They’re the future of Philadelphia’s Gaelic Athletic Association, and they’re just about to be put to the test.
On the upcoming July 4th weekend, when most of the rest of us are attending parades, noshing on hot dogs and ooh-ing and ahh-ing over fireworks, 22 young members of the Delaware County Gaels Irish football team will be slugging it out at the Féile Peile na nÓg, a national festival of Irish athletics for young people, this year held in County Derry.
Tom Higgins, a Gaels coach, says the boys are looking forward to the challenge and are busily preparing to compete in the tournament’s Division 5. (There are eight divisions in all, with Division 1 reserved for the toughest and most skilled.)
A group of under-14s from the Philly area competed in that grade three years ago, with some success. “We did pretty good,” says Higgins, now a real estate agent in Plymouth Meeting. (He’s originally from Galway, with a long history of involvement—on the field and off—in the Philadelphia GAA.) “We won two out of three. This year we chose to stay in that same division. We try to know our limitations. We’ll play local Irish teams from smaller clubs.”
The trip lasts from June 25 to July 6. Once they get to Ireland, the boys will play a few warm-up matches before they compete in earnest. The first is in Convoy in County Donegal, the next at St. Eunan’s in Letterkenny (also Donegal), and the last against St. Gall’s in Belfast.
Three of the boys who competed three years ago are with the Delco Gaels club that is going to Ireland this year to represent Philadelphia. In the last tourney, the team included members of all the local youth teams. This year, it’s just the Gaels. It’s a strong team, says Higgins.
Like many youth GAA teams in the States, he says, the Gaels are a mix of boys whose dads are from Ireland, who themselves played Gaelic athletics, and kids for whom the sport of Irish football was brand-new when they joined. The Irish come to the game already knowing a lot about it. The kids who have not played before have a bit of a learning curve, he says, but they catch on fast and seem to love it.
“They like the contact,” Higgins says. “They like the speed of it and the passion. It’s like soccer but there’s more activity and it’s higher scoring. It’s a mix of football, soccer, basketball—there’s a few sports jumbled up in there.”
If GAA sports are to survive in the United States—and certainly in the Philadelphia area—Higgins says teams like the Delco Gaels are essential.
Higgins, who has played Irish football in the Delaware Valley for years, says he remembers back in the 1980s, when there were about 15 teams, and the games brought out hundreds of spectators. One reason for the success of GAA teams in those days, he adds, was the participation of players from Ireland—many of whom were in the country illegally. Bringing in players legally these days just isn’t happening.
“Immigration (to the United States) has stopped,” he says. “The players are going to Australia or Canada instead. So we really need to grow our own. It really should have been done long ago.”
The team needs about $50,000 to get the team to Derry, Higgins says, and so far about $35,000 has been raised. The team has already run two fund-raisers, he adds, and around mid-June there will be one more. “That should put us over,” he says.
The team is also looking for a sponsor for its jerseys—roughly $5,000. If you want jersey naming rights—or you want to help in a smaller way—contact Higgins at (215) 275-0591.