It’s a Saturday morning in Blackrock’s Kennedy Park, a tiny slab of grass nestled among a leafy Cork suburb, on a grey Irish morning.
Rugby, soccer and GAA teams are putting themselves through their paces around the city. Yet here, on a tiny public park, a small but growing minority swap their hurleys and sliotars for American footballs and playbooks, and continue to make Irish American Football one of the fastest growing sports in Ireland.
It may not quite be the NFL, but they’re certainly trying.
Christopher O’Connor is typical of the dedicated band of enthusiasts who’ve forsaken hurling, football, and soccer, for less traditional alternatives such as American Football.
He was drawn to the local American Football scene because it was something new, looked exciting, and was a change from the sorts of sports that he’d tried before:
“Maybe it was the shiny helmets”, says Christopher, “but I thought: “here’s something I’ve never tried before, so what’s to lose”, and I signed up.”
It may not be on a par with rugby, its closest sporting alternative, but the Irish American Football League (IAFL) continues to attract competitors from all over the country, with nine teams competing in the 2009 season and 11 competing at present.
Since its inception in 1984, the League has run annual competitions, and maintained a roster of national players representing Ireland on a European and world stage. It’s fully kitted, full contact, and getting bigger every year.
The basic annual event is the national league. This year’s membership is unprecedented, with 11 teams competing in the top league, and a further five fighting it out in the DV8s.
There’s also been a marked increase in the number of events and meets being arranged around the country. This year’s play calendar is as diverse and exciting a listing as the league has ever produced: after the Shamrock Bowl in August comes a College Championship, while the national side also readies for upcoming encounters.
The League’s members travel far and wide for meet ups around the country. Tournaments are regularly organized in Dublin, though there’s also been an increase in the number of events being put on in rural locations like Kerry (a recent meeting in Dingle was a runaway success).
Facilities are also improving across the board. In the southern Irish city of Cork, the city’s primary team, the Admirals, have recently moved into a new stadium for their matches, while the Association’s online presence is ever-improving, depicting a league marked by incredible amounts of commitment and enthusiasm on the part of its members.
The current furore in the league concerns who’s going to make the coveted playoff spot.
Seven teams fight for the spot; it looks like it’s going to go to tiebreakers.
The League and Association have come a long way from 1942, when the first demonstration match between two teams of US servicemen first took place before a crowd of roughly 8,000 spectators at Ravenhill, Belfast.
Other historical moments of note in the League’s evolution include the Dublin Celts first foray into the EuroBowl in 1988, though they were soon drubbed 36-12 by an Austrian side.
The national team has also represented the country on several occasions, though the international scene is less significant than the domestic league.
The Irish Sports Council first recognized the Association in 2004, paving the road for increased funding and recognition.
And if the current sense of enthusiasm and progression is anything to go by, then the Irish American Football community can look forward to many more years of continued progression and growth.
The Shamrock Bowl takes place on Sunday 8th August 2010.
For more information on American Football in Ireland, see the IAFA website at www.americanfootball.ie