By Emma Betuel
When Peter Feeney, a project manager at Summerhill Landscapes in Sag Harbor, came to the East End 10 years ago, he found a vibrant Irish community at the company. But there was one vital part of his Irish heritage and culture that was missing: Gaelic football.
Gaelic football looks like a mixture of soccer and rugby. It’s played on a field twice the size of an American football field. It’s technically non-contact, but Feeney admits you can get away with throwing a well-timed shoulder. An all-amateur sport run by the Gaelic Athletic Organization, Gaelic football has had a presence in New York Since 1867, but had never found a foothold east of the Pine Barrens.
“It’s our native sport, but we never really got to play when we came here,” said Feeney, a team captain. “For a lot of guys it was their number-one sport growing up. We talked a lot over the past couple of years, and this year we decided to call up the county board and we just went for it.”
The Suffolk County Hibernians were founded this winter thanks to the efforts of Feeney and Mike Byrne, who is the sports chairman of the New York State Ancient Order of the Hibernians. They have become Gaelic football’s easternmost stronghold.
The Hibernians have grown from an original 12 players — not enough to fill all 15 positions — to over 30. The group used to be comprised of about half Summerhill employees, but now, with the addition of some more American players, Summerhill employees make up roughly 25 percent of the roster.
Playing in the lowest of four divisions, the Hibernians have played three games this season. While inexperience took its toll in their first two exhibition games, they played their first “championship” contest against the Long Island Gales in early July, defeating them by a score of 1-14 to 1-12 — a four point differential.
“Every win is a plus for us,” Feeney added. “We’re climbing the ladder to go up.”
For Gaelic football, a four point differential is considered a close game. Teams score goals by kicking a soccer-like ball into a goal. They can also score points by sending the ball through uprights mounted above the goal. One goal is the equivalent of three points.
“It has the speed of soccer but you can use your hands, which appeals to a lot of young people,” said Byrne, who has made it his mission to promote the sport since he came to Nassau County in 1986. “It’s also a much more high-scoring game, which makes it exciting.”
Byrne has seen the sport flourish in the New York area, with nearly 40 clubs that compete at Gaelic Park on 240th Street in the Bronx. He is particularly proud of the Irish-American teams that are beginning to form, indicating that the sport has potential to succeed at the grassroots level.
Feeney has seen this himself on the Hibernians.
“If you play a different sport like football, basketball, volleyball, then you can take that skill into the game,” he says. “People are definitely picking it up fast. We’ve got Americans coming in and we’re amazed at how fast they’re picking it up. They’re really enjoying it.”
Each year, teams compete in “championship games” sanctioned by the GAA. Nearly all the Irish counties, as well as envoys from New York and London, gather to crown an international champion. But for now, the Hibernians are thinking locally. They hope to create a youth team and a women’s team. The success of the current Hibernians team has piqued interest already — the exhibition game in Hampton Bays drew over 200 spectators.
“Over 200 spectators is pretty good turnout for a sport nobody really understood,” Feeney said. “We had people say that their son or daughter would love to be involved in this.”
The Hibernians are welcoming everyone to practices, which are held at Hampton Bays High School at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The Hibernians will play their second championship game at Gaelic Park in the Bronx on Tuesday, July 25.