When middle-schoolers at the Haverford School were given the opportunity to choose a sport for an open window in the P.E. schedule, they could’ve picked just about anything, from cricket to soccer to flag football. Instead, they went for one of the area’s fastest-growing sports, which has already brought thousands to a local complex for a North American tournament. They chose Gaelic football.
“They love it,” says Jeff Potter, chairman of Haverford’s physical education, health and wellness department. “They like the fast pace [and] the skill set that brings in parts from soccer, volleyball and a little bit of rugby.”
Potter is sold, too. So much so that he’s presented the sport to the Pennsylvania State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, and he plans to introduce it at the national convention in Nashville next year. He likes the fact that few, if any, students have experience with the game. “Everybody starts on a level playing field,” he says.
Over the past 20 years, Gaelic football has grown from a pursuit enjoyed largely by the Irish diaspora to a sport with plenty of enthusiastic supporters at schools on the Main Line and beyond, from the elementary level up to college. Under the aegis of the Philadelphia Gaelic Athletic Association, which also oversees training and competition in hurling, Gaelic football is gaining popularity due to programs like those at Haverford and Cardinal John Foley Regional Catholic School in Havertown, along with the increased visibility of the Delaware County Gaels youth program. The result is
a competitive sport that helps players from age 6 build skills and maintain ties to their Irish heritage.
The object of the game is to move a round soccer-like ball upfield by kicking, bouncing, hand passing and toeing (dropping the ball and kicking it back into one’s hands). Kicking or punching the ball into the other team’s goal earns three points, while kicking the ball through the uprights extended on either side of the goal earns a single point.
“The fact that we have been around so long, we now have kids who have played soccer with their friends trying Gaelic football and those who played lacrosse taking up hurling,” says John McDaid, a Havertown resident who’s the vice chair of the Philadelphia divisional youth committee for the GAA and the development officer of the Delaware County Gaels.
The Gaels play their games at Polo Field in Bryn Mawr and at Cardinal O’Hara High School. Organized teams from under-8 to under-16 compete against each other and branch into regional competitions and tournaments. Some of the older teams take on rivals from New York, Baltimore, Boston and Washington, D.C. Each year, the season culminates with the Liberty Bell Cup at Line Road Field in Malvern. There, hundreds of teams from the Eastern seaboard to Chicago converge for a variety of age-group tourneys.
In 2013, the Line Road complex also hosted the Continental Youth Championships, which brought together teams from the entire country and Canada. This year, the tournament will be held in Buffalo, but it will return to the area in 2019. With each year, the number of participating teams increases, and Gaelic football continues its march from niche to mainstream.
Need evidence? Check out the nascent Cardinal Foley after-school program. It was capped at 25 kids and filled up with 6- to 11-year-olds before any other late-afternoon club at the school. Only two of them had ever played Gaelic. And the GAA’s work with Philly Play in city neighborhoods has not only exposed children to Gaelic football but also organized sports in general. “Some of the kids come from pretty rough areas, and they have never played a sport before,” says Ciarán Porter, who was sent to the area from the sport’s governing board in Ireland. “They loved it.”
Girls get in on the action.
When McDaid was growing up in Donegal, Catholics didn’t play rugby, and Protestants didn’t play Gaelic football. “We all met on the soccer field,” he says.
Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998—a significant moment in the Northern Ireland peace process—there has been a commingling. “A lot of good Gaelic players played rugby,” McDaid says.
The “Vatican” for Gaelic football is located at Dublin’s Croke Park, home of the GAA and the third-largest stadium in Europe, with a capacity of 73,500. The biggest matches in Gaelic football and hurling—a sport that combines hockey, lacrosse and baseball principles—are contested there.
Gaelic football is huge—and when the country’s two best teams meet in the all-Ireland final, fans are whipped into a considerable froth. “You can almost hear them saying, ‘The last one to leave town turns out the lights,’” Porter says, smiling about how many make the pilgrimage to Croke Park.
However, with few exceptions, the top players in Ireland are playing for their county clubs and aren’t highly paid professionals. The title game is played on a Sunday, then participants may get Monday off, but they’re back to work by Tuesday. “Imagine Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl and then going back to teaching two days later,” McDaid says.
Over the past several years, Porter has taken under-14 teams to Ireland for club tournaments against Irish, English and Scottish teams. Costs are defrayed by the sponsorships of local businesses, and the athletes have a chance to take on rivals who play at the highest level. “We have always competed well,” Porter says.
The Gaelic competitions aren’t limited to the kids. Throughout the year, junior and senior men’s squads compete and, in late summer, determine who
will represent the area in the national tournament. Each weekend for several months, teams gather at the three-year-old complex in Limerick, which sits in the shadow of the nuclear power plant’s cooling towers but is hardly ominous.
As the players warm up, families and friends set up tents on the sidelines and enjoy food and drink throughout the afternoon. There’s good-natured teasing from the sideline—often in a thick brogue—and even though the competition is furious, hard feelings are scarce. Because the sport isn’t mainstream, its participants have a kinship that goes beyond wins and losses. Don’t be fooled—they want to succeed. But the camaraderie is paramount.
As the game grows beyond the borders of the Irish community, that sense of community, custom and tradition could be replaced by the same kind of competitive personality that’s invaded other sports in our area. But for now, McDaid and Porter are happy to be evangelists, spreading Gaelic football throughout the region. “We’re expanding the game,” McDaid says. “We’re moving from small schools to colleges. We want to grow it.”
And make it the game of choice for every gym class.