MATTHEWS – Charlotte is home to a North American football championship team, and the future looks bright for the James Connolly’s Gaelic Athletic Association women’s football team.
Charlotte’s women’s team won its first North American senior ladies championship when they defeated San Francisco Fog City 22-21 last September. Gaelic football is a physical sport that can best be described as a blend of rugby, soccer, ice hockey and volleyball.
The Charlotte women took the first step toward defending its championship June 2 when they won the Connolly Cup at the Sportsplex at Matthews. The Charlotte men’s team also took home the Connolly Cup in a tournament that featured several teams from North Carolina, as well as teams from Baltimore, Philadelphia and other East Coast cities.
The Charlotte victory last fall was the first time since 1972 that a team outside of the sport’s powerbase of Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago or San Francisco won a North American championship.
Those cities do something that Charlotte doesn’t – bring in players from Ireland on temporary visas to play in matches in the months leading up to the North American championships.
Charlotte only has two native Irish players on its roster while the rest are homegrown. Many of the Charlotte players have a background in soccer or rugby. Team captain Caitriona O’Shaughnessy, who joined the team in 2014, is one of the two Irish-born players on the 25-player roster, which includes 11 players that played on the championship team in 2017.
When O’Shaughnessy decided to come to the United States, she only looked at areas with a Gaelic football club. The sport is very popular in Ireland, and there are more than 2,500 clubs around the world.
“In Ireland, it (Gaelic football) is a part of ordinary life and almost everybody plays,” O’Shaughnessy said. “When I had to emigrate because the economy in Ireland was bad, I made sure there was a team where ever I moved to. Before I even landed, I emailed them that I was coming and I met a few of the girls for a lunch after I landed. They brought me in right away.”
O’Shaughnessy, 28, also played an unofficial role as a coach. She shared her insights of the game she started playing when she was 6 years old.
“We have a few ultimate frisbee players, but a majority of them are soccer players,” O’Shaughnessy said. “They were definitely intrigued and they would ask me, ‘How do you do this and how do you do this.’ But most of them pick up things naturally. There were some that had played it for years, and they are fantastic at it. I felt like I was able to help out when I first got here.”
Samantha Fox, of Charlotte, joined the team when it was first formed in 2008.
“The beginning was very rough,” Fox said. “We just kept growing as we got one or two new girls each summer. We do events, use social media to get girls involved. Word of mouth is the best way. We tell them the game is not that difficult.”
O’Shaughnessy said losing to Fog City in the 2016 North American championships motivated the team for the 2017 season.
“We were not at that level yet, and Fog City was a few steps ahead of us,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We fought hard and they beat us pretty bad in the end. It was pretty devastating. We were upset about it because we had trained hard and we found out the next day a lot of their girls were getting ready to fly back to Ireland.”
But that disappointment turned to joy a year later as Charlotte stunned Fog City by a single point in the championship match last September. The match was tied 9-9 at halftime.
“Winning is still very surreal,” O’Shaughnessy said. “The first thing I did was to call home and tell them we did it. We only won by one point, but things went our way that day. The girls really deserved it. We look back at the videos and relive it almost every single day.”