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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.

As the sun is going down on a Saturday in March, three youngsters – Jack Lynch, 12, of Weymouth, Joseph Kennedy, 12, of Milton, and Jack Young, 10, of Walpole – kick a Gaelic football around an empty playing field in Canton. In warm-up jackets zipped to their chins, they cut and fake, as if to shake invisible defenders. One delivers a pass by dropping the ball, which looks like a swollen volleyball, from his hand to his instep. The other catches the ball midstride, bounces it once like Paul Pierce on a drive into the lane, and delivers a low, bending drop kick on goal that caroms off the post. If I hadn’t known what I was looking at, I’d have thought this was a serendipitous game of childhood imagination. But the sport is ancient, and it is thoroughly Irish. Though Lynch, Kennedy, and Young were born in the United States, all of them have Irish parents and have played Gaelic football, a mix of soccer and rugby, since they were 5 or 6 years old. They’ve also been playing hurling, which is similar to lacrosse, for about as long.

“But are these games nearly as fun to play as, say, basketball, soccer, or baseball?” I ask, expecting a conciliatory “No” in reply.

“Oh, yeah,” says Kennedy, the group’s self-appointed spokesman. “They’re just different.”

“Do any of your friends at school play them?” I press.

All three shake their heads. “No,” says Kennedy, grinning coyly at his mates. “I play hurling and Gaelic football with my Irish friends.” Then he drops the ball to the turf and delivers a kick that snaps it into the net beyond Young’s outstretched hands.

And there lies the challenge for those working to preserve traditional Irish sports in Boston and other US cities. 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.

But the combination of post-9/11 scrutiny and an unprecedented era of Irish prosperity, political cohesion, and self-assuredness has made it increasingly difficult to get top Irish players to join American clubs. Today, according to United Nations figures, Ireland has the world’s third-highest per-capita income. Northern Ireland’s two rival factions, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, have met in a power-sharing assembly. Earlier this year, rugby and soccer, long-banned English games, were played for the first time at Dublin’s Croke Park, the epicenter of Irish sport.

Boston, in turn, has come to be seen as craggy terrain for illegals. Stories of undercover agents staking out Boston pubs, spurned lovers placing calls to immigration services, and minor traffic infractions escalating to full-blown deportation proceedings color local conversation.

Nevertheless, some players still make the journey. Those who successfully navigate the US Customs Service and the league’s rigid visiting-player system get royal treatment, says Connie Kelly, an ursine Belmont man who’s promoted Gaelic sports in Boston for almost 40 years and is the spokesman for the Dorchester-based Kerry Gaelic Football Club. “We pick them up at the airport. We put them up in an apartment. We get them a good job.” For the best players, it can become an outright bidding war. “Say we’ve got our eye on a player. Well, there are eight other clubs that are interested in him as well. The minute they hear Johnny is coming over to play, they call and ask, ‘What’s Kerry offerin’ ya?’ ” says Kelly. “It’s just like the Red Sox and Yankees.” The Boston GAA, he adds, is well connected; many coaches and managers are also local contractors, pub owners, or restaurateurs. That top players have been offered cash incentives by clubs in cities such as Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, however, has been a source of great friction. GAA rules are clear: The league is amateur, and players are not to get paid. “These inducements,” says Darby, the University of Ulster professor, “have heightened the underlying tension between the GAA in Ireland and the US.” Fergal McNeill, spokesman for the GAA in Dublin, says the topic of player payments by US clubs was discussed this April at a GAA congress meeting in Dublin. “I think,” says McNeill, “we’ve come to an understanding on the issue.”

Amid the changes at home and abroad, the average GAA player in Boston has also undergone a shift. “It’s a generalization to say all the guys that play GAA are working construction,” says hurler and civil engineer Fergal Brennock, who lives in Watertown and plays for the Galway Hurling club of Boston. “Many are highly educated – computer programmers and engineers. The guys that come over to play are not all desperate for work anymore.” McNeill says this has to do with the rapid modernization that has taken place in Ireland. “Ireland has changed, and so has the makeup of the players in the GAA.”

While the men’s teams are struggling to cope with the lack of players, the Boston GAA’s women’s clubs, says league secretary Sharon O’Brien, have begun to adjust. O’Brien, a nanny who has a cherubic face and a subtly devious smile, lives in Arlington and plays Gaelic football and camogie for the Brighton-based Tir na Nog and Eire Og clubs. They have successfully recruited players from local university rugby teams and city soccer leagues, O’Brien tells me over an afternoon pint at the Banshee Pub in Dorchester. (Although that day the Red Sox are facing the Angels at Fenway, Schilling on the hill, the TV above us stays faithfully tuned to the test pattern of Setanta, the Irish sports network.) “Almost all of the men playing are Irish,” she says. “But the women’s teams are much more diverse. We have Chinese, black, and Latina women out there.” A mere 7 percent of the players on Boston’s men’s teams are American-born; that figure jumps to more than 25 percent in the women’s league.

The men’s league’s intense focus on luring top talent from Ireland, say youth league officials in Boston, has coincided with neglect of local youth programs. “We’ve spent too much time feeding the head while letting the body starve,” says youth coach Martin Bannon, of Hyde Park. Still, there have been some efforts, including demonstrations of Gaelic sports at schools and Irish events around the country. Larry McCann, a no-nonsense Ulsterman who first came to New York City in the 1970s as a Gaelic footballer and now lives in Hanson and works as a youth league chairman, says his group signed up 40 boys and girls at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston. “These games are a thread of Irish life,” he says. “But we’ve got to figure out how to get American kids excited about them.”

While Gaelic football can be picked up later in life, hurling and camogie have a more specialized skill set. To master them, in most cases, you must be exposed to them at an early age. Hurling and camogie’s sticks are swung in impossibly close quarters, and you must learn to step into the swing of the opposing player. If you don’t, it’s only a matter of time before a stick catches you full force in the jaw. “You’ve got to start by age 7,” says Michael O’Connor, of Milton, the North American GAA’s youth officer. “If you don’t develop these instincts at an early age, you’ll never play.”

Unless interest can be generated among American youth, says O’Connor, hurling and camogie will disappear in the United States. (Gaelic football appears less threatened.) Sharon O’Brien says that six years ago, eight all-Irish camogie teams played in the United States; now there are only five teams and, of those, only three are all-Irish (the other two, based in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., have all American players). The New York GAA has lost five hurling teams in the last five years, and Boston is expected to lose one this year.

“The games and the [Irish] community are interdependent,” says Boston GAA youth officer Frank Hogan, of Westwood. “When the leagues suffer, the community suffers.” Gaelic sports are, at their core, a resounding expression of Irishness. “Being a member of the GAA has traditionally been tied up with a political act,” says Cronin of Boston College. “It is a statement.” While the North American GAA, historically, has exploited Irish talent, Ireland has exploited the financial resources and nationalist sentiments of the North American GAA. “Nationalists in Ireland recognized that in order to be successful in their broader political objectives, they’d need the help and finances of the Irish diaspora,” says Darby of the University of Ulster. He’s found evidence in the Irish-American press that the GAA participated directly in fund-raising for the Easter Rising in 1916. This trend reemerged in the 1970s through the early 1990s, says Darby, when GAA events were used as fund-raising opportunities by members of Irish Northern Aid, an American organization that sent money to the families of political prisoners and, many believe, the IRA.

But now, out of necessity, the Boston GAA’s political gaze has shifted away from Ireland and to domestic affairs. The league backs changes in US immigration laws, including increased opportunities to legalize undocumented immigrants already here. “The GAA was the canary in a coal mine for the Irish immigration issue,” says Kelly Fincham, director of the New York City-based Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. “That’s why they’ve been so receptive to our efforts.”

Indeed, the GAA has emerged as the movement’s de facto ground force. At an Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform rally on a snowy afternoon in March, a raucous crowd crammed into a stuffy banquet hall in Washington, D.C. They came to hear Senate headliners Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Chuck Schumer pledge support for a now-defunct bipartisan immigration bill sponsored by Senators John McCain and Kennedy. According to organizer estimates, about 90 percent of those attending from Boston were affiliated with the Boston GAA. Above the stage, a few green balloons tucked themselves into the crevices of a massive ceiling fixture made of sharp glass. An Irish rock band led a rowdy version of the 19th-century famine ballad “The Fields of Athenry.” A close inspection of the crowd revealed a motley array of Gaelic sports jerseys peeking out from under white T-shirts that read “”

Like the legendary road to Dublin, the path through Washington to immigration reform will be a rocky one. But it’s a fight the Boston GAA and Connie Kelly, the Kerry club spokesman, can’t imagine losing. “We’d better get a handle on this soon, or else we’ll find we’ve lost a whole generation of players,” says Kelly, striding in Kerry green and gold as the sun sets on the empty fields of Canton. “If we don’t, we’re extinct.”