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American football comes to Ireland

US Ambassador Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers scraps baseball, stages “Flag Football Classic” for July 4th picnic.

US ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney
Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Joanne Richardson, chief executive of the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, and U.S. ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney at the Fourth of July celebration in Dublin. (Conor O'Clery/GlobalPost)

DUBLIN, Ireland — American flags flapped in the wind, blue smoke swirled from barbeques, and Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers presided over a game of American football.

It could have been a July 4th event in the United States. But this was Dublin, Ireland, where Rooney is the U.S. ambassador, and he was making history by staging an “Irish American Flag Football Classic” at his residence in the capital city’s Phoenix Park.

Rooney brought 32 members of his extended family to Dublin for the occasion, including his sons Art Rooney, team president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Dan, the Steelers' college scout. The pair were given two days to select and train opposing teams of Irish and American volunteers, the “Dublin 8s” and the “Phoenix Park Pirates,” for a challenge game as the centerpiece of an old-fashioned July 4th picnic.

Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen took a break from watching World Cup games on television and was given the honor of tossing the coin.

The team rosters included embassy diplomats and marines, local Gaelic football, rugby and soccer players, and the neighbor’s kids — Ireland’s president Mary McAleese lives in a nearby wooded estate and her son, Justin, kitted out in yellow for the Dublin 8s and daughter, Emma, played in blue for the Pirates.

The idea of a first-ever American football game at the residence arose after Rooney presented his credentials to President McAleese on July 3rd last year. He discovered next day that the U.S. embassy staged an Independence Day baseball game on the 62-acre property.

“I thought, hey, if you can do a baseball game, you can have a football game,” Rooney told me.

The decision to replace baseball with football involved lengthy preparation. It took two months to prepare a football arena on the vast meadow in front of the elegant 230-year-old residence, which before Irish independence belonged to Britain’s Chief Secretary in Ireland. The task was undertaken by Peter McKenna, stadium director of Dublin’s Croke Park.

“The ambassador asked could we make a pitch,” said McKenna, making a last minute inspection as hundreds of Irish and American guests gathered on the sidelines."There was a lot of undulating ground and we had to lift the grass and fill in the holes to create a flat surface.”

He provided bleachers, American Football posts (made in Belfast) and giant television screens for live coverage and play-backs, and had the word “Steelers” painted on the thick-blade meadow grass and the ambassador’s seal of office in the middle.