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Gaelic group introduces Irish sport in South Portland, Westbrook

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Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2013 2:26 pm

SOUTH PORTLAND – Irish eyes are smiling on South Portland and Westbrook, where the local recreation departments are offering an activity that may look familiar yet altogether different.

The two communities have been partnering with the Maine Gaelic Sports Alliance (MGSA) to put kids on the pitch playing Gaelic football, a hybrid of soccer and rugby popular on the other side of the pond. In the next month, there will be chances for kids to learn the game in both South Portland and Westbrook, and the MGSA has put the call out to other communities, hoping for more partners in bringing the game stateside.

“We’re trying to support kids and let them have a good time and play a sport that they don’t get to see every day,” said MGSA liaison Sean Matthews, whose son plays the sport. “You turn on the TV, you get soccer, you get football, you get baseball, you get hockey, you get basketball – you get all the major sports. But you turn on the TV over in Ireland, you don’t see any of those. We’re just trying to get kids to try something different, get them out, get them exercising and having a good time.”

The MGSA, which also promotes the game of hurling – a sport not unlike field hockey but with the ball kept mostly in the air, will offer coaching and logistical support. The Gaelic Athletics Association, based in Dublin, Ireland, along with their counterpart on this side of the Atlantic, the North American Gaelic Athletics Association, will provide footballs and teaching materials.

In South Portland, a weekly Gaelic football event starts April 30.

“This program fits in great with our youth sports offerings,” said Sabrina Best, recreation coordinator for the South Portland Department of Parks & Recreation. “With MGSA being able to provide all of the equipment and coaches, we are able to offer this program at a great price.”

Westbrook is offering free demonstrations and clinics, including one on Monday, March 18.

“The Westbrook Community Center is very excited to be a part of the Gaelic football program,” said Greg Post, deputy director of Westbrook Community Services. “We have worked with the MGSA crew for about a year and feel that we are now ready to take this partnership to the next level.

“Gaelic football, though somewhat unknown, is a very exciting game to play and watch, combining the skill sets of many of today’s more popular American sports.” The Westbrook Community Center will offer the program free-of-charge to local children. “We feel that once they’ve experienced it first-hand, they’ll be hooked,” Post said.

Gaelic football has been played for generations in its home country of Ireland, where it is one of the most popular sports. A variety of body parts, including both the hands and the feet, can be used to control the ball. The playing field, called a “pitch,” is somewhat larger than soccer field, and each team can have up to 13 players on the field at once. Naturally, the object is to score goals, which are worth three points, by kicking or hand-passing the ball into the net, but competitors can also score “overs,” worth one point, by getting the ball over the crossbar.

The MGSA, based in South Portland, was established in 2010 as Portland Youth Hurling. Initially, 15 players participated in the Northeast Minor Board as well as in the 2010 Continental Youth Championships. That competition also featured teams from New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. So far, the MGSA has grown to 35 players, and a roster of around 50 is expected for the summer.

The MGSA’s own season, which is distinct from the South Portland and Westbrook partner programs, runs from May to August. It includes children ages 4-16, and practices and games, held throughout Maine and New England, are coed. New England clubs hold monthly “blitzes,” tournaments or meets in which hundreds of players on numerous teams compete, and every few years, the MGSA participates in the Continental Youth Championships. The MGSA also reaches out in the offseason, introducing elementary school groups to the skills of the game as well as its cultural history.

At the end of the summer, Matthews said, the South Portland and Westbrook teams will square off for an exhibition.

“Just like with any new program … we try and offer free clinics or demos to try and gain interest,” Best said of the South Portland program. “Our February clinic was cancelled due to the blizzard, but we have one coming up. … Our registration for the spring program will open at the end of April, with our spring session running through May.

“Our goal with the Gaelic program,” Best said, “is to continue to grow interest and numbers so we are able to offer the program with the same structure as our soccer, lacrosse, and basketball programs, which would include creating multiple teams for in-house scrimmages and setting up games or even round robins with other teams in surrounding communities.”

Ultimately, the MGSA hopes to swell participation in both Gaelic football and hurling regardless of participants’ cultural backgrounds or economic means. The organization stresses safety, fun, and athletic and personal development.

“We feel the best way for the these sports to grow is in partnership between the GAA and communities with MGSA … training their staffs to earn GAA-accredited certifications for coaching and refereeing,” James Tierney, president of the MGSA, said. “This will, in theory, lead to inter-community games and meaningful competition …At the end of three years, we hope to have six communities playing regular games with each other and football and hurling teams competing from [under] 6 to [under] 16.”

Matthews said the group hopes other communities see the value of offering a different sport, one that goes back at least two centuries but is fairly unknown in U.S. If kids and parents give it a shot, he said, they are sure to love it.

“Anybody that will talk to us and give us at least one chance would be a great start,” Matthews said. “Places like Falmouth would be really great – they have a lot of kids who do lacrosse there. A program there would be a great way to just add something to the mix. Windham has a fantastic soccer program, and I think the [Gaelic] football would actually complement the soccer program. That would be one of my go-tos ... We’re talking to the Windham Primary School to try to do just a demonstration there, try to get [the kids] interested and involved in something that’s different.

“But in all honesty, anybody who’s willing to take a chance, sit down for an hour, listen to a presentation, see some slides, watch a video or two and then really come out and check it out –– give us a chance to prove that it’s worth it ... we’d take any takers.

“This is just me – I can’t speak for the other board members of the MGSA – but in an ideal world, I’d like to see every township or school district, all of Maine united, trying the game,” Matthews continued. “And if they like it, go for it. If they don’t, that’s OK. They tried it.

“I’d like to see them start doing it in high schools. I’d like to see them going at it for a [Class A state title.] I personally would like to see that.”

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