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culture

An Irish Sport Gains Popularity in Toronto

Irish immigrants find a home away from home on Toronto's Gaelic football teams.

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Photo courtesy of Durham Emmets Gaelic Football Club

Tired of the same old St. Patrick’s Day routine of drinking green beer, wearing silly hats, and falling asleep before 10 p.m.? This year, try something a little more traditionally Irish: a round of Gaelic football.

The sport is sort of like soccer, but with basketball, volleyball, and rugby thrown in for good measure. Teams of seven to 15 players square off on a rectangular field and try to score on each other by putting a ball between a pair of uprights or into a net. The ball moves down the field through a combination of carries, kicks, bounces, hand-passes, and a neat move called a solo, which is a mid-run kick pass to yourself.

Gaelic football is hugely popular in Ireland. Dublin’s Croke Park, the 82,000-seat arena where the sport’s finals are held each year, is the fourth-largest stadium in Europe—and the largest not primarily used for soccer.

And since 1947, Toronto has had its very own branch of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the sport’s governing body, to foster the game for the local Irish expat community.

Now, with a new wave of Irish immigrants coming to find work in Canada, the sport has taken on a special role.

“The Toronto GAA has taken it on to make our best efforts to take care of people coming over,” spokesperson John Creery told us. “When you come over, the most important thing is to find work and a home. The Irish community in general is good, and they’re realy helpful, but the GAA community in particular is great for that.”

That’s how Creery got settled when he moved to Canada in 2001 from Lugan, a small town in County Armagh. Creery had been playing Gaelic football all his life. Soon after moving to Toronto, he met a team coach. “When he heard my accent he wanted me to come play for him,” said Creery.

Most of Creery’s friends are people he met through the Gaelic football community. And he said people involved in the sport look out for one another, helping new recruits find out about job prospects, apartments, and the Canadian way of life.

The support is helpful not only to the players, but also to their families in Ireland. “This way,” Creery said, “families back home know their loved one is being welcomed and taken care of, and has someone here to look in on them.”

Creery said the league is bigger than he’s ever seen it. Since most players are from Ireland or have some sort of Irish background, that’s no surprise. Canada is desperate to attract people from the Emerald Isle. This year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada ramped up a program to give temporary work permits to young Irish citizens. The agency plans to almost double the program’s quota—currently 6,350—by 2014. And, last fall, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made a pitch on Irish TV for workers to consider Canada.

With the influx bolstering men’s teams, Yvonne Morley wanted the ladies to get in on the action. She recently started a ladies squad under the aegis of the St. Pats club. The team played its first game last weekend in a tournament.

“Men’s teams were growing with this influx of young Irish, and I thought, ‘There must be women coming over too,’” said Morley. “It’s a chance for the ladies to get together, make some new friends, and meet people in their new country.”

Morley said about 60 per cent of the team’s players are from Ireland, while most of the other 40 per cent have some Irish background, like herself. (Both her parents emigrated from County Mayo in 1977.) The team is open to beginners of any nationality.

According to Creery, the Toronto GAA board is trying to start more youth teams, to promote the sport in schools and bring in a more diverse set of players.

The outdoor season officially gets underway in May and runs until September.

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