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.