June 3, 2007


The Lack of the Irish: Long before baseball ruled this town, the quirky sports of Gaelic football and hurling provided Irish arrivals with a vital link to their homeland. But now, with fewer and fewer legal - and illegal - immigrants washing ashore, these Gaelic games are in the fight of their lives. (Jeremy Miller, June 3, 2007, Boston Globe)

Twenty-five years before ground was broken on Fenway Park, in 1886, the first Gaelic football match was played on Boston Common. Since its founding in 1884, the Boston Northeast Gaelic Athletic Association has done more than organize these matches. It has nourished and spread Irish culture and political viewpoints and provided a critical economic and social safety net to new Irish immigrants. “On a psychological level, it has been hugely significant, particularly for those of a rural background coming to a heaving, busy metropolis,” says Paul Darby, a senior lecturer in the School of Sports Studies at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. Darby, who’s working on a book about the Gaelic Athletic Association in the United States and Canada, came to Boston in the late 1990s as a guest player for the Boston-based Armagh-Notre Dame club and experienced the phenomenon firsthand. “It’s tremendously reassuring to find a group of like-minded people playing games you would have played back home. In a way, it feels like coming home.”

Not surprisingly, the GAA in Boston and other US cities depends almost exclusively on Irish-born players to fill its rosters. But today, the flow of Irish immigration to the United States is ebbing. According to the Irish government, nearly 14,000 people, most returning Irish emigrants, moved from the United States to Ireland between 2000 and 2005. The Irish-born population in this country dropped by 18 percent, to 128,000, between 2000 and 2004, according to US Census figures. The Boston GAA, the largest member league outside Ireland with 22 clubs, has seen an even more precipitous decline. The league has lost nearly 700 players, or 35 percent of its membership, since 1999.

As fear of summary deportation swirls in the wake of the New Bedford raid and Irish immigrants box up their Massachusetts homes and return to their native country for good, many in the Boston GAA see the struggles of local sports clubs as a loosening thread in the city’s already fragile Irish tapestry. They find themselves asking an ominous question at the start of the new athletic season: Could this be the end for Irish sport in Boston?

A common misconception about Gaelic sports is that the “amateur” label is synonymous with “laid-back.” The stakes are high. The athletes are fit. Play is crisp and – for lack of a better term – professional.

In Gaelic football, played by both men and women, participants carry the ball by hand and pass and shoot it by foot. Hurling and its women’s version, camogie, are played with ax-shaped wooden sticks called “camains” and “camogs,” which are used to strike a hard leather ball called a “sliothar.” The “Clack!” of clashing sticks is to hurling what squeaking shoes are to basketball. The devil is in the stickwork, says Fiona Gohery, a nanny from Waltham who plays for the Brighton-based Eire Og Camogie team. “The tough part of the game,” she says, “is what seems basic – learning to solo [balancing or bouncing the ball on the stick] or simply getting the ball up off the ground with a load of defenders around you.”

While practices take place throughout metro Boston, all games are played at the Irish Cultural Centre of New England in Canton. Gaelic football, hurling, and camogie all use a playing field more than twice the size of a standard American football field. It has to be big to accommodate the long-range passes and driving shots that careen like meteors toward the H-shaped goals at each end. A whack of the sliothar or a kick of the football through the upper crossbars is worth 1 point, a shot past the goalie on the lower goal, 3. The games move frenetically – forward and back, side to side – like marbles on the deck of a rolling ship.

US teams follow the same rules as those in Ireland, as all teams in this country are overseen by an Irish governing body, the Cumann Luthchleas Gael. Because of the smaller pool of players in the United States, the games are played 13 to a side instead of the traditional 15. The effect of fewer bodies on the massive piece of real estate, says Gerry McKenna, coach and treasurer for the Aidan McAnespie Gaelic Football Club in South Boston, is similar to four-on-four penalty time in hockey. “It becomes a much more offensive-minded game,” he says. The McAnespies, clad in the red and white of Ulster, know something about offense: They’ve won Boston’s senior Gaelic football championships the last two years.

Christy Lynch, a greyhoundlike halfback for the McAnespies, says he’s noticed some distinct differences between football in Boston and Ireland. “I think because of the intense rivalries here, the games tend to be more rough and tumble,” says Lynch, who arrived in April from Belfast just to play for the club.

Ireland’s former economic and political woes were long the North American GAA’s gain. For years, the league was able to lure top Irish talent with the promise of employment. In the 1980s, during the last great surge of Irish immigration to the United States, unemployment in Ireland hovered near 17 percent. “If you go back to the ’80s and early ’90s, Ireland was leaking 20,000 people, officially, every year. That did not count the people who went over on J-1s [temporary visas] and stayed illegally,” says Mike Cronin, academic director for Boston College’s Centre for Irish Programmes in Dublin. In the Irish-friendly milieu of metro Boston, visiting players had little reason to fear serious repercussions for overstaying their 90-day visas. Indeed, many never went back.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 3, 2007 8:30 AM
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