Texas has always been a refuge, a place people come to build empires, to make their fortunes, to get a new start, or to simply make a life. San Antonio is an inseparable part of that. That spirit of independence, hard work and sacrifice has played a central role in the creation myth of Texas – but it’s reality, too.
One only has to stroll the grounds of the Institute of Texan Cultures to appreciate all the people and cultures that gave Texas its heart and soul. Walk under all those flags, close your eyes and listen to the sound of the wind through the fabric, as if awakenings gentle spirits never truly gone. We are all waiting for our moment to reawaken. We are all waiting to come home.
In 2008, I stood on the shoreline in Galway, Ireland, looking out at the Atlantic. Thousands of miles from home, I stared westward towards Texas. It was the first time in my life I could imagine living anywhere else. There was something about the place, the people and the feel. Yes, the feel. Sometimes that’s what gets you. You feel at home, you feel like maybe this is where you’re supposed to be.
When I returned home after the short trip, I had a new-found appreciation for the Emerald Isle. And in turn, a refreshed love for my hometown of San Antonio. Unique, hard working, full of spirit and humor. In many ways, Ireland and Texas were not so different.
Flash forward to 2011. My friend, Adrian Brett, a native of County Sligo, Ireland, found his way to Texas – after all, sooner or later everyone does. Over a cold Shiner, he tells me he’s starting a Gaelic football team with a couple of Irish-Americans that he was introduced to. Together they founded the San Antonio Gaelic Athletic Club. They would be joining the North American Gaelic Athletic Association, the governing board for more than 115 gaelic football clubs in the United States.
He asks if I’d like to join.
My first question: “What the hell is Gaelic football?”
Over a few more drinks, he explained that it was mix of soccer, rugby, and basketball.
“I suck at two of those and never played one,” I said, nodding.
“No problem,” he said.
My next question was: “Do I get to hit people?”
He nodded. I was sold.
Over the next few months, I learned a few things. One: soloing (the art of running at speed while essentially dribbling a ball off of your foot) was not an easy skill to pick up for an uncoordinated gentlemen such as myself. Two: those 10 years on the couch didn’t do me any favors.
The most important thing I learned is that you can always start again. You can always stand on a shoreline, whether real or imagined, and find the place you’re supposed to be. That’s what Gaelic football was quickly becoming to me. Something that found me when I needed it most.
Before long, I found myself surrounded by, and getting to know, folks from all over. There were service men and women, veterans of wars that found their way to the Alamo City. There were people from as far away as California, New York, Mexico City, Honduras and Japan. There were Irish men from places like Portaferry, Dublin, Limerick, Tyrone. There were even a couple of guys I knew from high school.
Gaelic football became more than a group of people that started off kicking dirt around the dusty fields of McAllister Park. It became an anchor for many of us. For some, a new home. For others, a surrogate family, and for others still, a temporary escape from the grind of work and life and all that goes with it. We’ve become a group of people that have tested our mettle against teams from Austin, Houston and Dallas. A team that has won hard fought matches and lost heart-breakers at national tournaments in Philadelphia and Cleveland.
We’ve become San Antonio’s first and only Gaelic football team. The distinction is important, not because of hubris or hyperbole, but because the SAGAC, much like this city, is all about the beautiful, complex relationships of culture, history and the yearning for connection.
For me, there is nothing quite like playing the sport of Gaelic football. One of my proudest moments as a member of this Club, was standing on a muddy field beside the Delaware River, counting down the final seconds as we went on to win the Junior D Shield at the 2012 NACB National Tournament. As great as that moment was, it pales next to being asked to be the godfather of my friend and teammate’s first child, and being called ‘Uncle’ by the child of another. That is what this Club has become to me. As I’m sure it’s become to so many others.
Today, March 8, the SAGAC will celebrate its upcoming fourth anniversary when it plays the Houston Gaels at the South Texas Alamo Irish Festival at the University of the Incarnate Word. Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m. Festival and game admission tickets are only $5 for adults, free for children under 12, and for active military.
Teams from all over Texas will descend upon San Antonio to celebrate Irish traditions, and to celebrate the beauty that happens when cultures come together. The kind of beauty that reminds us that home is wherever we are.
The San Antonio Gaelic Athletic Club is a local, non-profit organization whose mission is to spread Irish culture through traditional Gaelic games. The SAGAC is a group that values diversity, community and goodwill. For more information, please visit www.sanantoniogac.org or look them up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
*Featured/top image: Mike Castro, Clive Davidson, Mike Dirksen and Andy Claughton during a recent SAGAC Pub League game. Photo by Carolyn Villarreal.