Only about two dozen girls in the country can say they are traveling to Ireland to compete in the country’s annual Féile Peil na nÓg Gaelic Football Championships and four of them happen to be from the area. Two girls, Cyrene Nicholas and Etta Hanlon are residents; Kristen Dean is from Essex and Tessa Mackey is from Guilford.
At a recent Gaelic football match held at East Haven’s Irish American Club where the girls practice as part of the New Haven Gaelic Football Association, Dean said, “It’s like a real honor that you made the team to represent New York.”
A soft-spoken seventh-grader at John Winthrop Junior High School in Deep River, Dean’s teammates quickly speak up that their friend has quite a leg and is a fierce forward when it comes to the game.
"I just really want to score for the team," said Dean, adding, "and you can do anything as long as the ref doesn’t see."
Playing for a combined total of more than 15 years, the girls have been touting the sport of Gaelic football despite the poor reception from their schoolmates and peers.
Hanlon, an eighth-grader at in Branford commented, “The most common thing is, when you say, ‘I’m going to play Gaelic football,’ they are like ‘football?’ You play football?’”
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Akin to rugby and traditional soccer, Gaelic football is usually a co-ed sport where players work the field to score points either by kicking or throwing a medium-sized ball through goal posts. Players in the New Haven and New York leagues play on teams with others of similar but varying ages – it’s not uncommon to see a 13 year-old playing with a 10-year-old if abilities match.
A fan of the flexibility of Gaelic football, Hanlon said, “It’s a different sport; it really is. It combines a lot of different sports and you can play it any age really and it’s for girls and boys.”
But as much fun as the game is for the players, the dedication to this growing but still relatively unknown sport in the states, is a family commitment.
Hanlon’s father , who is also a Branford RTM member for the Third District representing , said he’s put about 50,000 miles on his Honda Element taking his daughter to and from Rockland, New York where many regular-season New York Minor Board Gaelic Football games are played. Now that she has made the New York U14 Feile team, he and the other parents will be driving to New York Tuesdays and Thursdays for practice every week until the tournament, which begins June 22 in Laois and Offaly, Ireland. If he’s the lucky parent, Doug said he’ll be headed to the tournament with Etta.
The players from the area were selected to represent the United States on the New York Feile team from a pool of about 70 girls, said Doug. “Believe it or not, all four of the girls from New Haven that went down, made it,” he said beaming. New York is allowed to play in the country’s national tournament, he added, because the United States is recognized as a Provence of Ireland given the high immigrant population.
The girls will be playing a week worth of games and though excited about the prospect of making the finals – last year’s New York team made it to the semi-finals before losing – they are equally as excited about seeing Ireland. They will be staying with a host family in Offaly to really experience the local culture. To help the girls’ fly to Ireland – tickets are $1,200 each – you can purchase a raffle ticket for $20 (prizes are $100, $300 or $500); e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Playing with the New York U14 Feile team is an honor and a huge accomplishment for the girls who have been working really hard over the years, they said. Nicholas notes that she and her teammates are excited to be part of an all-girl team for the first time; they’ve all grown accustomed to playing tough with the boys on the co-ed local teams over the years. “It’s kind of cool,” she said of the New York team, "because most teams don’t have girls because girls think – it has football, ‘I don’t want to play football’ – I think it’s really great that it’s an opportunity for girls.”
If you have a son or daughter interested in playing Gaelic football, stop by the Irish American Club Tuesday or Thursday afternoons or on the weekends when games are played; check out the New Haven Gaelic Football Association for more as well.