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Fields of Glory, or How the Irish Get Their Kicks

March 17, 1985|PATRICK MOTT

For the great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad,

For all their wars are merry,

And all their songs are sad.

--G.K. Chesterton

Dennis Lannon, an El Toro chiropractor, has been standing on the sidelines of the football field watching 30 Irishmen lustily bash into each other for about 45 minutes. Perhaps wondering why he hasn't yet had any bodily repair work to do, he picks up a beer and waves it.

Tom Heneghan, backpedaling on defense, spots the can and begins to stalk it.

"Is that a mirage?" asks Heneghan. Assured by Lannon that it isn't, he grabs the beer, takes a sturdy pull on it, turns and trots back into the crush of bodies.

"Isn't this something?" asks Lannon, shaking his head and grinning. "I'm a chiropractor, a specialist in sports medicine. I've studied it for years. And the only thing I end up doing out here is handing these guys beer."

They get together every couple of weeks--nearly 8,000 miles from their birthplaces in Galway, Roscommon, Cork, Armagh and dozens of other greenswards of Ireland--to carry on a sporting tradition that is in part older than their own culture.

Some of them are among the very best in their sports and have played in great Irish stadiums before tens of thousands of wildly cheering, highly partisan fans. Some of them are relatively new to America, residents for only a couple of years, and some have lived here for most of their adult lives.

But today, as latter-day Irish immigrants, they play their Gaelic football and hurling matches not in the brooding chill of Ireland, but under the warm skies of Southern California.

In Orange County, the home team is the Wild Geese, and their home turf is the overgrown athletic field at the Novitiate of the Brothers of St. Patrick in Midway City, an unincorporated area virtually surrounded by Westminster. There, roughly every other Sunday, the Wild Geese and other Southern California teams meet for Gaelic football matches. Less frequently, hurling matches are thrown together when the few local practitioners of that quick and punishing sport are able to show up at the same place at the same time.

The two sports are almost identical in rules and method of play. In Gaelic football, the object is to score by kicking a soccer-style ball into or directly over the opposing team's goal. The ball can be caught and held in the hands, but a player may run with it for only three steps before fisting it off to another player, bouncing it on the ground or kicking it off his foot and back into his own hands again. Defensive players may not make any intentional violent contact, but are allowed to try to strip the ball from the hands of the offensive player.

In hurling, the rules are substantially the same but the equipment is different. The ball, called a sliothair (pronounced "slither" with a hard "th"), is the size of a baseball. It is made of hard leather-covered cork, with raised seams that make it easier to grasp. It is propelled toward the goal with a stick made of ash, about the length of a baseball bat but flared to a flat surface at the end. It is called a hurley, and its handle looks distressingly like that of an ax.

The sliothair may be caught on the fly and held in the hand for three steps before being passed or bounced off the end of the hurley and back into the player's hand.

Both sports are played on a field--or "pitch"--measuring approximately 140 by 80 yards. There are two 30-minute periods and 15 players on each side. There are no timeouts for any reason, and only three substitutions are allowed.

Both sports are known for the rugged style of play necessary to win. Hurling, however, has the added hazard of the constantly flailing, powerfully swung hurleys.

Still, the players love a good set-to.

Kevin Niland, 39, a former top-level hurler from Galway, appears to be unsure whether to laugh or scream. He has just broken his third hurley within five minutes, this time by cracking it over the stick of an opposing player. The two pieces are a comic sight, hanging limply together in his hand, held by several windings of black tape. He opts for the scream.

"For God's sake, give me another one! There's no one in the goal!"

Someone hands him one and makes a crack about Niland owning stock in the hurley manufacturing company. Jerry Mackey, 40, a former Ireland footballer whose personalized license plate bears the name of his birthplace, County Armagh, uses the incident to illustrate a point.

"These guys are playing this game for fun because they don't get together for it that often," he says. "But you look at Kevin there, and you see intensity; you see dedication. When you get out there, you play all out. And in a big match, like the All-Ireland (the national championships), well, you'd give everything. You'd be ready to get out and give your life for it."

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