Joe Trolan has lived in South Korea for the last 12 years (Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile)
Life has been a series of decisions and relocations around the world for Joe Trolan. After studying in the USA, he spent 12 years in Seoul where sport still plays a huge role in his life and work. He spoke to Michael McMullan...
The size of the ball may have varied, the continents have changed, but Joe Trolan and sport have never been far apart. His life has been defined by it.
Growing up in Ballinascreen, his evenings pinged between football and hurling, stirred in with Draperstown Celtic's soccer team. Dull moments were scarce.
Now, he lectures in sport management in Seoul. The stamps accumulated on his passport have an interesting story to tell.
As he navigated the globe, the former Derry minor hurling goalkeeper is a walking advert for the slogan 'fortune favours the brave', all with an infectious smile that radiates.
The summer of 1991 saw Peter Stevenson assemble a team to dance with the best that Ireland's underage hurling landscape had to offer. All-Ireland champions Kilkenny exhaled palpable relief as Derry took them to the brink of a semi-final exit.
“I was a mad man in the changing room,” Trolan remembers of that Sunday morning in Croke Park. It took his next door neighbour in Moykeeran, Diarmuid Murray, to calm him down.
On the pitch it was different. The bruises from being peppered by Geoffrey McGonagle's shots in their practice matches that summer prepared him well.
“He was an animal on the pitch,” Trolan recalls. “When we played games, as a 'keeper, I knew nothing could be worse than Geoffrey barrelling down at you.”
Trolan was blown away by the natural skill of Mickey Collins and Rory Stevenson, a 'joy' to watch.
At club level, he played behind Sean 'Farmer' Kennedy and his thou shall not pass was the motto. If the ball got past him, the man wouldn't.
“When you look at that Derry team, there were some serious headcases on it,” Trolan laughs. It was a team bus you'd just love to have been on. He speaks of the mix of personalities. Rivalry, talent and laughter, all merged together.
“When you'd get Squidgy (Sean McWilliams) and Farmer together, they were lunatics. They'd have known each other from the discos in Slaughtneil.”
Club rivalry was parked. Joe asks himself how they all managed to pull in the same direction. But they did. That was the magic of it all.
The late Paddy and Peggy Trolan moved from Brackagh, in Desertmartin, to settle in Draperstown with the building of Moykeeran in the sixties. Joe was one of nine children.
There were four houses in a row, the Trolans, their neighbours Murrays, followed by Gormleys and the Mullans.
The walk up the hill to Straw seemed like a daily pilgrimage, with the gear-bag slung over the shoulder. Pat Joe McKenna, Seamus Doherty and Laurence Groogan would've been preaching the hurling gospel.
“Those lads would've kept you going every night,” remembers Trolan, goalkeeper in Ballinascreen's 1989 winning U16 hurling squad.
After five years of school at St Colm's, three months at St Patrick's Maghera, while he liked it, told him he didn't have 'the appetite' for A-Levels. His parents supported his decision to leave school.
His talents at Draperstown Celtic saw him picked up by Irish League club Coleraine, he signed up for a YTS through the soccer.
“It was in Castlereagh College, in the middle of East Belfast,” Trolan recalls. He'd later follow it up with a BTEC business course in Magherafelt Tech, but the soccer pathway gave him his first break.
Twelve from the YTS scheme and a dozen from the similar programme in the south toured America in 1992, competing against university sides.
“We battered them all,” Trolan remembers. Of '15 or 16' of the travelling Irish party offered scholarships, he was the only one to accept.
“I was like 'why not', my O-Levels were good enough to get me in...I just thought 'let's go and do it'.”
In September 1993, it was off to Florida's Flagler College, a first step in his journeyed career through the education system. A 'month and a half' spell in the summer of 1995 was his longest stint back home.
He was soon back across the pond, to Atlanta, for both a Degree and Masters in Sociology at Georgia State University, followed by a second masters, this time it was in sport.
An absence of a soccer team and a return to his GAA roots with the recently formed Clann na nGael club in Atlanta gave him the a first taste of the home from home feel to the association overseas.
'Half of Bantry', mixed with Cavan and Armagh exiles, saw the club flourish and compete at the North American Championships.
“I remember us winning a Junior B hurling championship one year in Boston,” Trolan adds.
“That was the time the boys flew out from home for a few months. You'd Burnsy (Eamonn Burns), (Dermot) McNicholl, Mickey Boyle and Ollie Collins.
“Some would fly for Labour Day weekend, with others coming out before that and they'd be doing a bit of work.
“You'd see them walking about with their Jordanstown and Queens' shorts on,” Joe laughs.
After eight years in Atlanta, it was a return to Florida for Joe where he began his PhD at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
“It's been so long now, I don't know if I ever will finish,” Joe laughs.
This time, with no GAA, it was back to soccer for his sporting fix. Orlando began a hurling team, Tampa Bay and Augusta had started up,
“There just wasn't the demand where we were,” he explains. “Now it (US GAA Board) is massive, there are regions and even four or five college hurling teams.”
With his American leg coming to a close, in 2009, it was time to get his foot on the employment ladder.
Joe thanks his lucky stars for Banpo Banter, an interactive section of the Seoul Gaels website, named after a part of the city along the Han River where the club trained.
In his mid-thirties, and with his studies behind him, it was time to enter 'the real world' and three job offers sat on the table.
Vermont and Maine, where the two American opportunities lay, didn't have a GAA club, but typing 'GAA in Korea' into an internet search unlocked Joe's future. As the messages and banter began to flow online, he liked what he saw and could feel the warmth.
Seoul Gaels was founded in 2002 by a group of Irish teachers who came over for the World Cup and the lifestyle appealed to them enough to look for work and stay.
“The lads sounded like they were up for a bit of craic,” Joe says with a smile. “That made my mind up, I am going to go to Korea...I wanted to get back playing. I said I'll go to Seoul, have a bit of craic for a year and go back to the US.”
Joe in action during the Asian Gaelic Games.
Now, 12 years on, he is still there and loving life. After an initial one-year contract, he is now Assistant Professor in Hankuk University, where he lectures in sports management, development and community. On the GAA front, he was Chairman of the Asian Board and still plays a role on the committee, as Assistant Development Officer.
“I landed here in March 2009, joined up with the Gaelic and soccer teams over Paddy's Day,” Joe begins. That's when the penny dropped of the magnitude of the Asian GAA community. The names begin to roll off his tongue. Japan, Shanghai, Singapore...they all had teams.
Later that year, the Asian Games Gaels took place in Bangkok with 60 teams involved – men and women. At the heart of it was Derry native John Campbell who founded Thailand GAA two years earlier.
“After that tournament I said 'I'm staying in Asia',” beams Joe, one of over 800 Irish exiles in Seoul. “I got to meet people from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Beijing, Hong Kong...everywhere.
“That convinced me to stay, The university was fantastic, the people were great and as a bonus...the Gaelic was unreal.”
The hurling was 'peripheral' at the tournaments initially until an Irish influx – that included former Offaly player Gary Hanniffy – saw the sport grow. Trolan describes Vietnam as 'a hotbed' of all things GAA, with so many Irish are moving over.
“We have 24 clubs in Asia,” he points out. “We don't realise how many people are out here until tournament time and then everybody comes out of the woodwork.”
There are local tournaments, as well as the separate Southern and Northern Asian Gaelic Games.
“For the main one, the (overall) Asian Gaelic Games, you are looking at over 900 people showing up and another couple of hundred who turn up to party and socialise...it's a big deal,” said Trolan, a recent Hall of Fame winner, a trophy named after the late Brian Conlon from Newry-based First Derivatives, one of their sponsors.
The games are seven minutes each way, with a two minute break in the middle. Friday night is the opening ceremony followed by wall to wall games on the Saturday. If you closed your eyes, it could be a GAA tournament anywhere in the world. By Sunday, the numbers are thinning out as the play-offs taper off towards the various finals.
“When you get knocked out, you start drinking and enjoying the craic,” Joe utters, with another infectious smile.
On the Sunday night, the 'all you can eat and drink' banquet has an annual fancy dress theme, with the Presidents of both the GAA and Ladies Football boards in attendance. An awards' ceremony is factored into the festivities.
“It is mayhem, but good mayhem,” Joe continues. “Last year we had Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion out, those two lads had a brilliant time and were blown away by the interest in GAA out here.
“For us, it is all about the community, getting together and having a bit of fun, while making connections. It means where you go in Asia, you have someone to link in with and we'd always meet up...that's what happens with the GAA.”
At the tournaments, he'd hear pockets of ex-pats conversing in Irish and was 'pleasantly surprised' to hear the 'cúpla focal' in areas of Seoul.
While there is a bustling Irish community, 'a little' under half the players would be non-Irish, a mixture of different nationalities.
“On the women's side, there are a lot more locals playing because it is non-contact and players can pick (the ball) off the ground,” points out Trolan, who was Chairman of the Asian Board at the time the pick-up was taken out of the men's game.
“We went to Croke Park and asked for a deviation and it was granted, so we kept it,” he explains.
“It is one of the hardest skills for a lot of people and it was slowing the game down and frustrating a lot of the non-Irish, so we got rid of it.”
Trolan speaks of locals playing the games in China and 'three or four' of Seoul Gaels' senior team being native Korean, a side that played in numerous finals.
In another development, Trolan was central to starting a separate Youth Asian Gaelic Games, with around 250 players in action, at every age group from U6 to U16. In Singapore, there is even a children's officer going around schools and GAA is beginning to appear on the PE curriculum.
“The lads in Hanoi have 40 Vietnamese kids out on a Saturday playing football,” Trolan states. It's tremendous progress.
At the older age of the scale, the vibrant scene offers social football to everyone. Joe remembers joining in at Ballinascreen football training a few years back on a visit back home.
“I was never so black and blue in my life. I forgot how fast it was and how hard people hit,” he laughs.
“I am 46, there is a social hurling scene starting (back in Ireland) but if you are over a certain age, there is not much there playing wise.”
Seoul is different, with players continuing into their late fifties with the junior teams, all for a bit of craic. Win or lose, there is a can of cold beer and banter on the sideline. Nobody is judged on their skill level or their physique.
“The life is good here, the standard of living...even during the pandemic, life has been normal,” Joe admits.
There were some restrictions, but no lockdown. Going to a restaurant or grabbing a coffee was the norm.
He fits in a seven-mile run every day, with a longer one on Saturday and charges the batteries on a Sunday, as he gets himself primed for marathons.
While he regrets not continuing to learn Irish in his younger years, he is trying his hand at Korean. The alphabet and reading it is easy, but speaking is a different story.
“It is so hierarchical, with so many levels,” Joe concedes. “If we are out for a meal and I try to speak it, people will look at my wife (Helen) wanting to know what I am saying...so I pass the puck to her.”
Joe and his wife Helen during a trip to Shanghai.
They live in the suburbs of Seoul, in Gwangju, close to work and a 20-minute bus journey from the city centre where the main university campus is.
“We are surrounded by farmlands and I can smell slurry, it's just like home,” he jokes. The transport network, he states, is the best in the world. Bus and train lines, all interlinked...you can get anywhere in the city for less than a fiver,” he continues.
Will he return to Ireland? If a similar job comes up at home, he might consider it. Growing up he never thought he'd have ended up in America, let alone spend 12 years in Korea.
“Now I am here, I don't know what will happen next, don't close the doors on opportunities,” he adds.
Instead of Vermont or Maine, in small-town America, Joe ended up in a city of 15 million people.
“I would've loved wherever I had ended up and had a good time,” Joe sums up. “But I am really glad I ended up in Seoul...with the football, hurling, getting involved in the Asian County Board and I met my wife. It took me on a nice trajectory.”
Thank God for Banpo Banter.
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