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The Clare Footballer Who Led A Black Lives Matter Protest

Pictured is Clare footballer Ikem Ugwueru at SuperValu’s launch of the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. Sponsors of the Championship for a 14th consecutive season, SuperValu were joined by Gaelic Games role models and advocates from across the country in Croke Park today to highlight the role of GAA communities in making Ireland a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming country for all.
PJ Browne
By PJ Browne
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Three years ago, the Clare Champion carried a powerful image of Ikem Ugwueru. It wasn't from a GAA or rugby pitch, where he'd usually be pictured, but O'Connell Square in Ennis during a Black Lives Matter protest.

Megaphone in hand as he stood on the steps of the monument to Daniel O'Connell, Ugwueru was one of the protest's leaders. It was an apt place to stand, no doubt not a coincidence given O'Connell's unyielding anti-slavery beliefs.

Like those around him, Ugwueru had taken a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds to mark the length of time police officer Derek Chauvin was said to have knelt on the neck of George Floyd 17 days previous. It was a shocking moment of police brutality which had reverberations beyond Minneapolis. Chauvin was later convicted of murdering Floyd and sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison.

"I know it was in America, but I still felt affected by it," says Ugwueru, speaking at SuperValu's launch of the GAA All-Ireland Football Championship.


"I was like, 'I would never want this to ever happen anywhere else'. We decided to march around Ennis just to let people know that black lives do matter because some people might say that over in Ireland it doesn't affect us. That's not really the case.

"We wanted to go out, give a few speeches. Anyone that has ever experienced racism in Ennis or in Ireland or anywhere, just to come and give a few words, speak of their experience - their experience in school, their experience in sport.

"I was honoured to be part of that, to be one of the leaders of that, and I'm still a leader of that. I'll always advocate for Black Lives Matter because it hasn't been easy for my family as well.


"My mom and dad coming over here from Nigeria, it wasn't easy for them at all. So I do it for them. And also for my younger brothers and sisters too that as they come up through Ireland that they shouldn't encounter any kind of difficulties in anything they do.

"My younger brother has autism. I would never like it if anyone discriminated against him because of his skin colour or autism."

ikem ugwueru clare gaa black lives matter protest

19 February 2023; Paddy Woodgate of Kildare in action against Ikem Ugwueru of Clare during the Allianz GAA Football League Division Two match between Clare and Kildare at Cusack Park in Ennis, Clare. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

A year after that protest, Ugwueru made his Clare senior debut, coming off the bench in a league game against Laois. Clare manager Colm Collins had long been an admirer of Ugwueru but offers to join the county panel had been declined, not because there wasn't interest but because he was also playing rugby in the AIL with Shannon.

Ugwueru started playing rugby with Ennis RFC and was also a member of Munster underage squads between U16 and U19 before he joined the sub academy.


"I was unfortunate not to get into the academy but that's how things go," he says.

"I'm grateful I got that opportunity to play with Munster. It was class. I feel like it helped me with my professionalism in sport, gave me a few qualities.

"I'd turned down to play with Clare because of rugby and other commitments. Colm still came back and he was like, 'Look if you come in, this is where you can be. You can add loads of value to this team'.


"I was playing with Éire Óg Ennis and he was obviously seeing things there that I could add to the Clare team that even I didn't see. He was like, 'This is the way you play. I feel like you could thrive playing this way if you added this to your game'.

"He always talked about adding more aspects to my game. So I said I'd better believe him! Obviously coming from rugby, the physicality I bring over helps me a bit.

"My running game is very good. My hand passing and distribution game was good, but kicking would not be my forte. He wants me to add that to my game. He knows if I can add kicking to my game, I can become a better player. It's a slow progression.


"I said I'd owe it to myself to commit to one [sport]. I've been playing rugby my whole life. I never took football seriously up until the last year-and-a-half, two years.

"I told myself, 'Look, just see how you go with the football' because I didn't want to go through my life with ifs and buts."

ikem ugwueru clare gaa black lives matter protest

15 February 2023; Ikem Ugwueru of UL during the Electric Ireland HE GAA Sigerson Cup Final match between University of Limerick and University College Cork at WIT Sports Campus in Waterford. Photo by Stephen Marken/Sportsfile

Ugwueru is in his third year at the University of Limerick but 2023 was his first season playing with UL in the Sigerson Cup. He featured regularly as they reached the final for the second consecutive year, this time losing out to UCC in the decider.

"Playing Sigerson has been class," he says.

"There were six or seven Clare boys on that team. Exposing yourself to that level of football is very good. It helps you out.


"For example, me and Eoghan McLaughlin would be strong runners, and both of us were feeding off each other running the pitch.

"The welcome I got when I joined that team was very good. Declan Brouder (the manager) was class. The two Lavins (Stephen and David) in there, they just told me to express myself. That's what Sigerson is for.

"It's a very good competition. Everyone should play it. If you have a chance to play, play it!"

With his club Éire Óg - where he has won the last two Clare senior football titles - Ugwueru lines out at centre forward but at inter-county level, he plays in defence.

ikem ugwueru clare gaa black lives matter protest

8 January 2023; Greg Horan of Kerry in action against Ikem Ugwueru and Keelan Sexton of Clare during the McGrath Cup Group A match between Kerry and Clare at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

He came off the bench to make his championship debut, and help Clare get over the line, in the Munster semi-final victory over Limerick last month. It was a win - which came a fortnight after beating Cork in the quarter-final - that sealed a place in Sunday's Munster decider against Kerry. It also guaranteed Clare a spot in the Sam Maguire group stages, and continued a turnaround from a disappointing league campaign in which they were relegated from Division 2.

"We were relegated, but we didn't want that to dampen our season," says Ugwueru.

"Going in against Cork, the two weeks before that match, the training was serious. All the boys were locked in, focused.
Colm kept reminding us that there's a level we can achieve, and we haven't achieved that yet, and to just believe in ourselves.

"Coming into Cork, we were ready for that match, like, and we were just so hungry for that. It showed by the one point win we got. It was down to the wire and it shows that there's massive heart in the team that we can get it done if we want to.

"Limerick is always a tough game, like they beat us last year on penalties. That was in the back of our heads. It kind of did motivate us as well going into that match.

"We're in Sam, and that was the aim too. Aiming for the Tailteann wasn't in our plans. People telling us we could be in Tailteann, and Clare could win Tailteann, that was an insult to us. We used that as motivation to get into Sam and we've done that. We're happy out but we're not finished yet.

"Colm always motivated me. His passion for Clare football is mad. It's so infectious, the whole team, the backroom team, everybody, Colm rubs off on everyone. Winning a Munster title would be everything for him, and that's what we're aiming to do."

'I motivate the younger lads to play GAA'

When Ugwueru picked up the megaphone at that Black Lives Matter protest in Ennis three years ago, one of the experiences he spoke about was being subjected to racist abuse on the pitch. It happened while playing football and rugby.

ikem ugwueru clare gaa black lives matter protest

27 November 2022; Ikem Ugwueru of Éire Óg Ennis during the AIB Munster GAA Football Senior Club Championship Semi-Final match between Kerins O’Rahillys and Éire Óg Ennis at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

"It's bad that I'm here even having to talk about it," he says.

"I wasn't alone, my teammates were there for me. I do appreciate that a lot. Whenever it came to a situation like that, they were there to support me, they didn't have to think about it. It was just straight away, 'Ikem, I'm with you'.

"The boys in Shannon, the boys in Clare and the boys with Éire Óg as well, they've been behind my back the whole way - my managers too.

"I motivate the younger lads to play GAA, play rugby, play soccer or whatever. Don't let anyone ever tell you you can't do something because when they made the sport, they never said this person couldn't play it or whatever - it is for everyone.

"I hope this motivates a few people to prove the doubters wrong. Never feel like you can't do anything. Strive to be better than me, better than Lee Chin, better than Boidu Sayeh because they have done massive things for people around Ireland.

"What happened to Lee Chin was bad. It was very upsetting. He's an established player in Ireland already. That happening to him was a shock to me.

"The GAA, obviously it's not a finished product [when it comes to dealing with racism], but they're on their way to becoming better, and that's all good, that's all I can ask for."

When Colm Collins persisted in trying to recruit Ugwueru for the Clare panel, he was seeking a player, but what he has also gained is an obvious leader.

"We didn't just do it for ourselves," Ugwueru, who was born in Dún Laoghaire, says about the protest.

"We did it to show everybody that you shouldn't be afraid of where you're from. Don't be ashamed. Be proud of where you're from. Never, never go into the shadows about where you're from because expressing your culture is a big thing.

"I am Nigerian, that's my background. I'm proud to be black. I'm proud to be black and Irish.

"That protest was a small thing but I feel like it did a lot for Ennis."

See Also: 'We Felt The World Of GAA Was Ripe To Have A Film About It'

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