Rough-and-tumble Gaelic football is a hit on both sides of the Atlantic
CANTON — On a cloudy evening at the pitch, the intensity is high. On the field, players slam into each other with reckless abandon. In the stands, spectators hang on every twist, leaping from their seats one moment to shout a few choice expletives, slumping down the next for a deep gulp of their Magners.
“Well done, Paudy boy!” a fan yells at full back Patrick “Paudy” Kenneally in a moment of pride. After diving to knock down the ball, Kenneally is on his feet in a flash and back in the action.
This rough-and-tumble sport is Gaelic football, a beloved Irish tradition that has taken root in the Boston area. The popular adult league mostly consists of Irish immigrants who grew up playing the game and carried it with them to the United States.
But increasingly, Americans are playing, too, even at the highest levels. Kenneally, 30, grew up in Braintree, and his cousin Jack Lynch, 24, his teammate on the Wolfetones, grew up in Weymouth.
First-generation Americans whose parents grew up in County Cork, Kenneally and Lynch were raised playing the sport, and are now the only Americans who regularly start games in the league’s top division.
“My friends played baseball; I played Gaelic football,” Kenneally said after a game last week at the Irish Cultural Centre in Canton.
Most American-born players stick out awkwardly on the field, but Kenneally and Lynch only betray their roots with their voices.
“To hear American accents out there, shouting at guys, I think it’s great,” said Rory O’Donnell, a Boston-based spokesman for the US Gaelic Athletic Association. “I think it bodes well for the future of the game.”
Fewer Irish have been immigrating to the United States in recent years due to the difficulty in obtaining work visas, meaning Gaelic football clubs must rely more on homegrown players, O’Donnell said.
Ronnie Millar, executive director of the Irish International Immigrant Center in Boston, said the number of Irish applicants for yearlong or summer work visas has dropped dramatically as word spreads that they are becoming harder to obtain. Last year, the center saw just one applicant’s yearlong visa request denied, this year they’ve already seen 20.
To build homegrown interest in the sport, the Boston Gaelic Athletic Association is reaching out to local schools, urging players to bring their friends to a training session, and sending teams to compete in Ireland each summer.
But successful American players, like Kenneally and Lynch, may be the best marketing.
“Hopefully it will give some of the young players coming up through the underage ranks now role models to look to,” O’Donnell said. “Especially when they see that these guys are American kids and that they’re able to mix it up with the Irish guys. I think that’s great, you know, for the game here. For the future of the game here.”
In November, the national association is expected to vote on a proposal requiring top-tier teams to play at least two American-born players at all times. This would give Americans more opportunities while preventing teams from assembling stacked all-Irish lineups.
Irish students who spend the summer in the United States will often play Gaelic football in their spare time, and some clubs even recruit Irish students, helping set them up with housing and a job.
Kenneally and Lynch said that while it can be intimidating to play against the Irish newcomers, it’s worth the chance to compete against top-flight players.
“I suppose it is really cool because then a few years later you can see them playing at the highest level in Ireland,” Lynch said.
The league finals are Sunday afternoon, and O’Donnell expects a crowd of around 1,500. Before the game, teams will march around the pitch behind a band of bagpipers.
Under national association rules, Gaelic football pits two teams of 13 players on a pitch about 60 yards longer than a football field. It’s played with a round, leather ball, similar in appearance to a volleyball but bigger and nearly twice as heavy. Points are scored by placing the ball in the goal (3 points), or kicking it over the crossbar and between the uprights (1 point).
Like rugby, players wear no defensive gear, save for the occasional mouth guard. It is a bruising sport, and tempers often flare. Wednesday’s game was no exception, as a shove turned into a swing that sparked a full-fledged brawl. After about a minute, the players helped break it up. Lynch placed himself between his teammate and an opponent, arms outstretched, one hand on each. But later, players on both teams shared pints at the Irish centre’s pub. Gaelic football is more than a sport, players said, it’s a shared connection.
O’Donnell, who immigrated to America 27 years ago, said the Boston Gaelic Athletic Association was “a big part of the reason I never wanted to go back to Ireland.” There are 875 players in the adult league, and just under 400 in the youth divisions.
He first immigrated after the season had ended, and was homesick for about six months, until he got involved with the Boston association. “It is a home away from home,” he said. “It’s an instant network of people, an instant social network.”