Saturday Down South – The Gaelic Version
Brian O’Sullivan – Experience Gaelic Games
The last Saturday in November is very special in the State of Alabama. Two days after Thanksgiving the State goes into its annual frenzy. This Saturday will be no different as Auburn University and University of Alabama go at it, hammer and tongs, for the State Championship affectionately known as “The Iron Bowl”.
All sporting people know that the Iron Bowl is the defining day in the calendar of Alabamians. It defines their lives for a full year. As one Crimson Tide fan quipped, on his way out of Jordan-Hare Stadium, after an agonising defeat twelve months ago, ‘That’s life on hold for another year’.
To draw a comparison a few short hours before this year’s Iron Bowl kicks off in Tuscaloosa; the Gaelic Games version will be in full flow. Just over 3500 miles east of Selma there will be a Saturday Down South of a different genre.
Hidden away, from the madding crowds, on the Iveragh Peninsula in South West Ireland; Waterville take on St. Marys for the destination of the Jack Murphy Cup. In layman’s terms it’s the GAA equivalent of the Iron Bowl.
The South Kerry Gaelic Football Championship is a mirror version of the Iron Bowl. It divides the picturesque townlands that stem along the world renowned Ring of Kerry; in a little corner of Ireland that resembles Hollywood’s vision of the Emerald Isle. There is no better example of the deep passion of Gaelic Football than this.
While Auburn Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide divide an entire State, between their legions of fans; the area comforted to Waterville GAA Club bears little resemblance. Next Saturday their starting fifteen along with nine substitutes will be selected from within a two mile radius of the seaside village that Charlie Chaplin made his holiday home – The population of which stands at a mere 538 human souls.
On Saturday, as chants of Roll Tide/War Eagle echo through the streets of Tuscaloosa, those 538 people will be crammed into Waterville Sportsfield as they take on St. Marys from the nearby town of Caherciveen. Emotions will run high. These are the great days in the Gaelic world “outsiders” rarely hear about. They are the hidden gems of rural Ireland.
When the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884 they swore to establish a GAA club in every parish. Even the most remote areas of South West Ireland, though ravaged by economic depression and emigration, field a team to this day.
Like A Religion
Gaelic Football, like College Football in the State of Alabama, is a religion in County Kerry. The County side, which picks the best players from the seventy-odd clubs within its confines, has tasted All-Ireland success thirty-seven times. Including 2014 when they defeated Donegal in front of a crowd of 82, 184.
Bryan Sheehan starred in that victory. Last September all of Kerry united to cheer their warriors on. Amazingly, next Saturday, Sheehan will be in direct confrontation with some of those that stood in that crowd cheering his every move.
Gaelic Games are prime example of how a sport can bond people together; yet set them apart within a short space of time. No other sport offers you the chance to have a genuine crack at your sporting idol.
Imagine the College players, who play in the Iron Bowl on Saturday, returning to their street league sides within a week and you’ll get a fair idea of the differing arenas’ Gaelic stars like Sheehan display their talents.
The Catholic Church connection is unique. Every club is assigned to a parish. St. Marys are a fine example. Born out of a bunch of schoolboys, disillusioned with an aging club in the town of Caherciveen, they decided they would go it alone. Drawing their members from the local Christian Brother School they christened themselves in respect to the statue of the Virgin Mary which stood in the hallway of the Monastery.
That was in the spring of 1929 and today, in the winter of 2014, thirty South Kerry titles have come their way. They are the envy of the other eight clubs in the region including the other two clubs, Reenard and Foilmore, who draw their members from the same parish of just over 1400 people. Next Saturday Waterville will try to lower their status, as the aristocrats of the game in the region, and take their twelfth title and a first since 1999.
Last August Penn State Nittany Lions won their season opener at GAA HQ Croke Park in Dublin. Three days prior to kick-off they tried their hand at both Gaelic Football and Hurling with Experience Gaelic Games. The luck of the Irish rubbed off them as they grinded out a victory against University of Central Florida.
Penn State got a sense of the culture and uniqueness of the Games that regularly fill Croke Park. The same stars who fill that stadium can be regularly seen in the parks on the back roads of Ireland striving for the pride of their respective parishes. That’s the uniqueness of Gaelic Games.
Let it be said – There is a clear comparison between College Football and Gaelic Games. There is an un-quenching spirit within the two. Next November will be the same, as will the November after next. However 365 days must run until then; that is what makes Saturday Down South so special be it in Waterville – Ireland or Tuscaloosa – Alabama.