By Joe Tash
Some local children are learning a sport that is relatively unknown in America, but dates back for centuries in Ireland.
Gaelic football combines elements of soccer, rugby and even basketball, and its popularity in San Diego is growing.
“It’s fast and you need skill to do it,” said Eoin O’Callaghan, 10, whose father, Brian O’Callaghan, is president of the San Diego Youth Gaelic Athletic Association, an umbrella organization for four local Gaelic football clubs. All three of O’Callaghan’s sons — aged 6 to 13 — play the sport.
The association was formed in 2007, and there are now clubs in Carmel Valley, La Mesa, University City, and Irvine, said O’Callaghan, a local businessman who was born in Ireland. In all, about 120 boys and girls, ages 5 to 15, play the sport locally, O’Callaghan said. Men’s and women’s teams have also formed.
The sport is similar to soccer, but with a key difference — players can catch or pick the ball up with their hands and carry it down the field. A few complications make it trickier than it sounds, though. Players can run only four steps before they must either bounce the ball, drop it and kick it back up to their hands, or pass it to a teammate by striking it with a blow from their clenched fist.
Players score one point by kicking the ball through a set of uprights at either end of the field, or three points by kicking the ball into the goal below the uprights.
Gaelic football is not as physical as rugby or American football, but it is a contact sport, and players can bump shoulders with their opponents in an effort to gain control of the ball.
Such shoulder-to-shoulder contact is called “jostling.”
“You might call it physical assault but we call it jostling,” O’Callaghan joked.
The teams practice on weekdays, and come together for a tournament every two weeks. On a recent Sunday afternoon, players ranging from small children to adults battled on playing fields set up at Standley Park in University City.
Angus Taggart of Carmel Valley said his two boys, ages 8 and 10, were playing in a local rugby league when the family heard about Gaelic football and decided to try it out. Taggart, who was born in England, said his father, a Scotsman, played rugby when he was in college.
Taggart said Gaelic football and rugby provide a link to the family’s heritage, while also serving as a physical outlet for his sons.
“There’s coordination between hands and feet. I think it’s got a good range of skills for kids,” Taggart said.
His sons have also played baseball, a sport in which players are often inactive, sitting on the bench or out in the field.
“With rugby and Gaelic football, it’s non-stop. A lot of running, very fluid,” he said.
The local Gaelic football league is open to anyone, O’Callaghan said, although many of the players come from Irish or Irish-American families. Some non-Irish families have joined as well.
“It’s fun and it’s not taken too seriously,” he said.
The league does not charge a registration fee, and instead is supported through fund-raising events.
While Gaelic football is just coming into its own in Southern California, the sport is very popular back east, with hundreds of teams in large cities such as Chicago, Boston and New York, said Jim Foley, a league supporter who lives in San Diego.
The sport is also extremely popular in Ireland, where amateur adult leagues draw tens of thousands of spectators to large stadiums for important matches, O’Callaghan said.
For more information about Gaelic football, visit www.sdygaa.com, or call O’Callaghan at 858-232-8330.