Camogie is in Caroline Hanley’s blood, her addiction, which is in no way related to her day job as a drug tester. Camogie is her sport, one that virtually everyone she encounters has never heard of, to the point the first thing they typically ask her to do is spell it aloud.
Lesson No. 1 in the world of obscure athletics: When you’re constantly required to spell your sport, you know there’s some serious splainin’ to do.
“I’ve learned, the best way to describe it is a mix between lacrosse and field hockey,’’ said Hanley, 22, who lives in Brighton, where she’s ever-thankful there are at least a few like-minded Irish girls who know the difference between camogie and, say, a cannoli. “I think that gives everyone the general idea. If not, I tell them they’ll just have to come see it.’’
An Irish stick-and-ball game played on an expansive field, camogie is the women’s version of hurling. Same game, albeit with a few tiny tweaks, including a ball (or sliotar) that is slightly smaller than a baseball. That, of course, gives few Americans much of a clue. Such is life lived in a sports subset. If soccer lovers think they’ve had a tough ride building interest in their sport here in the Lower 48, they’d find solace in talking to their hurling and camogie brothers and sisters.
Actually, camogie is a subset of a subset, the women’s version of a men’s game that barely registers in the American sports consciousness. That’s out there, way outside the margins, so far beyond our standard playing fields that Wikipedia can barely find it. Truth in Internet searching: Wikipedia claims 100,000 women play camogie, with all but 15,000 of those women in Ireland. So, OK, there’s room for growth.
“To be honest, because of immigration right now, it’s a struggle to keep our team going,’’ said Hanley, whose Brighton-based squad, Eire Og, practices once a week on the Boston College-owned grounds of St. John’s Seminary. “Right now, we’re down to 10 of us, all from Ireland. We’ve had a few American girls join us, but, understandably, it’s hard for them to keep their interest up with just a practice now and then and so few games. If you’re from Ireland, you’ve played it forever and you want to keep playing it. It’s not really the same for the American girls.”
You don’t have to be of Irish sod to see or appreciate camogie and hurling this upcoming Labor Day weekend when the Irish Cultural Center in Canton plays host to the annual North American Championships on its lush acres. Some 2,500 Gaelic athletes from across North America, including a sprinkling from the Cayman Islands, will battle across Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the ancient games of camogie, hurling, and Irish football.
Eire Og is one of only three senior camogie teams competing — the other clubs are from Baltimore and Toronto — and will take the field first thing (8 a.m.) Saturday. The camogie title match will be played late on Sunday morning. Overall, it’s a weekend of nonstop action (8 a.m-6 p.m. each day) in Gaelic sports. For more details, including ticket info, go to the Boston Gaelic Athletic Association’s website: www.bostongaa.com.
Hanley’s aunt, Rene Bligh, started Brighton’s Eire Og camogie club in the late 1970s, and according to Hanley, there was once a healthy slate of games, in part because a Dorchester club, Emerald Isle, provided a steady crosstown rival. But Emerald Isle eventually folded, leaving the Brighton girls a club without a playing schedule. Hanley figures the closest camogie team nowadays is in Washington, D.C., which makes the upcoming competition in Canton all the more meaningful.
“We’re aging out a bit, I guess you’d say,’’ said Hanley, the youngest player on her squad, noting that many others on the team are in their 30s and 40s. “We have 10 regulars, and we’ll have to pick up a few more for the weekend, because you need 15 aside.’’
Another of her aunts, Christina Hanley, from Dedham, played for 40 years, many of those with the Brighton club, but recently retired because of two bad knees.
“She’ll be there to watch on the weekend,’’ said Caroline. “If we’re stuck for players, who knows, maybe we’ll have to call her into the action. She’d need injections in both knees to do it, but . . . I know she would.’’
The wooden camogie sticks (or hurleys) are tooled from ash and, according to Hanley, aren’t made around here (Nike’s North American camogie department did not return a Globe reporter’s repeated e-mails). Her teammates have to wait for someone to make a trip home — Hanley, now a US citizen, grew up in Galway — to replenish the hurley rack. Otherwise, they must piece back broken sticks with glue and tape, reminiscent of times when every Little Leaguer’s dad was adept in restoring cracked wooden bats with screws, glue, hockey tape, and a bottomless reservoir of patience.
A greater number of women, said Hanley, play Irish football, and most of her camogie teammates will join her in also playing the football games in Canton. So not only are they a loyal lot, these camogie players, but they’re sturdy, too. There’s a lot of running in both sports, and plenty of physical play.
“They say camogie’s supposed to be noncontact,’’ said Hanley. “But that’s ridiculous. The ball’s flying around all the time, and everyone’s swinging. You get hit all the time. There’s a lot of contact.’’
Only in recent years, she said, did helmets become mandatory for camogie players. “Until then,’’ said Hanley, “a lot of girls lost their teeth and, for a girl, you know, that’s not so attractive.’’
Hanley is thankful to report, 17 years into her camogie career, she has most of her faculties and all of her teeth.
“I saw a girl right in front of me lose a bunch her teeth once,’’ she said. “Painful. I wasn’t quite as brave after seeing that happen.’’
The Gaelic games begin first thing Friday morning. Camogie, perhaps the tiniest speck in the universe of sport, is at the center of Caroline Hanley’s athletic being. That doesn’t have to be spelled out for anyone.