Gaelic football has proved a huge hit with Year 5 pupils at Moseley C of E primary school in Birmingham and it's easy to see why. In combining the skills of rugby, soccer and basketball, Gaelic football is as much about tactical quick-thinking as it is about strength. It is also a sport in which boys and girls can compete with equal zest and ability.
Moseley would not have had the opportunity to try the game if it hadn't been for the sporting vision of nearby Bishop Challoner Catholic secondary school. Bishop Challoner achieved sports college status in 2000 and with the help of a pound;10,000 grant from the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) embarked on a mission to involve schools in a range of Irish games.
At the beginning of last year, Gaelic games development officer Brian Roberts began coaching in 11 local partner schools. "There was a strong feeling that local participation in Irish sports was diminishing and we wanted to revive these while also reinforcing the sense of Irish culture and community," he says. "The initial response to Gaelic football was very positive and what came through most strongly was that this was a sport that girls were just as keen on as boys."
During the project's first year, the number of schools playing Gaelic football increased to 34 primaries and 17 secondaries; there are now 10,000 pupils in the West Midlands being coached each week.
Gaelic football's rapid rise has much to do with the training techniques. Traditional methods such as line drills have been dropped and a child-centred approach ensures that everyone is encouraged to concentrate and give their best. Pupils are addressed individually and collectively throughout the sessions and Brian Roberts works hard to whip up a sense of fun and excitement.
"When I started I had no idea that it would prove to be so popular with such a wide range of schools," he says. "Due to the high level of participation we've developed local championships and sent numerous teams to matches in Ireland. Kids like the fact that they can play it all year round through the local clubs and this has had an important kick-back to the community."
When the possibility of Gaelic football was mooted for Moseley school, form teacher Roslyn Ashe did some research of her own.
"At that point I knew very little about the game and I expected it to be much like rugby," she says. "However the skills it involves have proved more wide-ranging and children of all sporting abilities have been swept along by it. It has been great for PE skills and also for team building in a wider sense."
Although Gaelic football is little known in this country, it is no stranger to these shores. In the 17th and 18th centuries it spread from Ireland to centres such as London, Manchester and Liverpool and was instrumental in shaping the Australian version of the game that is played today. In the late 19th century, Gaelic football underwent a major revival with the establishment of the GAA, which formalised its rules.
The pitch on which the game is played is approximately 137 metres long and 82 metres wide. The goalposts are the same shape as on a rugby pitch, with the crossbar lower than for rugby, but slightly higher than for soccer. The ball is round and slightly smaller than a soccer ball, and can be carried in the hand for a distance of four steps. It can also be kicked or hand-passed, using a striking motion with the hand or fist. After every four steps the ball must be either bounced or "solo-ed", an action which involves dropping the ball onto the foot and kicking it back into the hand.
Despite the game's relative complexity, Roslyn Ashe testifies that her class assimilated it extremely quickly. "The combination of hand and foot work makes it very appealing to primary pupils and they like the fact that it seems to take the best bits from a range of sports," she says.
At Bishop Challoner, the popularity of Gaelic football has wildly exceeded expectations, eclipsing judo, tennis, basketball and rugby. As a vital dimension of the school's specialisation in sport, it has contributed to both athletic and academic excellence. Bishop Challoner reports that since the sports college was established, the number of GCSE A to C grades has significantly increased across the curriculum.
The next step is to take Gaelic football into higher education. Brian Roberts has just launched the Gaelic Life Coach Project which is designed to encourage post-16s to continue with their education.
"Using our existing coaches as mentors, we are targeting assistant coaches among students in Years 11 and 12 who might not be expected to stay on," he says. "In this way we believe the sport can be effectively used to promote the ideals of higher education."
The success of Gaelic football in Birmingham undoubtedly owes much to the charisma of coaches such as Brian Roberts. At Moseley, an upbeat approach has given children the chance to enjoy the competitiveness of the game without getting too tense or serious about it. With its ability to channel boisterous energy into sporting enthusiasm, Gaelic football deserves its come-back.
More information about Gaelic football on the GAA's website: www.gaa.ie