Irish President Michael Higgins is visiting Seattle this week. Thursday morning, he traveled to Skyline High School in Sammamish to watch a game of Gaelic football, a sport many locals probably have never seen.
It's sort of like soccer, except you can catch the ball. And then dribble it, or punt, or bump, or punch.
Skyline P.E. teacher Brendan Hyland likes teaching the game because it's not that precise. “The ball can be juggled a little bit,” he said, “can be fumbled a little bit, and you can still play.”
It's also a great bridge between sports units, he said, because students learn skills from football, soccer, and basketball all in one game.
“You can think of it as almost a multivitamin,” said Terry Lynch, the coach education director for the U.S. Gaelic Athletic Association.
He arranged President Higgins' visit to Skyline High School. He also brought the game itself to Skyline and a handful of other schools in the area.
Lynch said Irish sports have many elements that Americans love, like danger, violence and high scoring.
When he talks to high school students about Gaelic football, he said, there's one thing he hears over and over: “I don't know how a sport this fun has remained hidden for so long.”
The answer to that question goes way back into Irish history. The history of Gaelic sports, and why Gaelic football in particular came in to being, goes back to English subjugation of Ireland in the 1700s.
At that time, Lynch said, the Irish played hurling, a game they’d enjoyed for three thousand years. But the English banned the game.
In response, Irish athletes took out the parts of hurling that were specifically forbidden and came up with a new game. That game eventually became Gaelic football.
Lynch said it is more than a sport: It’s part of the national character.
“It's difficult to understand as an American just how cherished Gaelic sports are by the Irish. And what's happening in Seattle is something that's nearly inconceivable to the Irish, and that is that Americans are teaching other Americans how to play Irish sports,” he said.
As for the students at Skyline, Lynch imagines they'll be curious about the Irish president's visit, but they'll probably be distracted by American football.
The Skyline Spartans play their homecoming football game against the Inglemoor Vikings on Friday.