In Patterson Park, good Irish sports

New club plays Gaelic football as well as hurling and camogie

Health & Fitness

April 18, 2004|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to the Sun

If you can't wait until the fall for football, head down to Patterson Park on Sundays starting today for a different kind of football -- Gaelic football.

The newly formed Baltimore Gaelic Athletic Association is hoping to renew area interest in Gaelic football, hurling and camogie.

The games are fun to watch and more fun to play, league organizers say. And players get a great workout, too.

And because the league is new, most of the players are only beginning to hone their skills, so everyone plays at about the same level.

"It's a wonderful game," Tadgh Prendeville says of Gaelic football. Tadgh, his wife, Lucy, and five others founded the Baltimore league last fall.

"There are two sides to it if you come out," he says. "You get to play an Irish sport and see what that culture is like. You also get to create a community ... of friends."

Irish football is often referred to as a cross between soccer and rugby. To move the ball a player can kick it, punch it (but not throw it), run with it for four strides, bounce it (but only once) or solo it (dropping the ball to one's foot and tapping it back into one's hands).

Hurling (for men) or camogie (for women) is played with a stick, known as a hurl. The sport is often compared to lacrosse and field hockey.

Only about five of the 50 players participating in the Baltimore league are Irish natives; most are novices who wanted to know more about the sports.

"You don't have to be Irish and you don't have to have experience," says Lucy Prendeville, 27, a medical researcher at the University of Maryland Medical School.

"Rather than it being very competitive, they took the time to make sure people were enjoying themselves," says league member Nuala O'Leary, 33.

O'Leary, whose parents are from Ireland, says participating in Gaelic football is a way for her to connect with her roots.

"My parents think it's fun that I'm doing this," says O'Leary, a social worker who lives in Medfield.

For Charles Village resident Eddie MacIntosh, 25, playing traditional Irish sports goes hand in hand with his work as a Celtic mandolin player in the local band Whiskey at the Wake.

"With all the ties to Irish roots people in Baltimore have, it's great to tap into that sense of culture," he says. "And with all the exercise fads that are out there right now, it's kind of cool to be doing something a bit different."

While knowledge of Gaelic sports may not be needed, players should be ready for a workout. Practices run about two hours and start with a warm-up, stretching and agility work. Players then break into groups of five or six to work on skills such as kicking, catching, blocking or passing. At the end of practice, the skills are put together in scrimmages.

"It's definitely something that you will get a really good workout with," O'Leary says, "but you are also learning a skill."

And you don't have to be an elite athlete to participate.

"We realize people work and have families," Tadgh Prendeville says. "We cater [to] everybody."

Most U.S. Gaelic sports leagues are in cities with large Irish populations, such as Boston, New York and Chicago. Baltimore has a history of Gaelic sports dating back to the 1950s, but as fewer Irish immigrants settled in the city, interest in the sports slowed.

Renewed interest nationwide, however, has new leagues forming in cities such as St. Louis and Atlanta, according to John Keane, secretary of the North American County Board of the Gaelic Athletic Association.

"Clubs are popping up all over the place," he says. "It's only been in the past three or four years that it has really taken off."

Part of the reason is the Internet. "Now I can watch games from Ireland," Keane says. "Before you couldn't even listen to games on the radio."

The North American County Board, a member of the Ireland-based Gaelic Athletic Association, promotes Gaelic sports in the United States. In 2004, games were being organized in more than 30 cities. The association includes about 4,500 registered players in about 100 clubs that compete to qualify for the North American Finals.

The local group alternates weekly evening practices between football and hurling / camogie workouts. They hope to eventually have leagues for all three sports. A travel team will also represent Baltimore in Gaelic football tournaments held by other clubs in other cities.

"Anyone can come out and have fun," says Tadgh. "We'll explain the games."

The league kicks off its spring season today with games at Patterson Park. A Gaelic Games Tournament is planned for June 5 and will involve teams from other U.S. cities. An eight-week summer league is also planned.

Rules of the Gaelic games

Here's a look at how Gaelic football and hurling / camogie are played:

Gaelic football

* Played by men or women in teams of 15 or 13 players on a field the size of an American football field.

* The soccer-type ball may be carried for up to four paces and then bounced or released to the toe, kicked or struck with the open hand or fist, in any direction.

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