Gaels grow strong in shadow of gridiron giants

They might share a common cause but this weekend, the Denver Gaels and Seattle Gaels GAA clubs are split by a common desire for Super Bowl success.

The fact they are two of the strongest members of the North American County Board is one of the great stories of the association in the States.

These are not the traditional destination cities for the Irish and the majority of both clubs’ players are American-born, many with no Irish connection whatsoever.

What’s more, there shouldn’t be room for the GAA in either metropolis. Seattle and Denver love their sports and are obsessed with their NFL teams in particular. It’s a passion that has been on display all season both at Qwest Field — where the Seattle Seahawks support has been routinely breaking decibel level records — and at Mile High Stadium at the foot of the glorious Rocky Mountains, the gateway to the Wild West.

“We are a very active club here in the Pacific Northwest,” Seattle Gaels chairman Brian White told me. “Hurling and Gaelic football are almost perfect sports for Americans — they combine skills from the popular sports over here like soccer, basketball, baseball and hockey and feature the high scoring, fast play and physicality that American sports like football have.”

The Seattle Gaels were formed in 1979 but the games were being played in the area as far back as the 1920s. It began to get a little more organised in the 1950s when a team consisting of a few Irish priests and ex-pats, along with their friends, took on teams from Vancouver and San Francisco. The NACB had just formed and the Seattle club almost affiliated but nothing came of it and the games were not revived again until 1979.

In the mid-1990s, a women’s team was affiliated and in the early 2000s, the Seattle Hurling Club merged with the Gaels. They sent a junior C team to their first national championships in 2004 and would secure a hurling title two years later at the expense of the Denver Gaels.

“As with most of the GAA, there is a special camaraderie that comes with being part of these very special sports and the rich heritage of the GAA,” says White. “The fact that we’re able to be part of a strong, vibrant and historical culture, while still put a uniquely American spin on things, makes it that much more interesting and special for our members.”

But that’s all out the window on Sunday.

“The Seattle Gaels have a great history with our GAA friends in Denver but I’m afraid it’s Seattle’s year,” White claims.

Meanwhile, Tom Walsh, chairman of the Denver Gaels, is of course in complete disagreement.

His club will start Super Bowl Sunday with their winter indoor hurling and football sessions at midday before heading to the Irish Rover or the Fainting Goat to watch the big game.

The Denver Gaels began as a Gaelic football club in 1996, formed by a group of Irish ex-pats. From a single men’s football team, Walsh tells me, the club has grown to over 120 members, competing annually at the NACB play-offs in men’s and women’s football, junior camogie and junior B and C hurling.

“Denver’s Irish community is much smaller than you would find in New York, Philadelphia or San Francisco,” says Walsh.

“However, we are often the first organisation contacted when someone from Ireland comes over to Colorado for a few months or years. I attribute our success to the strong community we have built. Our club committee might not get everything right but we have a good group of people who are motivated to create an enjoyable experience for the American-born player. The games-based training model that the GAA have implemented over the last several years has been key to attendance at training.”

The Denver Gaels are the most geographically isolated club in the US, their closest ‘rivals’ residing in Kansas City — a nine-hour drive away. It means they have placed an emphasis on growing their own intra-club hurling and football leagues, games which are open to both men and women.

“The games, if they were more widely available, would surely sell themselves,” says Walsh. “They are attractive, fast-paced, high scoring, physical contests that American audiences would love. The GAA, thankfully, has taken some steps to make the game more available. I hope this trend continues.”

And you never know. Winning a Super Bowl could do the world of good for one or other club’s long term plans. At the very least, it will mean bragging rights at the North American Club Championships in Boston in September.

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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