'Five times faster than soccer': Irish football draws fans of Old World sport to Oak Forest

While the World Cup soccer games are kicking it in Russia and the Tour de France is cycling through Europe, another sport with an international flavor has made a home and attracts a loyal crowd in Oak Forest.

Families — many with roots in Ireland — and fans are gathering on summer Sundays at Gaelic Park for some traditional Irish football.

Across the pond, it is Ireland’s most popular sport, but one that is catching on in other countries, like China and Saudia Arabia, said John Bridges, chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association of Chicago.

Chicago’s GAA is a 125-year-old, all-volunteer organization that has kept alive the traditional Irish sports of football, hurling and camogie, or women’s hurling, he said.

On Sunday afternoon at Gaelic Park, a large crowd had gathered in the bleachers and pavilion by the time the senior teams – the more skilled players – took the field for the fourth football game of the day.

They come not just for the sport, but for the socialization and the tradition the games maintain.

“This is what we grew up with. Keeping the games going keeps our culture going,” said Gareth Fitzsimons, chairman of the US Gaelic Athletic Association. “It’s important to the Irish community to have a home away from home.

“It keeps our connections, keeps our friendships and keeps the community going,” he said. “And, it’s a great sport.”

Bridges came to America after high school, when he was 17, and played Irish football “from the minute I got here.”

He no longer plays, but now coaches his daughters on the St. Brigid’s team. And, every year, he returns to Croke Park in Dublin for the national finals.

“There’s a lot of tradition in it,” said GAA board member and camogie player Mary Redmond. “I grew up here, watching my father play and learned the game. I have been at Gaelic Park every Sunday. I know everyone here.”

It is an all ages crowd, from babies in strollers, to youngsters in their team jerseys, to older men on the sidelines, who no longer play, but now cheer on family members who do. They all greet each other with light-hearted familiarity and talk about what’s happening at “home.”

“The Irish community here loves to see their games,” said Maurice Condon, who spends his summer weekends traveling from his home Cincinnati to referee games across the country. He does it for the love of the game.

In Ireland, it is a parish-based game, he said. Players do not move from one team to another, but stay with their parish team throughout their athletic career, unless they are recruited by a county team, he said.

In the homeland, the county teams compete against each other for the national championship.

Bridges describes Irish football as a “combination of soccer and rugby,” a non-stop game that is “five times faster than soccer.”

It’s very physical and combines a variety of skills – as players carry, kick, bounce, dribble and hand-pass the ball. Tossing it through the uprights, over the crossbar scores one point and kicking it into the net is worth three.

“You need to be fit for it, but for anyone who has played soccer, it does not take long to pick up the basics,” said Bridges.

He likes that it is a non-stop sport , with a running clock, like soccer. There are two 30-minute halves and 13 players to a team, with 15 in Ireland. The field is also larger than an American football field.

Anthony Corcoran, of Worth, who plays on the Wolfe Tones senior team, said he enjoys the skills of the game as well as the social aspect.

“Everyone has been playing since they were 5 or 6, so they come by it naturally,” he said.

But he also likes that there is “no money” involved. “They all play for the love of the sport,” he said.

The senior games used to attract several players from Ireland, who would come and play for the summer season, which runs May through Labor Day, but that has changed in recent years, because players can only get a 90-day visa, Bridges said.

The crowd really enjoys watching the top players from Ireland, he said.

Chicago’s GAA has had its ups and downs in memberships, depending on Ireland’s economy and the US’s immigration policies. It thrived in the 1980s and 90s, when Gaelic Park opened its facility in 1985, and became the home of the GAA, according to its website.

This venue has hosted several tournaments and is considered to be one of the best facilities outside of Ireland, said Fitzsimons and Redmond.

Fitzsimons said there are 124 clubs in North America and about 300 teams will compete in a tournament in Boston this August. In the last 20 years, the number of football and hurling teams combined has doubled, he said.

“The main thing is that we are trying to develop the game for the kids,” he said.

This year, for the first time, Chicago’s GAA has no hurling teams, but Redmond said its one camogie club will travel to Midwestern tournaments this summer and to the finals in Philadelphia on Labor Day weekend.

Fans and officials hope that the lack of hurling teams is just a temporary glitch, noting that it is an expensive sport, requiring safety equipment, and is described by many as “hockey on steroids.”

Bridges said the hardest part of Irish football is keeping the sport going and he is encouraged that the GAA currently has its “biggest youth program in years.”

Fitzsimons said the purpose of the athletic association is to give people the tools to start up a club and help them survive.

“In my mind this is not an alternative sport,” he said. You don’t have to be Irish to play, but about half of those who currently play are, he said.

“The more people who play the better,” he said.

All teams are looking for players, and GAA will provide the training, said Redmond.

Condon said in America, after college, there are “no games for the likes of ordinary people,” but with the GAA there is a “game for anyone who is fit.”

“Give it a try. It’s fun,” said Corcoran.

More information is at www.chicagogaa.com.


Twitter @SusanLaff

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