Keeping the samba drum beating in Ireland’s ‘little Brazil’

In a gym in a sleepy town in the west of Ireland, Jobert Marinho is training hard to hone the martial arts skills of his native Brazil, hoping to win a major national title for his local club.

“I was always into fighting but when we moved here I was waiting for something to come up,” says the 17-year-old, lacing up his boots and stepping into the ring at the boxing club in Gort.

Marinho moved here with his family five years ago from the central Brazilian state of Goias, and is one of up to 400 of his compatriots living in this rural town of just 2,600 people.

Marinho (left) training at the gym. He is hotly tipped to win Ireland’s amateur Mixed Martial Arts title as a rising Brazilian jujitsu star, and has helped fire up other fighters in this small town. – AFP

Gort became known as “little Brazil” following a huge influx of workers during the Celtic Tiger years, when the Irish economy was booming. At one point a third of residents were Brazilian.

Ireland’s financial crisis and Brazil’s economic boom sent many of the migrants home, but those that remain keep the Brazilian flag flying.

“Even in school, the Irish people in the same class as the Brazilians start learning a little Brazil because the Brazilians talk Portuguese all the time,“ says Marinho, laughing.

The teenager is hotly tipped to win Ireland’s amateur Mixed Martial Arts title as a rising Brazilian jujitsu star, and has helped fire up other fighters in this small town.

“A Brazilian fighter has different techniques than another nationality and you pick that up and get a hundred times better,” says Marinho’s sparring partner, Ruairi Broderick, 22.

Football is another area of common ground for the locals and the Brazilians, and both nationalities play for the local Coole FC, which carries both countries’ national flags on its crest.

Winner material: Brazilian teenager Jobert Marinho at the local gym in Gort, west Ireland, where he trains in martial arts. Marinho moved to Gort with his family five years ago from the central Brazilian state of Goias. – AFP/Paul Faith

Roman Catholic priest Kevin Keenan once held weekly Portuguese masses at the local church, and the message on his answering machine message is still in English and Portuguese. But the masses are now held monthly, as he tries to encourage his flock to integrate more.

“What I’ve been trying to do over the years is to get them to go to the regular masses, so those who are settling here and are working away are integrated into the local community,” he says.

The presence of such a large Brazilian community in such an unremarkable town, miles from any obvious economic hub, can be traced back to a single Irishman from Cork.

Rosemar da Silva (left) speaking with shopkeeper Elvi Fernandes at the Real Brazil food shop in Gort. – AFP

Jerry O’Callaghan was exporting beef from Brazil when a meat factory in the Goias town of Anapolis closed down. He organised for some of the former workers to move to Ireland to work in the beef industry there, and word quickly went back of other jobs in the booming construction industry.

At the community’s peak in 2007, there were 1,600 Brazilians in Gort, and they even held their own annual Quadrilha festival.

“It was like what the Irish themselves did when they emigrated to England or America,” says local councillor Gerry Finnerty.

At the Real Brazil grocery shop, a steady stream of Brazilians come in to buy a taste of home. Among them is Rosemar Da Silva, who worked in the meat factory and then in construction before seeking work in England when the economic crisis hit. He returns to his family in Ireland every few weeks – his wife is Slovakian and his two children are Irish, so he does not intend to return to Brazil.

Hairdresser Marcos Marinho at his salon in Gort. He arrived in town seven years ago to serve the Brazilian community. These days, his business also caters to Irish and eastern European customers. – AFP

Behind the counter, Elvi Fernandes describes how her six-year-old son is learning Gaelic at school and has started to play the Irish sport of hurling.

“I like it here – it’s quiet, better for the children,” says the Brasilia native.

Hairdresser Marcos Marinho came here seven years ago to serve the Brazilian community. These days, his business also caters to Irish and eastern European customers.

His 18-year-old daughter Thayla is studying business studies at college and hopes one day to take over the barber shop.

“I guess I’m 60% percent Brazilian and 40% percent Irish now,” she says. – AFP