For people of Irish descent, hearing stories of the traditional Gaelic sports is part of their upbringing.
Yet for our local youth, actually playing these unique sports is possible through the Shannon Gaels club, an organization that is part of the New York Gaelic Athletic Association.
For nearly 20 years, the Shannon Gaels club has served the NYC area. It’s currently the second largest GAA – Gaelic Athletic Association – in New York, with 270 youth members and upwards of 500 total participants made of up family members, coaches and former athletes. It’s truly a family affair.
“If your older brother played, you’re going to play; if your younger sibling plays, you’re going to get into it,” said David McNamara, the club’s games development officer. “It’s quite similar to a club back home in terms of the family setup, trickling all the way down to the youngest siblings. Parents are often volunteer coaches.”
Born and raised Catholic in County Clare, Ireland, McNamara grew up playing sports in the rural countryside. After emigrating to the city three years ago, he now oversees the day-to-day running of the club by making sure all aspects are running smoothly, from recruitment to social media and everything in between. Before recently moving to Long Island City, McNamara was a parishioner at Most Holy Trinity-St. Mary, East Williamsburg.
“We’re all about spreading the Gaelic games and Irish culture all among of Queens,” he said. “We give kids an outlet for sports and give parents an outreach for their own Irish heritage. We’re looking to give something they or their parents may have grown up with to the youngest generation.”
The Gaelic games are comprised of three sports: Gaelic football, hurling, and camogie. Each of these sports involves a distinct skillset, which McNamara and his colleagues teach to kids during various clinics throughout the city.
Gaelic football is similar to soccer and rugby. It’s a physical sport between two teams of 15 in which participants can pick the ball up with their hands and run forward a few steps. The objective is to score by kicking or punching the ball into the other team’s goals (3 points) or between two upright posts above the goals and over a crossbar 2.5 meters (8 feet, 2 inches) above the ground (1 point).
Hurling is closest to lacrosse. Players use an ash wood stick called a hurley to hit a small ball called a sliotar between the opponent’s goalposts either over the crossbar (1 point) or under the cross bar into a net guarded by a goalkeeper (3 points). It’s also a contact sport that ranks just behind ice hockey in terms of the speed of the game.
Camogie is the version of hurling for women and girls. It’s fast-paced and involves a distinct skillset. Just like men’s and women’s lacrosse, hurling and camogie have slight rule changes that set them apart.
Children start playing these sports for the Shannon Gaels as young as 4 years old. There are divisions into the teenage groups, and there are even adults – like McNamara – who continue to play these traditional sports recreationally.
“We want to be just as local as the soccer team or the baseball team down the road,” McNamara said. “We want to be just as established and known. These guys are the Irish crew, but everybody is welcome.”
The club typically holds outdoor free clinics and matches at Sunnyside Gardens Park and St. Vartan Park in Manhattan, while also setting up indoor clinics at the Brooklyn Queensborough Elks Lodge on Queens Boulevard in Flushing.
In mid-October, the Shannon Gaels opened a new, full-size pitch at Frank Golden Park in College Point. It marks just the second GAA pitch in New York City after Gaelic Park in the Bronx.
“This is going to change the way the Shannon Gaels train and work,” McNamara said. “We are going to be able to spread kids out, and the engagement is going to be greater, just by being able to have more space.”
After being put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Shannon Gaels are also back holding indoor youth clinics at St. Mel Catholic Academy in Flushing on Friday evenings. This is a great way for children to learn the skills of a new sport, get some exercise, and enjoy challenges and relay races along the way. The Shannon Gaels are seeking to partner with other local schools and parishes for free clinics.
The organization stresses that participants do not need to be of Irish descent to participate. Their motto is simple:
“Anyone who’s looking to play, we will get you there,” McNamara said.
Given how closely Irish culture is intertwined with Catholicism, this sense of inclusion for all fits in perfectly with the Catholic values of sport. Through these Gaelic games that are hundreds of years old, the Shannon Gaels are creating well-rounded athletes who can transfer these new skills into their typical soccer, basketball, baseball, or softball contests.
For more information on the club, visit www.shannongaels.org.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.