When Irish Elbows Are Flailing

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

At this time of year in Ireland, the talk in the pubs--whether it turns to politics or the weather or last weekend's salmon fishing trip--will probably spin off into discussions of hurling and Gaelic football.

These twin sports are peculiar to Ireland, and they are learned by Irish schoolboys in the same way U.S. children grow up with baseball.

They are fast, rough, ancient games. In late summer the all-Ireland championships are played before crowds that can number 70,000 and more.

It isn't necessary, though, to make the trip across the Atlantic to see a match. All that is needed is the gas to get to the Novitiate of the Brothers of St. Patrick, located on a tiny patch of unincorporated county land surrounded by the city of Westminster.

Home to a Catholic religious order, it also boasts an athletic field--and it is there that the Wild Geese, the county's own Irish sports team, practices and plays on most Sundays for seven months yearly.

The team, made up mainly of native Irishmen who now live in the county, competes in both Gaelic football and hurling, with football matches more common, coach Gerry Mackey said.

It is in football that the Wild Geese may rise to their greatest glory Sunday. After weathering a series of matches with other Southern California teams that began in April, the Wild Geese will play at the novitiate field for the Southern California championship against a San Fernando Valley team called the Young Irelands.

Sunday's practice was typically rugged and quick and punctuated with the smack of sweaty bodies in the humid heat. Mackey led wind sprints and often exhorted his players to run just a bit harder: "Play it serious, play it serious, lads . . . This could be next Sunday!"

Despite the huffing and puffing and the crush of bodies, the team was "taking it easy in practice today," said Brian Hennessy, 26, a former Cork resident who now lives in Costa Mesa. "But next week at the championships we'll be going at it hammer and tongs."

Also hand and foot, for Gaelic football allows the use of both. Goals are scored by players punching or kicking a soccer-like ball into or over goals on either end of a large field. The ball can be carried for three steps before it must be bounced or kicked or punched.

Hurling, which the Wild Geese often play after football practice--Mackey calls it "pucking about"--operates under most of the same rules. In hurling, however, the ball is made of leather-covered cork, is the size of a tennis ball and is struck with a paddle-ended bat called a hurley and made of ash.

For the Wild Geese, their games are a link to home, as well as a reminder of what in Ireland is known as county loyalty. To play on, for example, County Mayo's team, the player must be born in that county. There is no carpetbagging--and no pay.

"Hurling and football are purely amateur sports," Mackey said. "The players get not one cent, but in a championship there's a huge amount of county loyalty. It's a do-or-die situation for them. It's their life."

Of course, after all the doing and dying, everyone repairs to the local for a pint. In Orange County, the local isn't exactly around the corner from the playing field, but it is the undisputed home of the Wild Geese, as well as nearly every other Irish person living in the county.

In a happy coincidence, Mackey owns the Harp Inn at 130 E. 17th St., in Costa Mesa. It is the team's unofficial headquarters, with Guinness stout and Harp lager on draft and Irish music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

Mackey said he expects a crowd both at the match Sunday and at the Harp later. For interested spectators, the match is scheduled to start about 3 p.m., "but that's Irish time," said Mackey--meaning things will probably gear up anytime from a half hour to an hour later.


Where: The athletic field at the Novitiate of the Brothers of St. Patrick, 7820 Bolsa Ave., Midway City (just west of Beach Boulevard).

When: The team practices and plays Gaelic football and hurling matches on most Sundays from April to August and from October to January. Practices and matches generally begin at 3 p.m. and last until about 5 p.m.

Admission: Free.

Information: Gerry Mackey, team coach, (714) 646-8855.

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