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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.

McKenna constructed the pitch pro bono as a way of saying thank you to American team owners, including Rooney, who had provided advice for the reconstruction six years ago of the stands at Croke Park, the home of Gaelic Football, which now have a capacity of 82,000.

“The Croke Park people did a marvelous job,” said Rooney at the start of the event, which was sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce and Pepsico. As someone credited for the “Rooney Rule,” which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for management and coaching vacancies, I asked the ambassador what was the “Rooney Rule” on this occasion. He had ruled, he said, that it should be a non-contact game of flag football, played with only eight on each side as the ground was somewhat smaller than regulation size. Historic trees on the fringes could not be moved to make it bigger. These included a northern red oak planted by Vice President George H. W. Bush on a visit in 1983, and a giant spruce put there in 1868 by the Prince of Wales.

The one thing the ambassador could not guarantee was the cooperation of the notoriously fickle Irish summer weather.

“We walked around the pitch saying the rosary every evening and praying for sunshine,” the ambassador’s wife, Patricia, told me. The Rooneys are practicing Catholics and the ambassador attends mass every day, wherever his duties take him.

The gods were listening. After a morning of rain the clouds rolled away and the game was played in blazing sunshine. Cowen and most everyone else took off their jackets, munched on hot dogs, scooped up ice cream, and watched the Dublin 8s hammer the Pirates 28-15.

Over the loudspeakers commentator Paul Collins from Ireland’s Today FM radio station teased Art Rooney unmercifully, wondering how the Pirates trainer could hold up his head, and suggesting he don sunglasses to disguise himself on the seven-hour flight home.

After the game I asked Ambassador Rooney if he had an inside track on whether U.S. President Barack Obama had plans to visit Ireland.

“I have been urging him to come,” said Rooney. “We have installed a new basket ball hoop ready for him.”

Patricia Rooney said that her husband had been sending him post cards of Irish scenes, including one of a sheep, saying “This fellow is waiting to meet you.”

Problems at home such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had kept him from traveling abroad, said Dan Rooney. “But he wants to come.”