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Paul Fennessy

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