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Loyal Players Keep Gaelic Football Alive in Southern California


From the music of U2, the Cranberries and Van Morrison, to Frank McCourt's best-selling memoir "Angela's Ashes," to the growing popularity of Irish pubs and Guinness beer, to movies like "Waking Ned Divine," and "The Commitments," Americans seem to be in love with Irish culture.

So why hasn't Ireland's most popular sport--Gaelic football--captured this country's attention? Probably because the game is about as difficult to understand as a thick Irish brogue. Most Americans are probably more familiar with Australian Rules football, the sport that most closely resembles Gaelic football, because of occasional cable telecasts.

It is possible to watch Gaelic football on television in the United States, but you have to get up very early and head to your nearest Irish pub, where the games are beamed in via satellite.

There is an easier way to see Ireland's national pastime and connect with Irish culture on a first-hand basis. Just wander by Brothers of St. Patrick field in Midway City almost any Sunday in the spring or summer and The Wild Geese men's team or the Dirty Nellies women's team will be practicing or playing a game.

At one time, seven men's Gaelic football teams existed in Southern California, but now there are only three--the Wild Geese, San Diego Clan Na Gaez and Los Angeles Crows. New York, with its large Irish American population, has more than 200 Gaelic football teams.

"We're looking for more players," said John Wallace, team president of the Wild Geese and coach of the Dirty Nellies. "There aren't as many Irish coming over here now because the Irish economy has improved. But there's a lot more interest in Irish culture from Americans, so we may start getting more players."

Wallace has a few Americans on his 26-man active roster, but the majority are Irish immigrants or of Irish ancestry.

"There is no easy way to teach the game," said Wallace, 35, who played in the All-Ireland under-16 finals for County Meath. "You have to learn by playing."

The game is played on a pitch--or field--typically 160 to 180 yards long and 80 to 100 yards wide, with a laminated-leather ball that is smaller and heavier than a soccer ball.

There are 13 players to a side--15 in the traditional version played in Ireland--and the object is to move the ball downfield and score either a point or a goal (three points). A point is scored by kicking or punching (using an underhand volleyball serve) between two goal posts. A goal is scored by kicking or punching a loose ball into the net, which is set beneath the goal posts.

The play is not as physical as rugby because there is no tackling, but a shoulder-to-shoulder nudge can be used to slow an offensive player down, though shoulder tackling is not allowed in the women's game.

The rules were introduced in 1884 when the Gaelic Athletic Assn. was formed in Thurles, Ireland. Before that, as far back as 1527, Gaelic football was played between villages.

"They would go from one village to the next," Wallace said. "Before the rules came, it was like a war between villages. It became an aerial game because the conditions were so lousy on the ground."

It also became a way the Gaelic people could maintain their language and culture during their battles with the English. Some rules have been added and other discarded as the game has evolved, but one standard has been maintained--no players have ever been paid.

"It's a prized possession in Ireland," Wallace said. "There's a reluctance to turn it into a business."

The sport's amateur status certainly hasn't hurt its popularity. It's estimated that 250,000 Irish men and women play Gaelic football, making it more popular in Ireland than soccer or golf. On the third Sunday of September, the Irish drop everything to watch the All-Ireland final at Croke Park in Dublin, much like Americans flock to the television for the Super Bowl.

"They come from all over Ireland to play," Wallace said. "The guys on the two county teams that reach the men's final are superstars and they come from all walks of life--doctors, lawyers, priests and bricklayers."

John O'Callaghan, a tight end for Edison High, San Diego State and the Seattle Seahawks and now a midfielder for the Wild Geese, said he can't really compare American and Gaelic football.

"When you achieve success in American football, you're spoiled and pampered," O'Callaghan said. "[Gaelic football] is purely for enjoyment and a sense of community. If I wasn't playing, I'd be out there watching. As you get past your 20s, you start thinking about who you want to surround yourself with."

O'Callaghan, who grew up in the United States, began playing Gaelic football at the age of 10 during summer trips to Ireland to visit family.

"I think the greatest joy in Gaelic football is going up and fielding the ball between two or three people," O'Callaghan said. "There's hardly a better feeling in sport than that."

Jacqueline Hruby, captain of the Dirty Nellies, knew the sport only from watching the Wild Geese. But she had played soccer most of her life and realized the San Diego women's team needed competition. She also figured there was only one West Coast team to beat in order to qualify for the North American championships in Chicago over Labor Day.

"Anyone who's played soccer picks it up quickly," said Hruby, whose mother was born in Ireland. "I actually like it more than soccer because you can pick up the ball and do more things with it."

The Dirty Nellies begin their second season June 27 against Na Fianna of San Diego, which defeated the Nellies in the West Coast regional final, at Brothers of St. Patrick. The Wild Geese, who have been together since the mid-1980s, open at home the same day against Clan Na Gaez.

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