by marcia chambers | Jul 9, 2012 1:15 pm
From the moment they hit Irish soil on June 19, Short Beach teens Cyrene Nicholas and Etta Hanlon (pictured above), members of the New York Gaelic Girls Football team, were on a roll. They and their teammates were determined to win their division cup, and they did, taking home the cup to the United States for the first time ever.
And in an historic turn of events, the boys New York team won as well, making the two wins an extraordinary testament to the strength of America’s program, said Etta’s father, Doug Hanlon, a scientist and a member of the Representative Town Meeting.
Cyrene and Etta, both 13, attend Walsh Intermediate School. They traveled to Ireland in late June to compete with their team in Ireland’s National Gaelic Football Tournament, the Féile Peil na nÓg. In this tournament, the best teams from each county in Ireland and some of the best overseas teams compete to win the All Ireland Feile Cup.
Gaelic football is a rough and tumble ancient sport that combines the speed, skills and agility of soccer, rugby and basketball. It is played in teams of 15 on a pitch larger than a soccer field with rugby-type goals at each end. The ball may be kicked with the foot or punched with the hand; the head is not used to advance the ball. The ball is never is never thrown.
Click here to read a story about how Etta and Cyrene became involved in the sport.
Cyrene and Etta represented the United States in the under 14 category at the tournament in Ireland. More than 76 teams at different division levels took part in 268 matches held last month.
They were part of a team of 24 girls, including one from Guilford and one from Essex, a record of four girls from Connecticut. They made the cut from 65 to 24 in tryouts that began in March in New York and ended on April 15 when 24 girls were chosen. The team represents the New York area, which includes Connecticut, and is considered a county for the purpose of this famous international competition.
The two division titles for the girls and boys of New York were front page news in the Irish Independent newspaper. It had never happened before. The girls and boys in the under 14 division returned to the United States with gold medals and silver cups, a recognition of their skill at the game in a country where it began and where it traditionally wins.
Click here to read the Irish Independent’s story, published on June 25, the day after they won.
The girls have had a grueling training schedule since April. Cyrene’s mother Alison and her father Tim, along Etta’s parents, Doug and Dori Hanlon, helped to transport the girls to their many practices in Rockland County where the team practiced. The drive took two hours, meaning sometimes the families did not return home until 10:30 p.m.
Allison Nicholas kept a short diary of events during the tournament, which she shared with the Eagle.
The girls and their parents flew out of New York Monday night and landed in Dublin on Tuesday, June 19. That very evening the girls New York team beat St. Judes in a challenge match.
The next day, Wednesday, they toured Croke Park, then played Raheney and won.
On Thursday they trained at the University College of Dublin and went down to Tullamore. They practiced but did not play that day.
But Friday night they were back on the field, playing against the host club, Killeigh and beating them.
Next came an extraordinary parade where the whole town of Port Laoise turned out to greet all 152 competing teams, about 4,000 players. After the parade the girls went to stay with their host families.
On Saturday morning, the team played and won their morning games, making it to the semi-finals that evening in Ratheniska.
One of those Saturday games meant the most to Etta, besides winning the division title, of course.
In an interview yesterday, Etta said: “My best moment was that Saturday when we won the semi-final game against Roscommon.” (Roscommon is the 11th largest of the 32 counties of Ireland.) “It was a difficult game. The referee kept calling us for holding the ball the whole time. We weren’t. If we lost that game we would be out and on our way home. So we figured a way around the ref,” she said.
“And what was that,” we asked?
“We caught the ball and immediately hand passed it, caught it and immediately hand passed it, caught it and immediately hand-passed it. And it worked. When it was over, we all screamed and cried. We thought it was stacked against us and everything rode on that game. And we won.”
Then came the semi-finals. After a hard won game in the pouring rain, the girls celebrated their win at a party in Ballinagar put on by the host families.
Sunday morning they played the final game at the Laois Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) grounds against Bredagh team from County Down, winning by 2 points in an absolutely heart stopping game, their parents said.
Cyrene said in an interview that her best moment was winning her division finals. But then she said: “It was also all the conversations we held with other girls. We talked all the time to the Irish girls,” she said. “They are not much different from us and yet they have very different lives. We learned a lot about them. That was wonderful.”
“And do they practice as much as your team does?” we asked.
“They do not practice as much,” she said.
Overall, they played seven games in all; two were challenge matches, over the course of six days before winning their division 4 title. There are 14 divisions.
In winning every game, they New York team set the bar high, Liam O’Neill, the president of the GAA, told the Irish Independent.
O’Neill told the paper he predicts an explosion of interest in Gaelic football for girls in the future, and if the increase in numbers participating in the New York club is anything to go by, the trend will also be seen abroad.
He acknowledged that the New York teams were “streets ahead” of Ireland when it came to organizing juveniles, particularly girls, in the sport.
Doug Hanlon said this girls group has a special energy and set of experiences and their coaches are “trying to figure out of a way to keep them together as a team.” That’s because after the age of 14, they can no longer play in the same division.
O’Neill told the newspaper that he believed the sport “will expand through the girls’ game. It’s easier for them to pick it up and more are playing the game. It’s a more attractive game for them. In the next 12 months, we will see an expansion. We can learn a lot from New York. They have 700 children—and 400 of them girls—playing Gaelic football,” he said.
As for Cyrene and Etta, they hope to spend next year playing with an older girl’s team (16 years old) but are looking for ways to start a Gaelic football team in New Haven for girls nearer to their age. When they turn 14, they age out and are required to move to the next age bracket. Their parents are helping them in this quest.
Meanwhile celebrations continue. The next one will take place at the Irish American Community Center at 9 Venice Place in East Haven on Saturday, July 21. Call (203) 469-3080 for details.
The events of the tournament are still fresh in the minds of Etta and Cyrene. It was, they said, a simply amazing week.
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