Play some football to celebrate St. Paddy’s

By Jon Roe

Maybe for this St. Patrick’s Day, instead of dressing up like a leprechaun and wittily asking members of the opposite sex to kiss your Blarney Stone, you should celebrate the holiday with something authentically Irish (other than whiskey and Guinness, of course), like Gaelic football.

Gaelic football is the world’s oldest known sport still played today and has been played for centuries by Irish boys and girls representing their towns. The game is typically played 15-on-15 on fields slightly wider and bigger than rugby pitches, and is best described as a mix of rugby and soccer.

“I’ve heard it described as close to a mix between soccer, rugby and organized crime,” says Mike Ryan, who has played the sport since he was just a wee lad back in Ireland.

Players can advance the ball with hand or foot passes to teammates, or run with the ball while bouncing it every four or five steps. Goals are set up at either end of the field that resemble soccer frames with the posts extended above. Balls kicked through the goal, guarded by a keeper, are worth three points while balls punched or kicked above the bar and between the posts are worth one.

It’s one of Ireland’s national sports (the other is hurling) and is played entirely by amateurs. Despite this, it draws 34 per cent of the total attendance of sporting events in Ireland, the most of any sport.

Ryan, an Irish transplant, has continued playing the sport since he arrived in Calgary through the Calgary Chieftains, a Gaelic football club that has been in operation for 27 years.

“I was surprised to see how strong it was here, how long it’s been going on for, how many older generations that were there back in the ’70s,” says Ryan.

The club is about a 60/40 split of Irish transplants and Canadians, and is always accepting new members who are willing to try out the sport.

“We don’t mind a person who comes in who hasn’t kicked a ball in his life,” says Michael O’Donnell, the player’s rep for the club. “We have a few people like that, never heard of the sport before in their life, we just ran into them at a pub. That’s where we do a lot of recruiting.”

The Chieftains play games across Alberta against teams in Edmonton, Red Deer and Lethbridge, and in Vancouver as well. Membership to play is $65 for the season. They have both a men’s and a women’s team, but if you’re not interested in playing the sport, you can be a social member for free by joining in the knocking back of a few pints of Guinness.

The club will be holding an event in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day on March 13. They’ll be entering a team into a seven-on-seven rugby tournament at the Calgary Rugby Park at 4334 18th St. NE, and will be staging an exhibition game of Gaelic football after the tournament is over.

“Here’s something that’s actually Irish and played in Canada, in Calgary,” he says.

In other words, a great way for an early celebration of St. Paddy’s.

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