Gaelic Football league comes to St. Brendan's

New games are in town this summer as the St. Brendan's Gaelic Athletic Club kicks off its opening season, bringing Gaelic football and hurling to Dorchester's fields.

"All are welcome," said Larry McGann, hurling coach and secretary of the St. Brendan's club. "These are two of the most popular sports around the world that American kids have yet to play."

With their deep Irish roots, Gaelic football and hurling in the United States have been played mostly within Irish communities, but McGann and Frank Hogan, the chairman of the club, hope to change all that.

They want to instill in the mindset of parents that these sports are an option for kids of all creeds - and are confident that St. Brendan's in Dorchester will be able to cross all lines of race, class, religion and gender.

"Kids don't know the difference between one game and another," McGann said. They don't pick up on the historical, religious, or ethnic associations that many people attribute to certain sports. "All they know is it's fun," McGann added. "You can teach any kid from anywhere how to play the game."

McGann and Hogan both come to St. Brendan's from the Irish Sports Youth League of New England in Canton, where a successful hurling program saw two national championships under McGann's coaching.

McGann said he'd like to see more competition in the Boston area, which is why he and Hogan left Canton to form St. Brendan's. Their Dorchester location will cater to parents who, after a long day at work, don't want to travel to Canton for their kids to play. The move was the "radical step" that needed to be taken in order to bring Gaelic football and hurling to the next level regionally and nationally, McGann said.

Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe columnist and father of a hurler, said through St. Brendan's in Dorchester the Gaelic sports may be able to overcome the sense that they are exclusively for the Irish.

"That can't survive anymore," he said. "It's got to be about everybody. That will be how the game will survive and thrive."

Even in Ireland, where play dates back to the 13th century, the games are growing more diverse with changing demographics on the island.

"By no fault of their own, the main GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) down in Canton is very isolated," Cullen said. "It's harder to reach out beyond the core Irish community." But the new club in Dorchester will introduce the sport to a more diverse group of kids in the city who may have not otherwise been exposed to Gaelic sports.

Hurling boasts the reputation of being the fastest field sport in the world as players use wooden sticks to advance the sliotar, or ball, up the field. It's a "unique game in the realm of games," McGann said, "because of high speed, high skill level and the thrill and passion of it." It takes more time to learn than Gaelic football, where players can kick, carry and throw the football, which resembles a soccer ball. But the hardest part of both sports, McGann said, is getting kids outside of the Irish community to give them a try.

"Anything we can do to motivate the kids to get involved and stay with it, that's what we're going to do," he said.

St. Brendan's kids can choose between hurling and Gaelic football, or they can play both, which is what many kids do "back home," said McGann, originally from Belfast. The club will also fill a hole in the summer sports scene and bring some action to local fields.

"We're not gonna step on anybody's toes here," McGann said. The seasons to come are slated to start June 1, but the majority of tournaments and practices would take place in July and August, so kids can still participate in spring sports at school without interfering with the Gaelic summer games.

St. Brendan's will compete in regional and national tournaments as one of five clubs in New England and among 15 in the country. In the future, McGann and Hogan also plan to organize street leagues throughout the summer, where teams of seven can compete locally on the intramural level. The league will include children and teens ages 5 to 18.

Registration for the summer 2008 season will take place July 13 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the IBEW Hall on Freeport Street. Contact Frank Hogan at 617-549-0233 or Larry McGann at 617-799-7589 for more information.