Irish national sports are ancient, with a history that dates back over a thousand years. The Gaelic games – Gaelic football and hurling – are fast and violent, and they remain Ireland’s most popular sports. Yet few in North America are aware they even exist. This might change with the creation of the Concordia Warriors-Óglaigh Ollscoile club, the first university Gaelic games club in Canada.
The Daily spoke to Daithí Mac Fhlaithimh, a visiting Irish language scholar at Concordia and the club’s founder. “I just wanted to share the experience,” he said, referring to a childhood steeped in hurling culture. “It’s an overall cultural thing I wanted to bring.”
Mac Fhlaithimh’s motivation seems to be paying off. The club already has a small but dedicated membership. Those involved range from the expected Irish Canadians and Irish Quebecers, to people who have no previous cultural connection with Ireland. All the members The Daily spoke to, however, stressed that it was not an exclusively Irish project, and that their motivation for joining was largely the allure of the sports themselves. As one of the members said, “We’re not playing just because it’s Irish, we’re playing because we want to play.”
“I like the fact that [Gaelic football is] fast-paced. You’re always on your feet, there’s no breather […] I’m used to playing curling, in which you have more than a breather,” explained U1 Canadian Irish Studies student Roxane Jarvis-Patenaude. “I find it really cool to see how similar it is to games that we actually know. And then see how this game is actually older than all of them.”
The link between Irish culture and the Gaelic games is there, however. Mac Fhlaithimh told The Daily of his admiration for the history of hurling and how “you’re linked to your past through hurling as an Irishman.” Gaelic sports crosses borders, he added, and for many Highland Scots, shinty (a sport related to hurling) is also a sign of identity. An interesting fact of Concordia’s club, and perhaps an indication of the new progressiveness of Gaelic games, is that players are free to identify with them however they like.
The name of the club too, Óglaigh Ollscoile, is culturally and politically significant. ‘Óglaigh’ is Irish word for ‘young warrior,’ and appears frequently in Irish myths. It was also a word used by revolutionaries to describe themselves in 1916 in the Easter Rising, an uprising against British rule. The club is named in honour of the uprising’s centenary celebrations next year.
When the political connotation was brought up, members were still at pains to stress that the intention was inclusive rather than divisive.
“The team is named after the Irish volunteers, [so] there is that aspect of nationalism. [But] it’s not political or positional – it’s respectful,” said Jarvis-Patenaude.
Mac Fhlaithimh also admitted that the name of the club has political connotations, but he argued that Ireland had moved on. An inspiration, he said, was a former president of Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association who went out his way to include people from the opposing political tradition in the sport.
“It’s a mad mix […] it’s all about people getting together and having fun. That’s the main reason [for getting involved],” he continued. Other members all agreed, saying that their experience so far had been overwhelmingly positive and welcoming.
The club already has plans to participate in the North American university championships (the U.S. has nine university Gaelic games clubs), and members were enthusiastic about the prospect of meeting people through the sport. Their hope is that they attract enough players to form the basis for lasting Gaelic football and hurling teams, and stated the club is open to anyone interested – not just Concordia students.
“That’s the name of the game,” said Mac Fhlaithimh, speaking about the inclusivity of the sport. “Friendship, fun, and coming home with a few black eyes every now and again.”