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VIDEO – Gaelic Games Reaching Beyond the Irish Community

The gymnasium in the Church of the Visitation annex building at the southwestern corner of Van Cortlandt Park reverberated to the sounds of balls bouncing on its tiled floor, sneakers screeching against the gleaming surface and the wheezing of 13 energetic young women desperately trying to catch their breath. Pennants draped from the rafters commemorated the parish basketball team’s championships, but the hoops were firmly tucked away into storage on this night at the end of March. There were no free throws or slam dunks at this training session.

Having been rained out of their regular training field in Van Cortlandt Park, the players from the Fermanagh Ladies’ Gaelic football team were diligently going through their practice drills in preparation for the New York Ladies’ Gaelic Athletics Association season. The sport, largely unknown outside of Ireland, has seen fluctuating participation rates in New York, stretching back for more than 80 years, depending on the cycles of Irish immigration. Numbers are low in the current economic climate — only five women’s teams will compete for this year’s silverware — but The Bronx’s Irish community is taking steps to ensure that the game continues to thrive over 3,000 miles from its origins.

Gaelic football is thought to be one of the world’s oldest sports. According to a study by Jaime Oregan from Elon University in North Carolina, historical references to a form of the game being played in Ireland date to the 14th century. The modern game is best explained as a hybrid of soccer and rugby. Teams of 15 players play on a rectangular field with a round ball. The aim is to kick or strike the ball with the hand past a goalkeeper into a soccer-type goal for three points, or between posts rising above the goal for one point. Players cannot carry the ball in their hands for more than four steps without either bouncing it or dropping it to the foot and kicking it back into their grasp. The team scoring the most points at the end of two 30-minute halves wins the game.

Mary Murphy, a prominent member of the New York Ladies GAA board of officers, arrived to observe the girls as they practiced their kicking and hand-passing. She is familiar with the challenges of keeping the sport alive among New York’s Irish community, having been active in founding the women’s organization in 1991. “We didn’t have cell phones then, and we didn’t have computers,” she said. “So we stood at a corner candy store in Riverdale with fliers.” Before long there were enough participants to form a cluster of teams, largely named after the counties of Ireland, who have fought for the annual league championship every year since 1992.

Ms. Murphy, the daughter of Irish parents, was born in the Bronx in 1962 and grew up living near Fordham Road. “It used to be a big Irish neighborhood, from there all the way up to Woodlawn,” she said. “But then, one by one, the neighborhoods changed.” Today, Woodlawn remains as one of the last bastions of true Irishness in the city, and it serves as the base for most of Fermanagh’s team.

With the young native Irish population dwindling, the New York GAA launched the Gaelic 4 Girls organization in 2003 to promote the sport among the next generation, whether they be of Irish-American heritage or otherwise. There are now six youth teams from Under-8s to Under-18s who have competed against similar programs from Boston, Philadelphia, Ottawa, Chicago and San Francisco. Gaelic 4 Girls is host to summer training camps as well as arranging annual trips to Ireland where the New York girls can test their skills in competition against Irish teams. Results have been encouraging so far with a number of teams reaching the semifinals and finals of tournaments.

The investment in the next generation is also beginning to pay off in the ladies’ league. Of the 13 Fermanagh players training that night, Ms. Murphy said eight were American-born.

By the middle of the summer, the make-up of the Fermanagh team will be slanted toward native Irish girls as college students cross the Atlantic for work experience or to visit friends and family members. But thanks to the efforts of Ms. Murphy and her fellow board members, ladies’ Gaelic football in New York looks to be in a healthy state with or without another influx of Irish immigrants.

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