“The sports are kinda spreading,” Larry Greene, the director of the Montreal Shamrocks Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) club, told me on February 16, while we watched the Montreal women’s Gaelic football team run back and forth over the AstroTurf field. Under the Complexe Sportif Val-des- Arbres in Laval, the Shamrocks were squaring off against the Ottawa Gaels. One of the Shamrocks’ players picked up the ball and ran straight past two defenders; she took three strides and dropped the ball, kicked it back up to her hands, and lobbed it to her teammate on the far left side of the net. Three Gaels swarmed her as soon as she caught the ball. Within a second, she kicked it over the net.
In Ireland, Gaelic football and hurling are as popular as hockey is in Canada. Games in Ireland regularly fill up 80,000-person stadiums. “You can’t grow up in a Canadian town without hockey,” Greene said, “and you can’t grow up in Ireland without either hurling or Gaelic football.”
I turned my eyes back to the game. The players were running back and forth without break. Each time a goal was scored, the goalie threw the ball back into the mix within seconds. I understood why some say Gaelic football is the fastest sport on grass.
The object of the game is to score into the opposing team’s net, and there are two ways to do this. Getting the ball over the bar (imagine a field goal post in American football) lands one point, and getting the ball in the net gets three. The players run with the ball, like in football or rugby, but every four steps they have to do something with the ball. The player can drop it and kick it back up, bounce it, or pass it – and you can’t ever repeat an action. Players pass the ball to one another by lobbing it, like in volleyball. The whole sport feels like a mesh of the most popular sports on Earth. Despite all these rules, the women never once fouled.
In Ireland, your town is known for either hurling or Gaelic football. “I started hurling when I was six,” Greene told me. “Lads stick hurls in babies’ hands – they’re obsessed over there.” In 1884, the English tried eliminating hurling, trying to stamp it out and ‘civilize’ the Irish. The various hurling groups got together and formed the Gaelic Athletic Association, where the rules were formalized, teams decided, structures arranged, and the game maintained. Today, Greene is one of the many Irish immigrants spreading the game.
Greene came to Montreal a few years ago. In Ireland, he tells me, “the story there is either you’re on unemployment or, yaknow, [struggling].” Just last year, the Irish government offered several thousand work visas overseas, and they were gone in two days. But the Irish have always been on the move.
After the Seven Years’ War, Irish immigrants established a small foothold in Montreal and Quebec. Almost a hundred years later, Irish labourers were hired to build Canada’s earliest industrial feats, like the railroads and the Victoria Bridge. Sharing the same Catholic beliefs, Irish immigrants often married the local Quebecois, resulting in many mixed heritage families. Today, the Irish are the second-largest ethnic group in Quebec behind French Canadians, and tolerance.ca estimates that almost half of Quebecois have Irish ancestry. Irish communities around the world are, once again, growing. Despite the numbers, Greene explains, “The Montreal Irish community is so small,” most of them are not aware of their own heritage. Hurling and Gaelic football, he sees, are a way to reassert that legacy and introduce it to foreigners.
When Greene arrived, he didn’t have any friends, but when he saw that there was an amateur Gaelic football league, he dove in. Suddenly, he had connections all over the city. “It’s not just [that] we play sports,” he says, “It’s a community … There’s a huge social side to the games.”
When his girlfriend moved to Ottawa, he posted an ad on Kijiji to start a hurling team there. Initially, five people responded and they began playing. It’s been a few years since Larry has lived in Ottawa, but there is now a hurling and Gaelic football league thriving there. In Toronto, St. John’s, Quebec City, and Vancouver, there are teams that compete nationally. They are comprised of players from a variety of backgrounds. For instance, almost all of the players on the Quebec City team are Quebecois, save for one Irishman.
Greene stresses that the community they’ve built, however amateur, is dedicated. “They work nine to five and they play at night like soccer players,” he says, “except no one’s getting paid.”
The whistle blew and the game ended. The Shamrocks patted each other on the back, smiled, and talked about how later that night they would all get together for a much needed pint at Hurley’s, an Irish bar. Greene suited up for his hurling match. He took out a long wooden club, straight on the shaft and curved like the root of a trunk at the tip. It looked like a warrior’s weapon. “Hurling was originally a sport warriors would play three thousand years ago to unwind,” he says, lifting the club, showing me the detail of the hand-made woodwork. Eventually, if there was a dispute between warring villages, they would settle the matter over a game of violent hurling. The violence remains today, though now with plenty of jollity.
The rules of hurling are quite similar to Gaelic football, with the main difference being the actual hurlers. A person can handle the ball as much as they want before they aim at the net, but no one would because everyone would be swinging clubs that would have made Vikings flee at other peoples’ heads. There is a distinct pop each time the ball collides with a hurler that sounds like champagne being uncorked. The players scrounge with their fingers for the tiny ball of death while the bone-crushing clubs swing freely. And it is even faster than Gaelic football.
On the sidelines, the girls were stretching and speaking. I spoke to two Montrealers, Lindsey and Veronique, and an Australian, Kate. The three girls, usually Australian-rules football players, tried their hand at the Gaelic variety and loved it. “It’s so continuous, there’s no stopping,” Lindsey said. Looking at her teammates, Veronique added, “all the girls are so encouraging.”
Kate’s life, in particular, was dramatically changed by her involvement in amateur leagues. She first came to Canada for school in British Columbia, but it was only until she made friends through sports teams that she fell in love with the country. “We’re a team,” she says, “the sense of community, the friendship – it’s more than just a sport.”
As I saw the women of the Gaelic football team excited to go to the bar together, Kate’s words solidified: “We’re a team.”
The Montreal Shamrocks GAA membership registration night for the 2013 season takes place Friday, March 1 at 8:00 p.m. at Hurley’s Irish Pub. Beginners are welcome. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.