SOME AMERICAN WOMEN FINDING THE IRISH SPORT OF CAMOGIE A PASSION
By Al Mattei
The concept of women playing the game of camogie in (or, in the Gaelic tongue, Camogiatcha), is part of a trend in which immigrant groups have been founding amateur sports leagues in the United States.
Across the nation, you can find amateur sports teams and entire leagues which are named after the ethnic group which formed or comprised them. For the most part, this can be found in soccer: the ultimate ethnic identity story was the North American Soccer League franchise called the Toronto Metros-Croatia.
Irish-Americans, however, see the sports of soccer, cricket, and hockey as Protestant sports, and have gone through extraordinaty efforts to create hurling and Gaelic football teams in the U.S. under the umbrella of the Gaelic Athletic Association.
The sport is amazingly popular within the Irish-American subculture: in many major metropolitan population centers, you can find games of Gaelic football or hurling on any Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Too, these native Irish sports have also been staples of late-night sports television and fill-ins in sports anthology series.
But unlike many other ethnic groups which have started sports teams, women have played a full part in Irish sports on this side of the ocean. Leagues were formed for women's football as well as the sport of camogie (pronounced kuh-MO-ghee), which has been played in Ireland since 1904.
As such, it has not been played as long as the men's equivalent, hurling. Hurling is an ancient sport which, like lacrosse, used to be a war-like contest played between two towns, using their populations to fill out the rosters and the roads between the towns as the playing field. Lives were lost in some games because of heavy physical contact.
The rules of hurling were codified in the 19th Century to standardize equipment and rules. Currently, hurling is played on an immense field, usually a rectangle 150 yards long and 100 yards wide, either cut out of a cricket ground or played on the entire surface of a soccer ground. Like hurling, the 15 players (usually 12 in the United States) on a camogie team use wooden sticks with paddles on the ends -- like a compresed field hockey stick -- called hurleys.
Camogie players use these hurleys to propel a soft rubber 2 1/2-inch ball, called a silotar (SLOT-er) through a set of goalposts on either end of the field If the ball goes over the crossbar, the team gets a point; under the bar gains three points.
Unlike hurling, however, the two halves of a camogie match are five minutes shorter, and the silotar is lighter and softer than the ball the men use. Another subtle difference in the rules is that the metal strips used to repair or reinforce the hurleys must be taped over when playing camogie.
The sport is beginning to win converts in the United States. On the East Coast, teams have formed in major population centers: New York, Boston, and the newest entry in the North East Camogie Association, the Washington Gaels.
The Gaels' camogie team was formed in late 1999. Players were recruited from throughout the metropolitan area, and as early as Columbus Day, potential recruits were working on their skills.
Two of these recruits, Katy Nordinbrook and Patty Kennedy, are actually field hockey players from the Washington Mulberry hockey club. Throughout the fall, Kennedy and Nordinbrook would be working on their camogie skills before and after field hockey games.
"The great thing about camogie is that there are no rules," Kennedy says after a break during a field hockey tournament when she and Nordinbrook are practicing with their hurleys.
As such, there are debates about issues such as whether to wear protective helmets. Most players in Ireland do not wear headgear, except for some defenders.
"You have to," Nordinbrook said.
"No, you don't have to," Kennedy replied.
"I thought we were required; maybe it's just our own club," said Nordinbrook.
"We're not; we were going up to the 7-a-side tournament, and the girls there didn't have them," Kennedy said.
"I thought we had to go buy masks and everything," Nordinbrook said.
"They suggest that we do, but I'm not playing with one; I think I'll be fine without it."
Nordinbrook looks at her much taller partner and said, "I'm not stepping on that field without one; I like my teeth."
Kennedy replied, "This is for fun; I'm not looking to join any professional league or get paid for it, so no cosmetic surgery, please!"
The helmet debate seemed to get resolved amongst the Gaels players by the opening of their inaugural season. In practice, all of the players wore helmets with the cage-style face masks found on college ice hockey players.
The team practiced weekly at a high school in southern Maryland. Practicing on a field with the hybrid football/soccer goalposts, the number of players attending training sessions varied with their committments. Students, professionals, all were welcomed to the training.
This team, unlike many of their competitors, are mostly American. Most are of Irish extraction, but there is one 20-year-old student with roots in the Indian subcontinent, and the team's goalkeeper is from northern Europe.
Many times, there were just enough to have odd-man attack drills, many starting with free hits from about 40 yards out.
Either Nordinbrook or head coach Niall Dempsey would put the ball into play, and the chase for the silotar was on. It took a while for some of the players to recognize how to use the space available to them and not to bunch together. After most had gone home, Nordinbrook would spend an extra half hour in the dimming twilight, working on her ball-striking technique.
In August 2000, the Gaels finished off their first season in the Northeast Camogie Association championship, held at a middle school in Gaithersburg, Md. The contrasts between the first-year Gaels and the defending NECA champion Eire Og were evident even before the start of their semifinal match.
Washington, a mostly American team, wore silver soccer jerseys with block numerals on the back and the club logo on the front.
Eire Og, a team out of Boston, wore traditional Irish jerseys, complete with the Gaelic Athletic Association logo on the front (a triangular design with stylized figures of a hurler and a football player), beer sponsorship, and even traditional round numbers sewn on the back, similar to European soccer jerseys from the 60s.
While warming up several hours before gametime, Eire Og showed that they had good stick skills and the ability to pick up the ball off their hurleys with considerable aplomb.
When the game started, the Gaels had an early scoring chance thanks to a free hit awarded when Nordinbrook was chopped across the arms about 40 yards from the goal. The resulting free hit was off-target, and Eire Og was on the run. They used each other well, let the ball do most of the work, and showed little mercy.
Though the game ended with Eire Og scoring 40 (on nine goals and 13 points) while keeping Washington off the scoreboard, captain Anne Marie Thornton remarked how much the team came together since the beginning of practice.
"It's been a learning experience from the word 'go,'" Thornton said. "People have been learning very quickly, and it's very encouraging. We don't lack for commitment and heart."
That especially goes for Lucy Clerkin, a Maryland resident whose passion for camogie and Gaelic football mirrors that of Billie Jean King. She has poured her soul into promotion of the games -- holding practices, writing for the newsletter, serving on the Northeast Camogie Association board of directors, and serving as Gaels' team manager and PR director.
She began her search for players as well as promotion of Gaels' games using the Internet after being exposed to Irish sports culture in college and on a 1999 trip to Ireland. Irish bookstores, Irish dancing schools, hockey and soccer teams, you name it, she mined the entire Baltimore-Washington corridor for players.
"Our goal is for people to go out and enjoy themselves," Clerkin says. "And there aren't many Americans who aren't just a little bit Irish."
Clerkin was a catalyst for helping organize a Gaelic football team a few years ago, but she then turned her attention to camogie. The Gaels' women's football team was able to snare the junior divisional championships in 1997 and 1998. By contrast, the camogie team was a work progress.
"I can't believe we got through the first season," Clerkin says. "All of our games have been on the road -- Boston and New York, and there was a lot of traveling involved."
EPILOGUE: The Gaels would improve over time and win the 2004 Junior "A" national championship with an 3-6-17 to 3-2-11 extra-time victory over Milwaukee.