On a recent Saturday night, the voices of more than 60 kids, many of them 10 or younger, echoed off the roof of a huge inflatable dome on the campus of Arcadia University in Glenside. Often with more enthusiasm than skill, they grabbed, tossed and kicked a white ball into mesh goals and through uprights up and down adjoining courts, with adult coaches shouting instructions and doling out liberal doses of encouragement.
At times, it seemed like chaos, but if you looked closely and paid attention, you could see that there was an organization underlying it all.
This was Gaelic football for kids, a primer on how to one day play the game in all seriousness. Serious, because they represent the future of Gaelic athletics in the Philadelphia area—and to a larger extent, the United States.
Irish kids are virtually born with a football nestled in their cribs. Playing Gaelic football becomes second nature. Not so here in the States, where the sport clearly faces competition from soccer, baseball and American football, and has different and sometimes alien rules and style of play.
The Glenside Gaelic Club is doing a pretty fair job of bringing local kids up to speed. While the indoor football clinic was meant to hone the skills of older kids, too, many of whom have now been playing the sport for six years. The club also teaches hurling—a fast-moving, rough and tumble sport involving balls much closer to the size of an American baseball and a long-handled hockey-like stick with which to hit the ball—and camogie, essentially the same sport for girls and women. Both sports are also played in the spring and summer.
Chris Scullion is vice chair of the club board of directors. The club is growing steadily from one year to the next, he says. “Every year, we get another 10 or 12. We had close to 90 kids playing last week.”
Although another purpose of the club is to make kids and their families more aware of their Irish heritage, not all the kids are Irish-American, he adds. Many from other ethnic groups and nationalities come along with their Irish-American friends and are drawn in. The club recruits new players through word of mouth and by lawn signs throughout the area.
Gaelic football is always the more popular sport.
“Hurling is a little bit more difficult to learn. Hurling takes a lot more coordination. With football, they can just jump right in,” he says. “Once they learn it, they love it.”
Which is not to say kids who play hurling don’t have their own enthusiasm for the game. “For most of them, hurling is a real passion once they start to learn it. We get a lot of kids who have played baseball (the game bears some similarities) and they pick it up right away.”
The season begins in earnest for all sports on May 1, when the games—intramural in nature—begin on the Ambler campus of Temple University on Wednesday and Friday nights. On Father’s Day weekend, there’s a tournament that draws other youth clubs.
All of this practice and game laying is preparation for the Continental Youth Championships, which this year will be held in Philadelphia.