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When I was visiting my friends in Collon last September (this was the trip that basically got the wheels turning about moving to Ireland), I noticed red and black checkered flags all over the village. Pubs, houses, telephone poles – they were everywhere. I soon found out that these flags bore the colors of the Mattock Rangers, the local Gaelic football club, and that the team was close to securing a spot in the 2009 finals. The anticipation and anxiety of the village was evident in the bits and pieces of conversation I overheard during my visit. It was as if the entire population of Collon was holding its collective breath, careful not to jinx a victory by too much talk while at the same time silently agonizing over the thought of a loss.

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I went back to America before the final match but heard from friends that the Mattock Rangers clinched the championship the following month. I saw video and photos of the three-day celebration around Collon village, and it looked absolutely mad. The guys were jumping on tables, the team paraded through the streets on the back of a huge flat-bed truck and it seemed the entire village was out partying for those three days and nights – kids, moms, dads, grandparents, the whole lot. I didn’t quite understand the passion and, most importantly, the significance of the team and what they meant to the community until I saw that evidence. For the village of Collon, the Mattock Rangers represent its hopes and dreams; it’s not just a football team, it’s a way of life for many in the community.

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(click to enlarge photos)

Now that I live here and have friends on the team, I’m getting a much better understanding of what the game and the lifestyle means to the players. I recently talked to a few friends on the Mattock Rangers to get a better understanding of the sport. What sets Gaelic football apart from other sports in Ireland is that none of the players get paid and your team/club is determined by where you live. If you live in Collon, you’ll be a Mattock Ranger and that’s that. As team member Niall Callan says, “You don’t pick your club, your club picks you.” This basically means that even if the team is doing poorly, you stick with it. In most other sports, it’d be easy enough to move to a better team but here, you’re in it for better or for worse. “I think it makes the game more honest and people play for pride rather than money,” adds Earnan Roche, who has been with the club for most of his life.

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While I’ve never been a big sports buff I have to admit that the dedication and passion the community has for the team is infectious. The games, especially the championship ones, are packed with friends and family donning red and black jerseys. The mothers of the players are the most fanatical; I don’t shock easily but the vulgarities that come out of their mouths when a ref gives a bad call are down-right scandalous! Of course it’s all in good fun and I have to give props to those sassy moms for their absolute enthusiasm for the sport…but if I was a ref I wouldn’t want to meet those ladies in a dark alley. “Gaelic teams represent where people come from and brings pride…it boosts community spirit. People in the area feel the buzz and excitement of the finals and the heartbreak of losing,” explains Mattock Ranger Daniel Bannon.

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Because there is no money in the sport, all the players have day jobs. Many have wives, girlfriends and children. They practice every week, rain or shine, they take part in fundraising efforts for the club and they consistently put themselves in harm’s way (in Gaelic there is no padding or protective gear) for the love of the sport. The Italians have a saying, la cosa nostra, which literally translated means “this thing of ours”- the silent but unbreakable loyalty among the men of the mafia. While the Mattock Rangers is no criminal element (at least that I know of, ha!) I liken their devotion, perseverance and commitment to the spirit of this old adage. While many outsiders question why anyone would want to endure all the hardships of being on a Gaelic team, the men of the Mattock Rangers get it. It’s just this thing of theirs and their community and it’s a bond that can never be broken.

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*I decided to make some cookies with Mattock Rangers colors for the quarter-finals yesterday. I will admit that, 4 hours into the 6 hours it took to bake and decorate these, I was actually muttering, “They better win!” to myself. They did win (though it was a nail-biter!) and now it’s off to the semi-finals next weekend.


Mattock Rangers Cookies

For the cookies:
1 cup (227 grams) of unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 egg
½ vanilla bean
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon of salt

For the icing:
4 cups icing sugar
¼ cup milk (more or less as needed)
Red food coloring
Black food coloring

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add in the egg, the seeds from inside the vanilla pod and the vanilla extract and mix well. Set aside. In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Then add the flour mixture, slowly to the butter/sugar/egg mixture – I usually do it in 3-4 parts. The dough will be a little crumbly in the bowl but will come together if you press it gently with your hands.

Roll the dough out on a floured surface to about ¼ inch thickness – it’s easier to roll out if you do it between two pieces of grease-proof/parchment paper. Then place the dough into the refrigerator for 30-40 minutes until chilled. Cut the dough with a round cookie cutter or whatever else shapes you want to use, then place the cookies on a greased baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 170 C (350 F) oven for 10-12 minutes or until the edges of the cookies are slightly golden. Carefully remove the cookies and place on a cooling rack and let cool completely.

For the icing: Mix together the icing sugar and milk. You want the consistency to be slightly runny but not too watery – it should be easy to spread on the cookies but not too thin. You can add more milk if it’s too thick and more icing sugar if too thin. Take half of the icing and put it into another bowl. Add the red food coloring to one, and black to the other. The amount of food coloring really depends on how deep you want the color to be, so test it out and see what happens. I prefer food coloring pastes, as they are much easier to work with and give off a much richer, deeper color. You can buy them in most baking shops.

Ice one half of the cookies with the black food coloring, and let them dry completely before icing the other side with the red icing. Store in an air-tight container and keep at room temperature. Keeps for about 3-4 days.