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Kerry with her O'Neill's ball in Arctic Bay, Nunavut with some of the Inuit children she met on the trip.
Kerry with her O'Neill's ball in Arctic Bay, Nunavut with some of the Inuit children she met on the trip.

Gaelic Football reaches the Arctic


By Nicole White

An icy breeze lifts dancing snow into the air on an iceberg encased a mile out on the frozen ocean. Young children stand in a circle, dressed head to toe in winter gear, the cold air attacking their exposed cheeks but not their laughter.

An O'Neill's ball camouflages with the white background of the Arctic as it bounces off of winter boots and seal skin gloves.

This is the scene Kerry Mortimer saw in front of her last year when on an expedition to the Canadian Arctic with Project North.

Project North is a non-for-profit with a focus on improving literacy skills and providing recreational opportunities to Inuit children in remote Northern Canadian communities.

The goal of Mortimer's specific expedition was to deliver hockey equipment to seven Arctic communities in three days. However, little did Project North know, they had a dedicated GAA footballer in their company.

Kerry is Chairperson of the Ottawa Gaels Gaelic Football Club based in Canada's capital. The natural engagement that occurred between her and the youngsters on the trip is unsurprising, as a mission of her club since 2000 has been to reach out to children in the Ottawa area.

They have joined up with their local schools and have taught Gaelic Football to over 10,000 students through a "physical literacy" program.

A map of the Arctic expedition.
A map of the Arctic expedition.

Mortimer explained why teachers and kids love the sport. "It's all physical movement, your entire body is involved," she said. "You're using your hands, feet and core.

"Gaelic Football is a unifier. Everyone in the class starts out at the same level because they are all new to the sport.

"Athletic kids who play other sports like basketball, soccer and volleyball already have naturally applicable skills."

Kerry herself was a kid who grew up playing other sports. She grew up in Calgary, Canada to Irish parents from Ballymena, Co. Antrim and played soccer her entire life.

She became involved with Gaelic Football at the age of 30, after a teammate asked her to join the Ottawa Gaels. After that, she never looked back.

"As soon as I tried it, I was hooked. My soccer skills were very transferrable to Gaelic Football. It is easy to pick up with an athletic foundation."

She explained that her passion for Gaelic Football comes from the idea that it is not only a great sport, but a community.

"When I was in the hospital having my son, three other women from my club were there having babies as well. They are still my best friends today and now our kids are playing Gaelic Football for the Ottawa Gaels and traveling to the Continental Youth Championship together.

"That's what Gaelic games give you - a community."

Kerry (fourth from the left) and her Canadian teammates at the GAA World Games in 2016.
Kerry (fourth from the left) and her Canadian teammates at the GAA World Games in 2016.

Mortimer herself participated in the GAA World Games last summer in Dublin, representing Canada in the native division. Kerry and her teammates proudly represented their country, as they made it to the final and had the opportunity to play in Croke Park.

Clearly a strong advocate for the international expansion of the GAA, she decided to carry a couple of Gaelic footballs with her to the Arctic in the hope of introducing local children to the sport.

Kerry soon found her name replaced with the brand of football she carried with her everywhere and began responding to the nickname, "O'Neill's".

As others on her team passed out hockey equipment, Mortimer got to work teaching the kids the basics of Gaelic Football.

"I had a group of kids soloing with winter boots and seal skin gloves. Kids loved learning the basic skills. Of course none had ever heard of Gaelic Football and all immediately assumed I was carrying a volleyball."

A Gaelic Football in the Stanley Cup, ice-hockey's equivalent of the Sam Maguire.
A Gaelic Football in the Stanley Cup, ice-hockey's equivalent of the Sam Maguire.

She explained that simply carrying a ball around made her a friendly and welcoming target for the children. Even though they didn't know her and weren't familiar with the athletic equipment she carried around, they would see the football and instantly wanted to play.

"On the trip I was reminded that sport is a universal unifying and international language; it crosses geographic, cultural and language boundaries," Mortimer told GAA.ie.

"Sport has provided so much enrichment in my life. Gaelic Football is unique and different. There is something about this game that people around the world love. I will continue to do whatever I can to spread it."

Thanks to people like Kerry who have such passion for the sports, Gaelic games have reached six continents. Hopefully a wintry expedition similar to Mortimer's will soon be taken, bringing Gaelic sport to the final continent- Antarctica.

Learn more about the Ottawa Gaels at http://ottawagaels.ca/ 

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