Ireland: The Donegal-Derry Vipers – Spanning the border between countries

The Donegal-Derry Vipers occupy a unique position, not only in American football, but perhaps in sports. It’s a team composed of players from two countries, Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Vipers play in Ireland’s IAFL, Irish American Football League, Division 1. and are currently qualified for the semifinals after finishing the 2018 regular season with a 7-1 record. Olivier Rival recently spoke with Vipers Shaun McGrory, who is Vice Chairperson and offensive lineman, about the origins of this relatively new team (four years old) and the unique position it holds.

By Olivier Rival

Rival: How the Vipers have started? Were they based both sides of the border from the beginning?

McGrory: The idea of The Vipers was conceived by Cathal ‘Cax’ Curran out of absolutely nowhere to he honest. Cathal wasn’t a huge NFL fan but had watched bits and pieces. He had played Soccer and G.A.A all his life but having come across some information about an Irish League decided to see what it was all about. He decided he would try and set the club up and just started flooding social media with adverts for the 1st training session. Now to be clear, the vast majority of people in Ireland had no idea we play American Football on the Island so when it was advertised it got lots of interest.It was early Jan 2015 so it was mid winter and the only facilities we had were indoor facilities perched right on the Irish border. Around 50 people showed up that day, with a varying range of knowledge about the game, but zero experience. In the first year it was tough. We laugh about it now, but everyone was flying by the seat of their pants. We were absolute novices on and off the field. 4 years later and we still consider both the counties our home and have held home games in both Co. Donegal and Co. Derry in each of the last 3 seasons.

Rival: Vipers for an Irish team, the island without snakes, is the name ironic? How was it chosen?

McGrory: The guys laugh at this question all the time. It was as deep and meaningful as pin the tail on the donkey. Cathal Curran liked the name so we went for it. Since then alot of myths have build up around its origins and most of those myths have probably stemmed from the players telling tall tales after a few post game refreshments. We have fun with it because Ireland is known for being snake-less. We aren’t afraid to celebrate our successes but equally so, we don’t mind having a laugh at our own expense. The Vipers started out as just any old name but has grown to mean so much more to us. It signifies a team built on hard work and respect but also a family, a sense of home and somewhere were it is fun to be.

RB Cathal Curran making yards against the Antrim Jets Photo: Dean Cullen

Rival: How are you organized? Do you train at Derry and Donegal too? Do you always train all together or do you have sometimes separates trainings in each county? Overall is the team about 50% from Donegal/50% from Derry? And from more catholic or protestant backgrounds or fully mixed?

McGrory: Our team started off training right on the Irish border and the Donegal / Derry element of our name grew from that and just seemed to come naturally as we had a large pool of players that bridged those counties. We play and train as a group predominantly in Derry but make it a priority to have at least 1 regular season game hosted in Donegal. But our squad has evolved since we were founded and now we add to that a large contingent of players from nearby Co. Tyrone and have had players from England, Canada and The America’s. We are a hometown club who like to punch above our weight.

Rival: Could the Brexit change something for you? Any fear about that?

McGrory: Brexit has almost become a taboo subject, not because of any great affiliation to either a Pro or Anti stance but merely because no-one actually knows what is happening and I think that runs from the layman right to the top of government. Brexit does have the potential to cause us real issues for a number of reasons. A hard border or a restriction on travel between the 2 Ireland’s could have a real impact on the our ability to train as a collective. Travel costs could increase and ultimately the teams ability to bounce between 2 territories could be put at risk. We are hoping that there is some kind of common sense resolution because we pride ourselves on bringing people together from all cultures and faiths and to have that disrupted by a perceived imaginary line that divides the Island would be nonsensical.

Rival: Are you the only team in Ireland with one foot on each “side”? Other examples you may know in other sports?

McGrory: Ireland is a relatively small country by any standards but it is one that has recovered from a lot of turmoil in the past 2 decades. Whilst it drove us apart throughout history it was the very same commonality that now brings us together. There are quite a few of the teams that are on or near the Irish border but the one that comes to mind is The Louth Mavericks. Louth skirts the Irish border too and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had quite a few players from both the north and south of Ireland. In terms of other sports I think we have set the precedent and it’s mainly due to the fact that Donegal and Derry have always had a rich history of competitiveness with each other and the wider Island and its a lever we often pull to get the best from our guys.

QB Danny Mullan #7 on a QB keep. Photo: Dean Cullen

Rival:  It looks like football is growing well in Ireland those last few years, what do you think is the root of that growth?

McGrory: Irish American football has been around since the 80’s but up until 4 years ago I had no idea it even existed. Obviously the growth of the sport both in term of teams who participate and also the profile of it can be attributed to its increased promotion especially when you consider we have had American College teams come and play Irish teams. The NCAA events have helped as have the NFL games played out of London. But I also think the evolution of social media has helped. The ability to view content so easily is probably the biggest thing that I have seen happen. Now, pretty much anyone can set up an event and self promote and it has worked wonders for us across our social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snap chat and Instagram. Visibility of the sport is key and I think our team and our ability to interact with our audience adds a little bit more visibility to the league. Our association have also really stepped it up this year and the content coming from the IAFA, under the direction of new Communications officer Gerard Mulreaney has been terrific. In essence you can play the best football in the world but if no-one knows about it then it will dry up pretty quickly.

Rival: Has the NCAA games in Dublin helped? (answered in the above question)

Rival: With many contact games played in Ireland, from rugby to G.A.A, what makes people choose American football?

McGrory: American football is definitely still the poor cousin of sports like Football / Soccer, Rugby and Gaelic Association but with that, it helps in the sense that most of these sports have a huge amount of transferable skills. It could be the speed of a centre forward in Soccer who adapts to become a wide receiver, the toughness of the Rugby guys or the hand skills of a competent G.A.A player. We are blessed with having toughness ingrained in us with our own national sports and it isn’t too much of a jump to put some pads and a helmet on and run into someone at top speed. We are still fighting the good fight to make American football more visible and more attractive but we are in the privileged position of have the skill set there already, it just needs adapted a little. Add to that the fact that we try and create a fun environment with a melting pot of backgrounds for a sport that most people never thought they could play in Ireland and you have a pretty strong foundation.

Rival:  Is the objective of the season the promotion to D1?

McGrory: Absolutely! In the 4 years since we formed we have had a lot of success.

IAFL2 2015 1W – 5L,
IAFL2 2016 6W – 0L, (IAFL2 Bowl champions, promoted to IAFL1)
IAFL1 2017 6W – 2L (Beaten Semi Finalist)
IAFL1 2018 7W – 1L (Conference North Champions, Semi Finalists)

We want to go at least 1 better than we did last year and reach the IAFL1 Bowl Game at least. It has always been our goal to be the Shamrock Bowl Champions one day, anything less and it will be a disappointment. But that is by no means a given, in our division alone we have some unbelievable competition and although we won the Northern Conference it was far from easy. There are so many committed teams out there that whilst we want to be SBC championship we understand that it is still a few years away at least. Every year the goal is to improve and we have done that in each of the 4 years since we were founded, but we have a goal and we will make it a reality some day I hope.

Cathal ‘Cax’ Curran (founder) and Chairperson Frieda Gallagher with family at The 2018 Donegal game. Photo: Dean Cullen

Rival: How would you describe your style of play?

McGrory: I think it is fair to say we are a team built from the defense up. Our defense has been the most consistent and high performing element of our team for the past 3 years allowing only 8.6 points against on average per game this year. Our coaches make sure we are well drilled on the playbook and that every man has a hunger to ‘go and hit someone’. They have that raw aggression and that ‘badassery’ I think any good defense needs. But that is not to say the Offense is without its merits. Rated as the 2nd best offense in the league is nothing to be sniffed at, we have a number of options at QB and have some excellent weapons at TE, WR and RB but our Offensive line have probably been the linchpin of our offensive success this year. We are a well rounded outfit and have the drive and confidence to get better. We can and will adapt when needed depending on the situation and a lot of that credit has to go to the environment the coaches have created to get the best out of us.

Rival: Anything you’d like to add?

McGrory: On a personal level joining the Vipers is one of the best things I have done and donning the Red & Gold has been one of the proudest achievements of my life. The club we have built is something we as players, coaches and committee will always be proud of and I would encourage anyone with even a passing interest in the sport to find your local team and go try-out whether that be in Ireland, Europe or the wider world. You will not regret it.

#GoVipers

 

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