A Hurling Life Less Ordinary

  • “My dad’s friends, a lot of them were living in Sweden, and a lot of them have gone back but it’s different for a young fella like me, I call Ireland home cos I’m brought up here. I’m part of this culture and I consider myself Irish.”

Sunny Leitrim 4 July 2002. Zak Moradi arrives in Ireland. Eleven years old. His family Iranian Kurds, forcibly moved to Iraq along with 20,000 other Kurds following the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq. The legacy of that conflict can still be seen to this day, but one of the unintended outcomes of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini in France and the introduction of Islamic rule in the previously liberal Iran, is that the Leitrim hurling team acquired a committed and skilful player in Zak Moradi.

“I love hurling and I love the craic. We’re very lucky as a family the way things have turned out for us and I’m very happy with life here.”

But he can’t help but reflect on the circumstances that led him and his family to Ireland in July 2002. Zak explains: “I suppose it all started back in 1979 Iran was like the west, it had a king and queen, in the Shah of Iran and his wife, next thing the Ayatollah who has been in exile in France returned and changed the whole system back to an Islamic country.”

Iran was very close to America but they fell out with west as Zak describes it. Revolution kicked in. “In 1978 the Shah decided to hold what he described as the biggest party in the world, the billion dollar party. It was the final straw, the people got sick of it. They watched the Royal family spend money on themselves. I suppose that’s how I ended up here eventually.”

Although commonly described as Iraqi, the Moradi family are Kurdish Iranian, among the ten million Kurds living in a region close to Iraq and Turkey, and although technically born in Iran, Zak never held a passport. His status is officially still that of a refugee and he hopes to gain Irish citizenship very soon.

Zak explained “Most Kurds say they’re from Kurdistan but we ended up living in a refugee camp in Iraq. In 1981 our parents moved there with about 20,000 other Kurds when the Iraqi army took over.

When we ended up there we only thought it would be a few months. I didn’t know growing up that it was a refugee camp, to me it was normal and my home. We did normal stuff, we went to school for a couple of hours a day, we played football out in the street, we messed around with the other young lads.

Living it Up Down in Ramada

“I was born there; thank God I was always healthy and normal. When I moved over here it was then I realised it was two completely different countries. There we had Iraqi Police with guns, everywhere here and there, alongside side kids playing and games going on.

“Kids now don’t realise how handy they have it with iPads and games and stuff they get what they want. I see my nieces and nephews,” and Zak laughs, there was none of that back in Iraq when I was growing up.

How did they end up moving to Ireland?

“Actually my eldest brother was working in the refugee camp offices. The Iranian government weren’t taking anyone back because of the war so we had no real homeland. It was decided to bring the Kurds to nations around the world. With the eldest brother working in UN office it helped, where he started as cleaner and ended up as main man because he was able to talk English. He says to me da one day, ‘I think we need to get out of here there’s a war brewing.’ Some of the UN people had told him what was going on, and according to the UN the Americans going to invade. We needed to get out of there sharp.

“I think there were three countries we could go, my da says just bring us to a country with a bit of peace, he says bring us to Ireland there is a  bit of peace there, of course we didn’t know where we were going. Hadn’t a clue.

“It took about six or seven months, we could have been in Ireland earlier but my da ended up in prison for complaining about his wages and hours working for an oil company, they threw all the staff in prison. 150 of them got locked up in prison. My dad and the others were paid to work six or seven hours a day and they were forced to work fifteen so they got fed up with it. The whole company decided to leave. Everyone worked for the government so they got pissed off and locked them up. Some of my relatives in Sweden sent a few bob to help us get out of Iraq.

  • “I remember we were watching a soccer match, Iraq were playing Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia beat them, three nil I think it was, but on the Iraq TV it said that Iraq had won four nil or something like that. Iraq would never lose a soccer match and we were told we were going to the World Cup. And people here give out about the Sunday Game!”

Life Under Saddam

“Saddam’s regime was normal to me; we were warned never say anything about Saddam and every kid in the country was the same. He had double agents working everywhere.

“People wouldn’t trust their own family members; we had four or five TV stations they were all about Saddam Hussein. You wouldn’t see any movies at all it was all about Saddam and how great he was. Every street you’d go down in Iraq there was a picture of Saddam, every book you open and there was a picture of him.

“Obviously looking back, it was a dictatorship country where the whole country was brainwashed but when you’re 11 you believe all that and when you’re young fella you get brainwashed easily. The whole country was like that. All brainwashed.

“We were delighted get out of there, but I wouldn’t really have known where Ireland was, all we knew was we were coming to a country in the West.

“We wouldn’t have been educated about other countries; everything was all about how great Iraq was so we wouldn’t really have known about anywhere else. It was all about the regime and Saddam was so we wouldn’t have learned about sports or anything else.

“I remember we were watching a soccer match, Iraq were playing Saudi Arabia I think it was Saudi Arabia beat them three nil I think it was but on the Iraq TV it said that Iraq had won four nil or something like that. Iraq would never lose a soccer match and we’re told we’re going to the World Cup. And people here give out about the Sunday Game!”

“It’s funny, when you look back he ruled over twenty or thirty million people with an iron fist and now 200 countries can’t control the people of Iraq, the whole country is upside down there’s people getting killed there every day.  Under Saddam no one talked about politics because they were afraid they’d get killed. I think it’ll get better in the long term, but they’re still thirty years behind.

Zak still has relatives in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. A lot of them have Iraqi passports but they never got a chance to go back to their original homes in Iran.

“When we moved over here it was exciting,  you can’t choose where you want to live, so they brought us to Leitrim, and there we were, we got the bus down to Leitrim and on arrival they had it all set up for us. The Irish government were brilliant they had everything for us they had the school set up, somewhere to live, everything. It was some change from Iraq anyway!

“I remember when we first came, the first impression; there was green everywhere, green fields and streams. It was unbelievable we came from like a desert area with sand. I’d never seen anything like it before.  There’s no greenery in Iraq where we were.

“It was cold when we arrived, then I found out that was the bleedin’ summer here, it was July because when we left the refugee camp it was 40-50 degrees there. That was the fun part.

“It took ages to settle in, it was a totally different country and it was real cold and you’re thinking how are you going to make friends again, you don’t speak the language. You were used to playing the odd game of soccer with the lads, maybe twenty or thirty lads.

That was the basic day over there in Iraq, running around playing soccer. Playing hide and seek going to school for two hours a day. Then home.

“I was in the old school, St Mary’s National School in Carrick on Shannon there a couple of weeks back, I bumped into my old teacher there Michelle who taught me English. She said I remember the first day you came here you couldn’t speak a word of English and look at you now. I’d say it took about fifteen months to learn English. At the start though, not a word.

“I didn’t really learn much in school in Iraq, really only started to learn at school here. The people in Leitrim were very good, it’s a small county and people look after each other. The neighbours were brilliant with food and looking after us. Inviting us for dinners and us that could hardly speak English.

“Zak worked hard learning English but didn’t have to learn Irish. I’d enough bother learning English Zak laughs but he pointed out his older brother thinks there are similarities between Irish words like numbers and Kurdish, they get a bit of a connection in the words they say.

Zak spent two and a half years in Leitrim before they moved to Tallaght in Dublin.

“Yeah, we had a big family, there was less transport and stuff around Leitrim, no hospital or a lot of things that weren’t there that are now. My da didn’t work there, his health wasn’t great he didn’t speak a lot of English and he was in his late sixties. He had done a great job in getting us here. My da was great and he kept us all on our toes growing up and got us out of the country. It was tough for him though, his brothers were all over the place, same as me ma, she didn’t see her brother in 25 years. It’s tough if you’ve a brother or sister and you don’t see them for twenty or twenty five years.

“My brothers and sisters are spread out but they’re happy working and getting on with life they’re happy and doing great.

Tragedy struck for Zak when his dad passed away. His dad had gone back to his homeland in Iran.

“Grandad built a house for him on the farm small little house, they were brought up there they wanted to go back there to their homeland, they kind of waited until we were all 18. They were going to live there six months a year and they were there three weeks and were coming back here for my brother’s wedding. He had a heart attack on the way here and passed away.”

Zak now lives with his mum, he says she’ll never go back to Iran again after that.

When he’s asked to compare the city life with the country Zak clearly enjoys the slower pace and laid back attitude he sees in Leitrim when he’s down there, as he regularly is back there every Tuesday coaching hurling.

“In the city people are always rushing, in Leitrim people relax a bit more, everyone gets home sooner after work, there’s none of the traffic we have in Dublin, people need to learn to relax in life he says. There’s probably a better lifestyle in the country if you have a job, and if you’re sorted for life, the country is the place to live.

Dublin Living

“I started out in the Oldbawn School in Dublin a lot of the fellas in the class were playing Gaelic or hurling for Thomas Davis. Paul Hudson in my class won an all Ireland u21 with Dublin and him and Dean Hoey asked me if I’d come up to Thomas Davis we had a few lads from Ballyboden too.

“So I started school and went up to Thomas Davis and I’ve been there since. The younger brother plays with me plays a bit of junior hurling. He’s working at Google so he can’t commit as much but he still enjoys it.

“I have another brother in Sweden too working; you know yourself everybody’s busy working or playing sport getting with their own things. I don’t see the brothers too much but we have a great life no complaints so far.

“When I started in school, a teacher from Offaly John Kinnarney kept the hurling going he was great, he’s not well at the minute, the main hurling men were him, Brendan Horan and Michael Keane. They were great to me. For the first match they were like ‘You don’t play hurling, did you play hurling? You didn’t play hurling in Iraq?’ We’ll stick you in full forward and any ball comes in just pull.’ I scored two goals, just pulling on anything came near me.

“I played in school in Leitrim too but I could never really hit the ball. The lads I knocked about with went to Thomas Davis and they would be out pucking about so eventually I got there. School was great, and a big part of my life was hurling in school. If you had a bad day in school and there was hurling or football it kept you going. I think there should be more of it. Instead of homework they should give kids sport to do, every day, hurling and football gets them out for an hour outside.

He’s not a fan of homework is Zak!

“They give out too much homework, you spend eight hours in school and the next thing you have two hours homework too. It’s far too much. Then kids miss their homework then teachers send a letter out, next thing the parents ground them from sport because they haven’t done their homework. The balance is wrong. Less homework, more sport I think the more the better.”

Zak has now been hurling for Leitrim since 2011.

“I used to go down to Leitrim every second week and I’d bring my hurl we’d go for a puck around. Martin Cunniffe was involved coaching hurling and always looking people to play. Paddy Phelan who’s involved in Leitrim hurling gave me hurls and helmets and that, so they told me to come down and hurl for Leitrim.  I thought why not.

“It’s great craic but I wish they’d let the games go like the top games, a lot of games at that level boil down to frees. Michael Coleman from Galway brought us on so well, but he gets frustrated too saying you need to let the game because you go you watch the bigger teams beat the shite out if each other. Seems to be refereed differently.

Giving Back

Zak spends a day a week on Tuesday coaching hurling in Leitrim. He coaches primary school and u 14 clubs where he takes 10-14 year olds in two clubs and also in Ballinamore who are rebuilding their hurling at underage. Zak is aware that there aren’t enough teams

“Everything over the years was I supposed traditionally put into football really it was the main priority in Leitrim. Hurling probably needs someone who lives in the county to get involved in coaching to help drive it on. The Leitrim County Board are great and very easy to deal with, they help out with the hurling a lot.

He does his own bit a day a week, but couldn’t commit to a full-time coaching role because he is living in Dublin and would have had to relocate back there. “I think we can improve it” he says, “If you get four clubs going then you can make a fifth club. That’s my opinion. They’re going to try and take on a full time coach otherwise the thing is going to fall apart.

“It’s easier to coach football than hurling. You need more coaches for hurling especially in weaker counties where there aren’t that many hurling men about. They need to give it a chance to develop, there’s so much football in these places they need to give hurling a chance. The difference in Thomas Davis is unbelievable. The hurling goes and the football goes and the county board have it sorted well. When it’s hurling week it’s hurling week, when its football week its football week. All our lads play football and the play senior matches in Leitrim and the lads are crippled. We thought they might stop putting on matches the week of hurling but it hasn’t stopped. We’ve about thirteen or fourteen players doing both. What’s the big deal if you have dual players, no point telling lads you have to pick and choose they need to get on with it. I’m for getting lads to play as many games as they can.

“I think there’s only two of our lads actually live in Leitrim itself. When they hit 18 they all go to college and move out of Leitrim. One of the two lads is a farmer and the other is an electrician. We train in Mullingar sometimes. Leitrim’s problem is, that they have small clubs with a small number of players, so you might not always have the numbers at training. You can tell a player to feck off if they miss training and stuff, this last month lads had exams. Maybe up in Division 1 they can tell then to feck off if they can’t attend training, with so many clubs, and so many players and get someone else. But even when they do and they’re still able to compete. Our manager uses common sense and he works with the players and lets them at the studying or whatever.

“It’s all good craic hurling with the lads, going for a few pints the lads are there on Tinder or whatever sure it’s all mighty craic.

“This year Leitrim were only guaranteed two matches. If we lose we play in a relegation play off. Unless you win you get more games then. We could do with probably more. Last year we improved. Played about twelve games between the league and the Lory Meagher and we definitely improved with more games. The way it is now you can train away but because there’s only two games is you get an injury you’re more likely to play away in case you miss anything.

  • “ah for God’s sake I’m trying to put on weight not lose it, not like you Irish fellas who drank a pint of milk every day growing up, we never had that in Iraq.”

Last year Leitrim made it to the Lory Meagher final in Croke Park.

“It was a nice thing to play in Croke Park not many counties get there I mean the Clare hurlers haven’t played there in five years. There are good supporters in Leitrim, a couple of thousand came up to Croke Park; they’re great supporters for a small county though I think half of them live in America! It was a nice experience but we need to get more kids up there, more games for weaker counties, get them to see the bigger picture they’re part of.

His perspective then on global hurling coming from a weaker county via Iraq is interesting.

“We could spend hundreds of thousands to get people going hurling abroad, but what’s the point if you can’t get it going at home. Get a few coaches out and about in schools. In Leitrim they’ve given out hurls and helmets but there’s not enough coaches, and football always comes number 1. There’s no communication, there needs to be better communication across the two sports. In Thomas Davis the chairman treats everyone fairly.

Zak hasn’t encountered any particular problems with abuse on the pitch, he says one lad called him a ‘Paki’ once and his reply was you don’t even know what that is, I’m from bleedin Iran. “To be fair he apologized straight away. On the question of playing hurling during the Holy month of Ramadan, he explains the older generation are more religious but says “ah for God’s sake I’m trying to put on weight not lose it, not like you Irish fellas who drank a pint of milk every day growing up, we never had that in Iraq.” he laughs.

Obviously well settled in Ireland, Zak is relaxed and happy with his lot. He talks of the need to balance his work and training.

“The first thing is you’ve got to get the money in to live, it means maybe working 60 hours a week, but you’ve got to get the money in first. I’m happy coaching teams and playing, travelling up to Leitrim.

He has taken a bit of a break from coaching in Thomas Davis and in Leitrim, he is now doing one day a week.

“I still don’t know what I want to do in life I’m happy where I am moving from Iraq, moving from Leitrim, moving in Dublin 3 or 4 times, you get fed up moving, I’m just kind of settled here with the club and playing with the lads I grew up with I am happy where I am now but you wouldn’t know with the prices of rent in Dublin! I get a lot out of the GAA, it’s been good to me. Couldn’t see myself leaving again, there are no complaints; and the job is around the corner.

Between Leitrim and the club he has plenty of hurling. Is he wistful looking at a so-called bigger county?

No, I’m happy where I am. It’s all about enjoyment if we didn’t enjoy it we wouldn’t be doing it, we all give out but we’re very lucky. It’s all about matches, everyone hates training its more matches we want. At the end of training or a match when you jump in that shower you feel so much better after you know, the craic starts with the lads and that’s the most important thing?

His father and mother were Kurds from Iran, he was brought up in Leitrim via Iraq, none of them hurling strongholds, but for Zak the journey has been the reward. Kurds Abú!

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