Gaelic for Mothers & Others - the best part of the GAA
YOU’RE greeted by a cool afternoon sun, piercing blue skies and The Proclaimers blasting from the giant-sized speakers that sit on the edge of the pitch on the Shaw’s Road in Belfast.
We’re on the wrong edge of October but there is no sense of autumnal gloom at the Gaelic Mothers & Others tournament, hosted by the O'Donovan Rossa club.
The sheer energy of The Proclaimers’ hit song ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 miles)’ is an absolutely perfect greeting.
‘When I wake up, well I know I’m gonna be / I’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you / When I go out, yeah I know I’m gonna be / I’m gonna be the man who goes along with you…’
It’s just gone noon and the games are already in full swing.
Creggan Kickhams, Eire Og, St Brigid’s, Carryduff, St Gall’s, O’Donovan Rossa and Aldergrove are among the ladies teams participating.
It’s Aldergrove’s first Gaelic for Mothers & Others tournament appearance. They are now fully-fledged members of the quiet revolution that is sweeping through the country over the past few years.
Three nine-a-side games are taking place simultaneously with scores of kids dotted around the edges of each pitch.
Who would have thought sons and daughters would be standing cheering on their mothers playing Gaelic football?
And yet, here they are on a blissful Saturday afternoon kicking ball and getting a sweat up with the cool mint air in their faces.
Gaelic for Mothers & Others is exactly what it says on the tin.
‘The Gaelic4Mothers&Others initiative is an innovative way to introduce mothers and other women to playing Ladies Gaelic Football,' explains the ladiesgaelic.ie website.
‘Mothers often drop their kids to training and call back to collect them, but the Ladies Gaelic Football Association wants to change that.’
The 'Gaelic for Mothers & Others' movement has morphed into All-Ireland blitzes around the country where thousands of women are taking part, many of whom have never lifted an O'Neill's football in their lives.
Clodagh Claxton should be out on the field wearing Rossa’s blue and yellow jersey today, catching balls and kicking them over the portable goalposts, but hip surgery means she’s sidelined and is instead chief organiser for the day.
As the giant-sized speakers boom tunes into the air, Clodagh explains the first rules of engagement.
“It’s not a competition – it’s a tournament.”
As we chat at the side of the pitch, Erasure’s ‘A Little Respect’ is next on the playlist.
Judging by the dance moves of one of the ’Rossa players the choice of music is going down well.
“That’s Lynn, Lynn Short,” says Clodagh. “I think this is her third match. It’s her first year playing with us. She’s fantastic and a great player as well.
“We have another mother who has four kids. She lives in Glenavy, she packed her bag this morning, came down with her kids; one of them is refereeing on the other pitch, one’s running about with a hurl and they’ll be here all day...
“Mothers & Others,” Clodagh adds, “is really derived from mothers watching their children playing football. Ladies football was relatively new to ’Rossa, so a few years ago we decided to do something for the mammies.
“When our kids were training we all got together and started having a laugh and playing and we developed this love for playing Gaelic football.
“It was a bit of craic and getting together, but it was for mental health as well. It helped with the day-to-day life of being a mother.
“Four years ago we attempted to run a tournament and we called it the Spirit of Hope, a local charity.
“It was just to give hope to everybody because there is so much going on around us in west Belfast and in our family lives. Each year we pick a charity close to somebody’s heart.”
This year’s tournament proceeds are going to the Lighthouse Charity Belfast – a service dedicated to helping people with grief, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Everyone you talk to at this sunny event insists that nobody keeps score in the games.
“It’s not a competition, it’s a tournament,” says Mickey Culbert, repeating Clodagh’s mantra.
But when you witness some of the tackles, the tracking back from the forwards and the few fist pumps after a score has been carved out, you have your suspicions that somebody somewhere is definitely keeping score.
Mickey has been the manager of the St Gall’s Mothers & Others team for a couple of seasons now.
I’ve known the veteran coach from the early ‘Noughties’ and covered his managerial career when the St Gall’s senior footballers were digging the foundations that would eventually lead to an All-Ireland title in 2010.
Today, he’s worn out one sideline, and the first match hasn’t yet finished.
He’s as animated as ever.
“Well done, Orla!”
“Great effort, Pauline!”
“The best thing about this,” Mickey says, “is that there are people playing Gaelic football who have never played it or thought they had finished with playing it.
“It’s encouraging participation and these women are either sisters, wives, or mothers of Gaelic footballers who spent most of their lives watching and now they’re playing it. It’s brilliant for them.
“There is also a physical and mental well-being aspect to it. I don’t know if that’s the driving force of it but it’s certainly an outcome of it.”
The St Gall’s ‘Mothers & Others’ team trains once a week and when the weather improves they go twice a week.
Asked to define his role, Mickey says: “My role is standing here and encouraging them. They seem to have this thought that I know something that they don’t.
"Maybe I can up-skill them a wee bit because they want to play as well as they can… Just look around: there are squads of children here watching their mammies play football. It’s a great equaliser, gender-wise.”
Take flying defender Pauline Murray (nee Kelly) as a case-study.
Her life-time association with St Gall’s was watching her brothers Sean and Mark – and later her husband, Paddy - playing for the Milltown club.
Her next role was ferrying her kids to the club and watching them play.
“I was asked to come along and give it a go,” Pauline explains.
“So, I said ‘why not’. I’m delighted I took the chance and I’m delighted we’re here and we’re having days like this.
“I’ve always loved watching football so to get the chance to pick the ball up and do it myself, I love it.
“For people that you know who never played any sport in their lives, for them to get a pass or to get a block in, it’s a brilliant feeling and all the girls are so supportive of each other.
“It’s a great group of girls, they are so welcoming. There’s a girl from Derry who recently joined us, she moved to Belfast for work and she’s just loving it.
“For all the girls, it’s getting time out and time for themselves.”
When you scan the teams and the players at the Shaw's Road venue, 'Gaelic for Mothers & Others' is genuinely a game for all ages (18 to 50+) and varying fitness levels.
Brenda is with her cousin Nuala on the sidelines of one pitch.
Both are wearing Eire Og jerseys and both seem eager for some game-time.
“If someone told me five years ago I’d be standing at the side of pitch with a football jersey and a monkey hat on at my age I would have laughed at them,” says Brenda.
“My cousin Nuala got me involved on the pretext it was just a bit of exercise and that I wouldn’t be involved in any matches,” she laughs. “There are no words to describe it.
“I’ve met new friends, it’s good exercise and it’s good for your mental health. It really is a fabulous community, the people you meet, the stories you hear. It’s just great getting out into the air.”
Still the music booms and the portable nets ripple with goals that wouldn’t look out of place on a TG4 highlights reel.
“Some of these parents only met through these games,” says Clodagh.
“What a lot of them used to do was drop their kids off in the carpark and pick them up again. If you’re sitting in the car or sitting in your house for an hour you might as well be on the pitch playing or doing something creative.
“And we’re all there for one another, we have our group chats. It’s to let people know that there is always somebody there for them, either in need, want a chat, want a cry, need a coffee, need a bottle of wine…”
The Spirit of Hope Cup glistens in the pavilion as all the teams gather for the post-match presentation.
Days like these are good for the soul. The cool air in your face. The music. Participation. Togetherness. Friendship.
And a jersey that reminds you that you're part of a collective. A community. Minding the head and minding each other.
And that there is no time like the present to get involved.
'Gaelic for Mothers & Others' is another constituent part of the GAA. Its very best part...