In this weeks Kiladangan Abroad, we make our first journey to Asia where we chat to Tony Gavin who has been farming in the deserts of Saudi Arabia since 1995. Tony talks about his memories of the club and how life is treating him in Riyadh and also stresses the importance of the GAA across the globe. Enjoy!
1. So let’s wind back the clock to a time before you left Kiladangan and tell us what your connection was with the club?
There was sure to be a big GAA interest in the Gavin household in Carrig, Ballycommon. My late Father Pat Gavin, had four of us boys to offer Kiladangan and we all got our turn on the pitch. Dad would set off from Carrig twice weekly, to take us training, rounding up a few more in Ballycommon, all loaded up into the Hillman Hunter car that we had at that time. On occasion when Dad was busy and unable to travel to Puckane, having to face Kiladangan hill on a bicycle would have me question my interest in hurling, but somehow, we always got there!
On match day, up to half the team could roughly fall out of the car, no SUVs then!
Pat Gavin would cheer from the sidelines with his comrades : Jimmy Hogan RIP, Dick Mulcahy RIP, Timmy Ryan RIP and Jimmy Foley - all enthusiastically shouting advice and encouragement to the underage garsuns giving it their best on the pitch. These fine men were also known to step up to the challenge and help with the training process at times too.
Many medals were gained at underage level; my biggest tally was scored in the North Tipp U16 final in Cloughjordan in 1985. We beat Burgess and I proudly scored a goal and a point. Celebrations were had back in the hall in Puckane then, burgers and chips and a few lemonade to wash them down, supervised by the watchful eyes of the father and his comrades.
2. When did you move and what was it like settling in and getting established?
After Secondary School, it was off to Gurteen Agricultural College for me, followed by the Farm Apprenticeship Board for 3 more years.
I left Nenagh in 1991, settling in Cork first, before making the big move to Saudi Arabia in July 1995. In that year I went to work for a large dairy company formerly known as Masstock, now called Almarai (meaning green pastures).
Almarai was founded in the 1977 in Saudi by the McGuigian brothers from Northern Ireland.
Almarai is now the largest integrated dairy company in the world.
Luckily for me there was a GAA club in Riyadh, founded by a Cork man Charlie O Sullivan, in the previous year, 1994. I joined Naomh Alee GAA and once again took up the challenge of hurling training, this time on a sand pitch on Friday afternoons. Like many a good training session the world over, they were followed by a different type of session afterwards, and so began my social life in Riyadh.
Back in the 1990s in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, it was difficult to keep up with the GAA results back home. There was no mobile phone coverage on the farm, and so it was often mid day on Monday before we realised the result of an inter county game.
The only way to see an All-Ireland final back then, was if a friend or family member recorded it and a friend, lucky enough to get home for it, brought back the VHS tape. Censorship laws were very strict at that time and so many a Saudi Customs Officer got to see bits of a GAA match instead of the ‘racy’ stuff that was suspected of being on the tapes!
Today many use GAA Go which is a wonderful online advantage to many an expat the world over.
Thankfully things have advanced a lot here in Saudi, since those earlier days and now the Irish expat is very fortunate to have an Irish Ambassador who hosts the All -Ireland finals live on the big screen in the Irish Embassy in Riyadh. The event is always a cause for celebration, whether you are on the winning or loosing side, involving a bit of grub, with refreshments, the Irish ‘craic’ and a’ good awl Irish session’.
Every year, the club here contests the Middle East League (MEL) and Championships with Men’s and Women’s teams traveling to the surrounding Middle East regions of Dubai, Oman, Sharjah, Kuwait, Bahrain, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, to compete with our regional rivals, for Middle East honours.
I was part of the club competing for many years and in 1996 I was privileged enough to be a team member of the club that won all 4 of the competitions - men’s hurling and football, camogie and women’s football. That was a proud moment for Riyadh GAA and there have been many more over the years.
Of course all of these triumphs were accompanied by celebrations, pre-match, post match and in between! And even the disappointments were marked too!
Naomh Alee have had the honour of inviting and hosting some of the former Great names in GAA history here in Riyadh. In 2015, Aogan O Fearghail who was GAA President at the time accepted the Naomh Alee’s invitation to visit, as we celebrated the 21st birthday of the longest established GAA club in the Middle East. He returned again in 2019, along with 3 times All-Ireland winner and now RTÉ Analyst, Tomas Mulcahy, to share in the club’s 25 year celebrations, both on and off the pitch.
Another proud moment for Naomh Alee came in 2018 when the club was honoured to host 8 times All-Ireland winner, Pat Spillane in Riyadh. In Pat’s own words, the highlight of the trip was ‘the Spillane Festival of Gaelic Games’ held at the club’s home ground and which saw my son Darragh Gavin, accept the trophy as Captain of the winning team - a proud moment for me.
Darragh Gavin in action
3. Can you briefly describe to us your life now, work, family and have you time to be involved in GAA activities?
Back in 1995, I signed a two-year contract to work in Saudi Arabia, attracted by the chance to experience the vastness of an Almarai farm. At that time, little was known of Saudi Arabia, but I had heard of Joe Kelly of Kiladangan Hill, who had worked there and had lived ‘to tell the tale’, as they say. So the promise of gold (or maybe it was oil) had me packing my bags and heading to the airport. Today, some 25 years later I am still impressed by the sheer scale, progress and set up of the huge Dairy farms in the desert. Where day time temperatures during the summer can reach 45 to 46 degrees. I play my part in the company as Manager of Al Badiah Dairy Farm. I manage a herd of 44,000 animals and 690 staff. 21,000 cows are milked four times daily and produce 334 million litres of milk annually on this farm. On average a tanker load of milk leaves the farm every 45 minutes. So with the farm running 24 hours a day, milking and feeding happening 4 times daily and an average of 65 calvings a day there is plenty to keep me busy. We run a fleet of 52 John Deere tractors mostly 6125 M’s and 27 Volvo loaders and 3 L120 loaders with 12 diet feeders on site.
As part of the company PR, tours of the farm are given daily, to outside interests; from schools to visiting Diplomats, and many more different groups in between.
In this context, I was privileged to welcome The Farmers Journal group on the farm back in March 2017. Their account, with pictures can be found at the following link :
I was also honoured to host Ornua, formerly the Irish Dairy Board, and give them a tour of the farm in January 2019. Conor Ryan (CEO) from Arrabawn, Nenagh was part of this tour.
Tony with Michael O'Grady from Abbey Machinery visiting the farm for an after sales service.
GAA wise, the club here has had many Chairpersons over the years, of which I took on the role in 2011 - 2012. Another year, I also trained the Ladies Football team.
Naomh Alee is going from strength to strength and has a Juvenile section with the past 8 years.
Like my father before me, I have taken on the role of bringing my two sons to training on the weekends. Darragh is age 13 and Caolum is 8 years old and both are very committed to the training. I play my part on the pitch with the Juvenile training sessions too.
In January every year, I host the annual derby between Riyadh City players and the farm based ‘country’ staff on a large grass pitch on Al Badiah Dairy Farm. This is a much anticipated day out away from the city, involving a farm tour and a BBQ after the games. There is a men’s and women’s Football competition, and Tug of War competition also, followed by speeches and prize giving. We have been honoured to have the Irish Ambassador and the First Secretary attend the games and present the prizes to the winning teams and the best players.
From time to time, I am asked to step out onto the pitch, sometimes as an umpire, sometimes as a player. I play in goalie position in the football, but still enjoy pucking the sliotar on the field.
So I like to think that the GAA is still alive and kicking in the Gavin household, though be it now in the deserts of Riyadh, in the suburbs of Dublin and Kiladangan itself (with the Annabeg Gavins).
4. Looking back again at your time in Kiladangan, what would be your prominent memory of being around the GAA field in Puckane.
Back in my day, there was a good slope on the pitch. You were sure to be off to a good start if you played with the wind at your back and running down the hill. The second half could be hazardous though with all the play up hill, literally !
5. Assuming you get home for the odd family reunion and holiday, what do you look forward to the most ?
I am fortunate enough to make it home on holiday a couple of times a year. A cold black pint in Ballycommon and a chance to meet up with locals is always high on the agenda.
However it’s getting home in the summer months and taking in a game in Croke Park that I look forward to most. Obviously as a Tipp supporter, it can make for interesting times in my household, with my wife Margaret from the Deise, and as our house is in Cork, and my Mother is originally from Mitchelstown, our two boys can be heard roaring ‘up the Rebels’! Though their Tipperary Uncles, Paul and Paudie and the late David Gavin, have never stopped trying to get them to lose that phrase over the years!
But even their Aunt Mary hasn’t been successful - though she’s tried, buying the Tipp jersey as birthday presents, but they still don the red and white.
Tony with his wife Margaret and sons Darragh & Caolum with former Cork hurler Tomas Mulcahy in Riyadh
6. Tell us a little bit more about your life away from Kiladangan, for instance what is your weekly routine, how do you attack the weekend and what’s a holiday from where you live ?
I work a 5 - 6 day week, 6am to 6pm. Long days, but with lots of variety, both indoors in the office at the computer, outdoors getting stuck in with the herd and daily challenges involving 8 different nationalities, amongst the staff, farm life keeps me busy and holds my interest.
Social life is good. As an expat you mix with many different nationalities, and are invited to a wide variety of inter-cultural events. However there is a large Irish presence in Riyadh too. Consequently there are a number of Irish Societies active in the region:
Irish Business Network ( the IBN), the Riyadh Irish Society (the RIS), and last but not least the GAA. All bring together the Irish community socially, promote Irish culture and business, and provide a source of entertainment for the Riyadh Irish Community throughout the year.
Of course in this heat, there is no shortage of pool parties and BBQs also. Swimming in outdoor pools is an everyday occurrence here and on weekends we pass a fair few hours at the pool. We also cycle and play badminton with the boys.
On the holiday front, I leave that one mostly up to my wife Margaret - she’s the ‘traveller’ amongst us and enjoys exploring different places and cultures. She picks the locations for the most part, plans the itineraries and I happily go along. Due to it’s geographical location, people are encouraged to travel East from here. Hence in my 25 years in Saudi, we’ve been lucky enough to visit a few places; from Sri Lanka, Maldives, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, to Singapore, China, Australia and New Zealand.
Ireland we hope is next ! And with Covid-19, it’s looking greener for us by the day!
Darragh & Caolum on the farm
7. Who is your favourite Kiladangan player, past or present?
Keeping an eye on things from abroad, it is great to see the likes of Willie Connors play during the 2019 season and coming on in the All Ireland final and scoring a point was even better. It makes you feel proud to be part of the Kiladangan community.
8. Finally, do you have a message to send home to Kiladangan ?
‘Congrats’ on all your successes to date, you are a club growing from strength to strength and the new facility in Puckane is a credit to the parish and all involved. Well done.
Secondly, to all the underage players; know that being part of the GAA is like playing a musical instrument, you can take it up at anytime. And no matter where your life takes you or which road you follow, you are sure to hear of a GAA club close by in any corner of the globe. The GAA is a source of friendship worldwide and there you are sure to meet like minded Irish people and taste a bit of your Irish culture abroad and experience ‘home away from home’.
Don't forget - the Kiladangan Lotto has resumed with the next draw taking place this Monday night with a jackpot of €10,700. Enter online at kiladangangaa.clubifyapp.com/products or you can enter in the shops in Ballycommon and Puckane.