Discovering Gaelic football

Photos: Bridget O’Malley

I still remember the day I fell in love with Gaelic football: it was July 19th, 2009. 

On the previous afternoon, my husband and I drove from his hometown of Westport, Co. Mayo, through Delphi in Connemara to Galway City.  All along the way, on houses in every village, outside every roadside pub or Texaco, the competing county flags of Galway and Mayo proudly flew, building excitement for what was to come.  Now we stood in the sunshine as the Connaught final kicked off, and this American’s curiosity had been piqued.

Growing up in the States, you think of the great games as baseball, American football, basketball – familiar sports that dominated your childhood.  You recall playing these sports or cheering friends and family from the sidelines, going to tailgates in parking lots and games in big stadiums, having Super Bowl parties, filling out March Madness brackets. 

You know all the legends, you know all the lines in Field of Dreams, you live for the “One Shining Moment” montage.  You have maybe even expanded out into hockey or soccer, you might dabble in the “country club” sports of golf and tennis, maybe you swim, maybe you run track and field – but you most definitely do not know the joy of Gaelic football.

Until, that is, you find yourself, as I did, in Galway on a bright day, amidst the most passionate crowd of supporters of all ages with jerseys, jester hats, face paint and (what else) flags. I felt the emotion of the anthems reverberate, the fanfare following the marching players of the local youth teams as they paraded around the field.  Squinting up into the horizon, I saw a giant Mayo flag waving from a crane on a construction site smack dab in the middle of Salthill.

During the match, things happened that I cannot fully comprehend or describe. Even now, I can rarely tell when a point has been kicked through the uprights, and I often find myself cheering like an eejit when, in fact, the linesman never waved the white flag.  I scream “Aw come on ref!” without grasping whether a grievance has actually been perpetrated.  I think everyone who does commit a penalty should be kicked off the field and find that yellow cards are used far too frequently as a copout for bad behavior. 

I have tried, without success, to pick a football up from the ground with my foot or execute a proper hand pass. I have nearly mastered the math behind the scoring system – nearly. I have learned the profound wisdom of the term “Take your points” and its applications far beyond the confines of the pitch.

When the final whistle blew that day, fans spilled out onto the field, intermingling with their beloved players (here is where I can also share that I encountered a young Aidan O’Shea, the man himself, in close range, and was duly starstruck). It is this sort of tradition and fervour that endeared me immediately to the GAA.

Perhaps there are limitations to what an American can truly understand about another culture.  But even so, I am forever thankful to have stumbled upon this beautiful game and the deep sense of history, community and love that comes with it. 

I see these values in our own Charlotte GAA, our Charlotte Youth GAA, and in the wonderful members of the Charlotte Irish Connection who will be cheering for their counties in this Saturday’s All-Ireland Final between Mayo and Tyrone. For someone who has worshipped Ireland and sports their whole life, Gaelic football represents the very best of both, and I am grateful to have discovered this truth.


26 thoughts on “Discovering Gaelic football

  1. Nice job, Bridget! Lovely to see someone from another culture grow to love gaelic games. And from a Mayo perspective, not the worst match to get acquainted with the green and red!

    BTW, no need for you to get your foot under the ball, women’s football allows for players to pick the ball up directly off the floor, provided that they’re on their feet.

  2. Nice piece!

    In case anyone wants a brilliant sports movie to watch the next night or two, I’d suggest ‘Hoosiers’ with Gene Hackman about a small town basketball team in Indiana (where basketball is huge) who go all the way.

    Brilliant movie and you don’t need to have any knowledge of b-ball!

  3. Well done Bridget. Lovely story on your introduction to the game that has driven us nuts for decades
    Don’t worry about the rules. We all think we know them and yet we spend much of the year disagreeing on whether it was a yellow card a black card or a red card, and some would say it was no card at all.
    You wouldn’t have that kind of trouble with the Charlotte hornets I’ll bet.

    It’s Thursday and still no nerves, but very excited.
    I feel like I’m at the top of a very steep hill on a bike with no brakes. One foot on the ground and the other on the pedal. Still in safe mode
    The excitement is there alright, but I know when I push off on the bike there is no turning back, no brakes, no safety nets. You either get to the bottom of the hill at break neck pace In one piece or you chicken out on the way down and head for the ditch and take a mighty tumble in to the briars.

    This year we are going to stay on that bike the whole way down. No brakes and no ditches. Acceleration the whole way.

    At 5pm on Saturday we are going to give one mighty push off the ground, lift the arse up on to the saddle, grip the handle bars and we are going to hold on for dear life. The whole way to the bottom.

    Oh. Then the nerves will be tested alright on Saturday.
    The bike is in great shape besides, just no brakes and the hill is steep. A monster.

    It’s a long long time since we attempted this hill without veering for the ditch but there will be no turning the handlebars on Saturday.

    Tight grip, acceleration, courage. We are going to hold our line and we are going to make it to the bottom of that monster this year.

    I have no doubt.

  4. @Daithi: Seconded, Hoosiers is an excellent film. Would also recommend Friday Night Lights, although perhaps it’s not the most upbeat film for the week that’s in it.

  5. Well done Bridget great article I hope you enjoy the final. I discovered the joys of Tailgating at a U2 concert in New England Patriots stadium many moons ago

  6. I just saw news and there was a report from tyrone on the build up. Not a word from mayo. Any one else see that ?

  7. @Spectre: they always profile the two counties on separate days for the All-Ireland.
    It is recorded already I’d say. Marty Morrisey interview with James Horan was on the radio today.

    @Joet1480: from what I see in Met Eireann weather: Dublin on Sat at 5pm is showing cloud with some sun and 19C.
    That will do nicely I’d say.

  8. Thank you for that Bridget

    Anyone got a link for a Tyrone GAA platform like ours?

    Would like to see what their take on this is.

    Good luck to all our lads on Saturday. You have given us so much joy.
    Safe travelling all.

  9. It’s all a muddle, Accuweather predicting a 52% chance of rainfall, 18c and 89% cloud cover.
    I’ll bring me oilskins!

  10. Bridget, Did Jimmy ever visit Charlotte GAA when he was with independence.?

    I was reading his book when I was checking into the omni and thought it would be funny if I bumped into him

  11. Lovely piece. Met Éireann forecast for Drumcondra at 5pm Sat is dry with a slight breeze from the West. Great poster in the background in the Club development draw held in Kiltimagh tonight “70 years waiting…..70 minutes from glory”. That got me going …..bring it on

  12. Cheers WJ. Ya know I heard some former players talk about their lead in an All Ireland final and how being around helped them relax as only other players knew how they felt . But I think for as supporters having this blog and others and the podcasts are a great way to bring us together . Going about normal duties is such a distraction and to be able to log on here and read the posts from other contributors in some way settles our minds . Might not be how everyone feels but for me personally it’s needed . So thanking you WJ for this outlet.

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