Their shocked reaction was not unfounded. In the 21-year history of the tournament, the prize for the skills competition had never left Ireland.
McGovern was first pointed in the direction of a Gaelic football pitch by his father, Tom Sr., when the youngster was “about 6 or 7 years old,” Tommy recalled. Apparently Tom Sr. didn’t overdo the tales of his own glory days because Tom Jr. isn’t even sure who his father played football for. “My dad used to play,” he explained when describing how he became involved in the sport. But he draws a blank when asked who he played for. “Some team back in Ireland,” he finally offers with a shrug.
Tom Sr. coaches the Woodlawn-based St. Barnabas side that placed three players on the New York team that captured the Under-14 Championship at that Feile Peile competition in Carlow this summer.
Tom Sr. believes that the young American kids’ background in basketball gives them a good foundation for success in Gaelic football. “Because of the basketball, most of the kids can catch the ball very well,” he said. “Of course, sometimes they have a bit of trouble with the kicking.”
A visit to one of St. Barnabas’ recent Wednesday night training sessions saw coaches and players working hard and having fun, all the while honing their skills. While Tom McGovern Sr. led the older group, two practice matches were under way between the next generation, the U-8s and U-10s.
After the players McGovern’s group ran a set of sprints, they set their sights on the goalposts. As young Americans make their way up the New York Gaelic football ranks, they are often considered to be good athletes but poor shooters.
The more refined skills of the game are sometimes thought to be beyond the Americans’ reach, primarily due to the lack of matches in comparison to Irish-raised counterparts. Tommy Jr.’s success in the Feile Peile competition obviously is a example of how that disadvantage can be overcome.
His father was pleased with the reaction to his son’s success back home. “Everyone gave us a very good reception,” he said. “There was a bit of a story about Tom in the local paper, the Leitrim Observer, when we went back to Leitrim.”
Tommy Jr. has picked up both his love of Gaelic football and his sense of modesty from his father. When it is suggested to the senior McGovern that his son has done something special, it takes a moment or two before the Leitrim native allows that Tommy’s achievement “is a good feeling.”
Tommy continues to play basketball and soccer and to run track, but he plans to continue to make room in his busy schedule for the game of his parents. “We had a great time in Ireland,” Tommy said, “and I’ll definitely keep playing Irish football.”