Spring is here. The season of new beginnings. Of baseball and baby chicks. Of Cadbury eggs and confirmations.
We are involved in something entirely new—new, that is, to us. Our Paddy (10) and our Sally (6) are trying their hands (and feet) at the ancient game of Gaelic football.
This year at the Hennessey homestead Spring is the season of hand passes and Sperrin Ogs.
Gaelic is best described as soccer mixed with basketball plus a touch of violence and a pinch of volleyball. The goalposts are a mixed marriage of soccer net and football upright. It’s a sport mainly played in Ireland, but wherever Irish migrants settle in large numbers they are apt to form local associations of the county committees that govern the game back home.
Gaelic is quite popular in our new neighborhood of Southeast Yonkers, an honest-to-goodness enclave bordering the northern Bronx neighborhood of Woodlawn. Green, white, and orange tricolors easily outnumber the stars and stripes here, and not just during the month of March.
Mrs. Hennessey is consistently delighted at the preponderance of broguish speech she hears in the pews at St. Barnabas and the aisles of the Acme on McLean Ave.
Paddy and Sally have been learning this new game with the underage teams of the Tyrone Gaelic Football Club of New York—aka, Sperrin Ogs. I know from reading a bit that the Irish word “og” is a suffix meaning little or, in English parlance, junior. The Sperrins themselves are a mountain range in Northern Ireland that have been officially designated an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”
The thing is, the Sperrins are quite low-rise as mountains go. Add the suffix “og” and you have a translation situation leaving the youth squad’s name as something like Pretty Little Mountains Jrs.
That may not be the right handle to put the fear of the Banshee in your opponent’s heart.
Last year, on the Tonight Show, the Irish comedian Chris O’Dowd described Gaelic football for Jimmy Fallon. “It’s played a lot by farmers, people from the countryside, very rural, very rough, brutal but beautiful like a big wave,” he said. “A great sport. You should try it, if you like wrestling or death.”
Things are not so smash-and-grab at the youth level. It’s good exercise with a lot of running and the kids are developing a fair amount of ball-handling skills. I can see how it could be beautiful like a big wave, when played by people who know what they’re doing.
The best thing about the Gaelic experiment from Paddy and Sally’s point of view is that their old man has no idea what’s going on. I wish I could help them. I really do.
Yes, my family tree has roots in the auld sod, but I never played the game. Until recently I’d never seen it played. I’m unfamiliar with the ground rules and don’t know the names of the positions. The points and scoring regime are a mystery. Couldn’t tell you what’s a foul and what’s not. I wouldn’t be able to name a single famous player, or even say if there are any.
I can Google though. A little research shows that Gaelic was first played loooong ago. Irish history records the accidental stabbing of a football player at a match in County Down in 1308. This is the kind of game we’re talking about.
Things went dark for a few centuries due to the meddlesome influence of a certain neighboring imperial power, but the Gaelic football—and other indigenous revelries such as hurling, which is basically baseball where everyone gets a bat—played a significant role in the Irish national revival of the late 19th century.
Soccer, if you didn’t know, is an English game. Playing a purely Irish game was a weighty symbol to those who’d grown tired of the oppressor’s yoke.
In Northern Ireland, which, if you didn’t know, is part of the United Kingdom, Gaelic games took on an explicitly political bent. This is a place where politics and religion are sometimes indistinguishable. Gaelic sports, tied up as they were (and are) with expressions of Irish nationalism, were (and are) mostly played by Catholics.
Long way of saying: A Gaelic football family is a family that eats fish on Fridays. It marks you as papists.
Thank goodness these religious and political undertones don’t enter into Paddy and Sally’s weekend games at Van Cortlandt Park. America is a land where such ancient complications can be forgotten over a generation or two. Yanks like us are lucky we can still try something new, even if it has been around since 1308.
Sperrin Ogs Abu!