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Chieftains celebrating 45 years of Irish sport, culture in Calgary

In 1977, a group of Irish men looking to build community in Calgary formed what would become one of the city’s longest lasting sporting clubs.

The Calgary Chieftains have celebrated that legacy by continuing to share the sports of Gaelic Football and Hurling with the wider Calgary community for nearly 45 years.

The club members compete in two of the four sports that make up the Gaelic games, which are among Ireland’s most popular sports, ahead of rugby and football.

“We are lucky enough to 45 years later still be here, and to have grown in leaps and bounds since,” said Maria Ryan, chairperson for the Calgary Chieftains.

“We are celebrating our 45th this year with a lot of new players, a lot of Canadians, and a lot of non-Irish, which is the aim we had for the club.”

The club began an expanded a recreational league program in 2021 in order to create greater interest in the sports. Also, said Ryan, to expand the number of competition opportunities for players.

“We set up the rec league and put it out there to everybody and anybody. We got so many new members, and so many people who just didn’t know that the club was even here,” said Ryan.

“It’s brought out such a competitive edge from everyone—from the people who’ve played this game for years and from the people who just started.

“It’s been such such good competition, and it’s it’s really encouraged them all to travel with us as well and just see the community that the sport can give us.”

Gaelic competition heating up for August 13 Alberta Cup

And as for that competition, it’s not just the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers that have a fierce rivalry. The Calgary Chieftans and the Edmonton Wolfe Tones GAA will be battling it out for the Alberta Cup in Edmonton on Aug. 13.

“So because Calgary and Edmonton are the only teams in Alberta we have a fierce rivalry. I know it’s hard to maintain a rivalry when it’s a six hour return journey, but we manage it every year,” said Ryan.

“They’re our lovable neighbours I guess. We love to hate them. They hate to love us.”

Ryan pointed to the large Irish communities in Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer that has made the annual cup competition so important.

“It should be a great day for the Irish abroad, and the Irish in Alberta in general,” she said.

As for the predicted outcome for the second Battle for Alberta, “Edmonton unfortunately took the hockey, but Calgary will definitely take [the Alberta Cup].”

The Chieftains train on Tuesdays, with kids at 6 p.m. and adults at 7 p.m., at Our Lady of Assumption School in northwest Calgary. Practice games are played on Thursdays. The full schedule of practices and matches is available on www.calgarychieftains.com.

Tadhg O’Connor with the Calgary Chieftains, practices Gaelic Football at Our Lady of Assumption School in Calgary on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. The club is celebrating its 45th year of sharing Irish sport culture with Calgary, this year. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Hurling, a fast-paced, exciting sport

Hurling, known as the fastest field sport in the world, is described by the Chieftains as a mix of hockey and lacrosse.

A wooden stick, called a hurl, is used to send a small leather ball, called a sliotar, through an H shaped goalpost. The rules allow for contact between players, resulting in an extremely fast-paced, physical game that is exciting to watch. The club eschews the traditional wooden sticks for plastic ones due to the dry Alberta climate.

Worldwide, its one of the fastest growing sports, with clubs popping up in Europe, North America, South America, and Australia. It also one of humanity’s oldest sports still played, with written legal decisions made by Ireland’s Brehons in the fifth century mentioning the sport.

Ryan laughed about how one club member described the sport to others.

“We had a Canadian on our committee two years ago, and the way she described Hurling to her mom and dad—I was there at the time and I’ll never forget it—she said ‘it’s the sexiest sport you will ever see played, but you won’t have a clue what’s going on,'” said Ryan.

Gaelic Football is like a combination of many other sports

The Chieftains also play Gaelic Football, which is a club described mix of soccer, basketball, and rugby. The pitch and the H shaped goal posts are the same as Hurling, and has a considerable number of overlapping rules with that sport.

Players compete by advancing up the pitch bouncing the ball like a basketball, soloing where the ball is dropped and kicked like a soccer ball, hand passing like a volleyball, and carried like in rugby.

“You’re using a lot with your with your hands, but you also need to be very well coordinated and move your feet at the same time,” said Ryan.

“For some people, myself included when I started, I was not great at it. You definitely work on it, and you can definitely see the crossover between basketball and all the different sports as well.”

Jeannette Moore brought her two sons to a Gaelic football practice with the Chieftains on Aug. 2, after they were introduced to the sport by the club at the Tour de Bowness.

“We saw the booth and the boys were drawn to it,” she said.

Membership costs below other sports clubs in Calgary

One of the attraction to the Chieftains for her as a hockey parent was to give her two sons some off-season sports to play.

“The hockey stick handling, the baseball—a lot of those skills seem to cross over. I thought it was an affordable off-season cross training activity,” said Moore.

The Chieftains charge $100 per-year for adult memberships, and $50 per year for youth.

“The way we look at it is about getting the competitive nature in all the kids,” said Ryan.

“If you have a competitive edge, you can take it into anything in life. We like to think of it—as cheesy as it sounds—we’re affecting that kid’s life as well because we see like that confidence grow.”

“We’ve got kids here who would never have talked to us in the first few weeks, and now they run and hug us. They run and just want to see us. They come to play with us.”

Ryan said that the cost of their memberships was low because the club’s goal is not to make money.

“We’re not looking to make profits. We’re not a bank,” she said.

“We don’t care about having thousands in the bank—we never have, and we never will—it’s about having all of the kids, and the adults as well, on the field growing and just enjoying.”

For Moore, it was also an opportunity to get her sons more involved into Irish culture, like that of her family roots, and to give the boys an opportunity to try something different.

“What a great opportunity to try something that is different, that isn’t mainstream, and that everyone else is doing,” she said.

Sharing Irish culture and community also important for the Chieftains

Ryan said she initially avoided joining the Irish cultural community when she initially moved to Calgary.

“I wanted to do my own thing, float my own way,” she said.

“I discovered within a few months that that wasn’t working for me, and I needed to find the Irish community.”

Describing that importance, she said it was hard to put into words.

“I can’t even begin to describe how much I’ve grown from it. Not just from being involved with community, but being involved with the people. They are a phenomenal, phenomenal group of people, they really are.”

She said the experience of being part of the Chieftains, and the Irish community in general, can be hard to describe to those not involved.

“We’ve got people who will find you work, people who will put you up in their houses, people who will take you on and give you whatever you need,” said Ryan.

And not just for Irish immigrants coming to Calgary. The club is incredibly welcoming of anyone who wants to come out and take part. The Chieftains also offers a low-cost $30 social membership for those who want to be more involved in the cultural side of the club.

“In fact, we welcome everyone, but we really really want to see the non-Irish, just to grow us,” she said.