Originally from Bornacoola which borders both Longford and Leitrim, Leo O’Neill has made considerable contributions to both the property and local sporting scenes in his new surroundings. Having emigrated from the Connacht/Leinster border in 2011, the 36-year-old former Leitrim hurler established HML Project Management before playing a large part in breathing new life back into local club, Tallinn GAA.
Having met his wife Hanna at home in Ireland, Leo moved to the Baltic region on St Patrick’s Day of last year. Despite being offered a job in the Middle East and intending to move there, Leo decided to stay put in north eastern Europe along with Hanna and his daughter Mia.
“Estonia is such a great place to bring your kids up”, Leo enthuses. “It’s not dissimilar to back in Ireland, in fact it’s almost as if you’re back in Ireland a few decades ago.
“We have wonderful warm summers and although winter gets cold, they can deal with it here and are totally prepared.”
Having won its independence in 1918, Estonia then went through two periods of Soviet rule along with a German occupation during the second world war. Having peacefully regained its independence in 1991, the Estonians went quietly about establishing a technology based economy.
“The average salary here is e750, but people are comfortable and their lifestyle quality is very good. Their IT system is second to none and it’s what they’ve made their money on. You can sit in the middle of a field and open our laptop and you’ll find a Wi-Fi connection. You miss home sometimes, but life is better over here.
Leo also draws some comparisons to both his home and adopted lands. With the Estonian property bubble - about the same size and value as its Dublin counterpart - bursting in 2008, the Estonian Government (the Riigikogu) was in crisis. Unlike the Irish, the Estonian leaders took the initiative and ordered a 10% wage cut across the board. “They (Estonia) came out of the recession two years later and now the national debt has been wiped,” Leo explains.
Prior to having registered HML in July of last year, Leo met a local woman called Suret Surva who discovered a passion for Gaelic football in Spain of all places. Suret had gone about setting up Tallinn GAA but was struggling to encourage others to get interested. This, Leo felt, was where he could step in. “She was introduced to GAA by a housemate in Spain and fell in love with it.
“I met her and I thought - ‘how do I keep this going, how do I build on this?’ After emailing friends and encouraging them to learn the rules of the game, the group then went about registering Tallinn GAA with the European council. Training twice a week, once on a rugby pitch and again on a local beach, this strange foreign game attracted plenty of attention from by-standers, several of whom began to take part.
The panel, which Leo began training in May of this year, has since grown steadily from just eight members to 22. “We started from scratch but with four months of training (May to August), both men’s and girl’s teams have dramatically improved their basic skills like hand passing and soloing.”
The ever-growing popularity of the GAA in a country, which is keen on wrestling and winter sports, is evident by the plans which are afoot for a GAA Scandinavian League game to be staged in Estonia in August. The legacy of the GAA in the Baltics is also planned for an even longer stay as Leo reveals. “We have been asked by schools in the Tallinn area to implement GAA into the local physical education programmes. They have also watched hurling and have been mesmerised by its speed and skill.”
Tallinn welcome Malmo GAA to Estonian shores in March 2013 for a week’s coaching session and workshop. Looking to the future, Leo concludes: “If the project is successful then within five years we intend to develop a GAA facility with a full size pitch. Right now, we are playing on rugby pitches and are using a local clothing company to provide our jerseys but we hope to have O’Neill’s gear soon.”
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