On the Irish pitch

Ireland, to be sure, has had its share of troubles. From famines to wars to occupation, the island country has often struggled just to maintain its existence.

But members of the fledgling New Orleans Irish Channel Gaelic Football Club say the sport they love has managed to become one of the cultural mainstays knitting together the Emerald Isle and its people.

“If you go into any town in Ireland, there’s a Gaelic football team, and it’s the major social organization in town,” New Orleans club president Patrick Mahaney said. “After work, you go to the local pitch to play, then you have a few pints at the pub and go home.”

On Sunday, the New Orleans Gaelic club held a demonstration of the sport at the Irish Network New Orleans Family Day at Audubon Park, then gathered for a training session nearby.

Mahaney said he hopes the publicity might attract some new members to the football club, which is a member of the North American Gaelic Athletic Association’s southwest division.

The organization is sponsored by the Irish House pub and restaurant, which itself is becoming a popular hub of the local Irish community.

Team member and Irish House head chef Matt Murphy, a Dublin native, said his life was steeped in Gaelic football from an early age, like many Ireland natives. The sport is, he said, simply huge on the Emerald Isle.

“I grew up watching it on TV,” Murphy said. “The all-Ireland final is like the Super Bowl in Ireland.”

Murphy said each community in Ireland is fiercely proud of its local Gaelic football team, as rivalries with neighboring squads take on an intense feel. After every match, however, players from both sides come together to drink a pint and celebrate.

In many ways, Gaelic football is unique in the sporting world. Mahaney said the roots of the game predate the development of similar sports like soccer and rugby.

While Gaelic football shares some traits with those two sports — like soccer, it’s played with a round ball and maintains a quick tempo, but its scoring system and ball movement are similar to rugby — it also surprisingly carries characteristics that Americans would notice in volleyball and basketball.

Mahaney, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., said Gaelic football also is less rugged and physically violent than rugby or Australian rules football, thus allowing the sport to be played by a wider range of ages, from young kids to retirees, and novices to enjoy the sport while getting up to speed with the pace and traditions of the game.

“When you first pick it up, everyone is on the same learning curve,” Mahaney said. “And it’s just fun, because you can go out and play and be on the same level as everyone else.”

In addition to its unique rules, Gaelic football is one of the few international sports that remains strictly amateur, with everyone from the players to coaches to officials taking part for the simple love of the sport.

That includes the NAGAA and its southwest division. Mahaney said the club currently plays four or five matches a year, including one or two home-and-home series with other southwest division clubs like Houston.

“Everyone knows about the troubled times (in Ireland),” he said. “But this is something that’s played all through the country. It’s one of our social traditions. Instead of (the Irish community) being all spread out, this is something that helps in uniting the people.”