By Taylor Raglin
BU News Service
The Irish Cultural Centre of New England lies at the end of a long footbridge, nestled among tree groves. The isolated feel of the place dissipated inside its pub, which welcomed patrons in from the cold with a handwritten sign advertising $6 hot whiskeys and spiced rums. The laughs inside flowed as easily as the Guinness.
That day, the local Irish community congregated in Canton, Massachusetts in anticipation of what the next would hold. Less than 24 hours later, Fenway Park would host three matches of the Gaelic game of hurling, giving fans from across the region a rare chance to see their beloved sport take center stage and entertain more than their own, tightly knit community.
Still, Gaelic sports are a family affair. The history of the games reaches back through the centuries, its threads connecting the Irish across generations and continents.
Families arrived at the Centre, with children towing gear for their own matches. The greetings were warm and genuine. That’s the way of things here.
It was that attitude that intrigued me. The Irish are bound together so tightly, and at the center of it all are the sports they hold so dear. What is it about Gaelic football and hurling that cause the world to turn on a different axis for the Irish men and women who love them? That’s why I’d come to the Centre that day, and why I’d be at Fenway the next—I wanted to witness firsthand the power these games have to forge identities and connections.
Some boys made their way onto the field that unfolds from the Centre’s main door, chattering excitedly about the news of the day.
“You don’t know Joe Canning?,” I heard one ask his companions, incredulous.
The scoreboard flashed a message, revealing the cause of the boy’s excitement.
WELCOME GALWAY. ALL-IRELAND CHAMPIONS.
The All-Ireland, an annual tournament held to crown the greatest Irish county in each of the Gaelic sports, is the most anticipated competition in the country. County teams represent the very places that give the Irish so much of their sense of identity. You are Irish, yes, but you are also a proud Kerry man or Cork woman.
And the Galway men—complete with Canning, widely celebrated as one of the best hurlers in the world—were here. The men who had hoisted the 2017 Liam MacCarthy Cup would hold a practice that day steps from where the boys stood.
The Galway players showed up soon after the boys, clad in the maroon and white of their county. Their skill was wildly impressive and completely natural. They carried long, thin-handled bats called hurleys, which have flattened ends for striking and receiving the sliotar, the small leather ball whipped back and forth across the field.
The magnificence of the game isn’t lost to the years. An elderly man standing near the fence that bordered the field, speaking in a thick Irish brogue, was enraptured.
“There’s nothing like this game,” I overheard him say, both to the group surrounding him and to no one in particular. “It’ll never be beaten, at least not in my head.”
When Galway finished its training, the players were swarmed by fans young and old, all seeking an autograph, picture or handshake. These were the gods of the game, come down from Olympus to mingle with the mortals.
But the gods themselves certainly didn’t see it that way.
The players were distinguished by their uniforms and by the way fans scrambled to be near them, but they didn’t carry themselves with any air of superiority. They laughed and lingered, doubling back to take one more picture or to meet a late-arriver. They folded effortlessly into the community.
In that scene, I’d gotten my first taste of the beauty of the Gaelic sports. At all levels, there’s an implicit understanding of the uniquely close relationship between all who take part, from spectator to All-Ireland champion.
Gameday at Fenway was cold and damp. Still, more than 27,000 packed into the park for the AIG Hurling Classic featuring the Galway team and squads from counties Dublin, Clare and Tipperary.
When the sport plays out in front of you, you get the feeling you’re witnessing something primeval.
The game is ancient and violent, quick and harsh; bodies clack together and the sliotar strikes players on body parts protected by nothing but their county’s colors. Hurleys wrap around opponents and swing in close quarters, unleashing great thwacks when they collide with just about anything.
Players use the hurley to send the sliotar into the opponent’s net for a goal. That’s worth three points. Or, they send the ball through the upper structure of the H-shaped goalposts. That’s worth a single point. The rules for advancing the ball are strict and complex. Players can’t lift the ball directly from the ground with their hands or carry it in hand for more than four strides, among other stipulations.
Players can attempt to gain possession or block the sliotar with their hurley, and physical challenges are allowed in the form of shoulder charges—armless tackles of sorts.
It was such a challenge that led to the first fight of the afternoon.
The fight happened during a semifinal match between Dublin and Galway, teams that also brawled in a 2015 meeting at Fenway. Players were racing toward the Galway net. Two got tangled up. The larger of the pair took offense. Away the two clubs went.
I’ve heard the Irish call such a fight a shemozzle.
After the referee paused the action to hand out a small dose of discipline, the game simply continued. Players patted opponents on the back for a scrum well done.
The process repeated itself in the second semifinal, when Clare and Tipperary participated in another cursing match turned donnybrook.
Hey, that’s hurling.
Before the final match of the day, the championship bout between Galway and Clare, I sought out a pillar of the local Irish community. Connie Kelly, 75, has been involved with the region’s Gaelic Athletic Association since he emigrated from Ireland five decades ago.
He wore shorts despite the cold, with his self-described wooly head of hair exposed to the elements. His mere attendance was a marvel—three days prior, he’d had follow-up surgery related to cancer treatment (“They went in through the top of my head!”). But Kelly would be there, come what may. And so he was.
We talked about the game and the skill involved, about where I was from and where I was headed. We talked about the butterfly stitches over his right eye, a result of the surgery, and about his lack of pants on a day when the wind chill had driven many in the stands to shivering.
We made plans to meet again the next day. I’d travel out to Belmont, where Kelly’s house was locally famous.
I’d soon see why.
From Blennerville to Belmont
The green-shuttered house would probably be inconspicuous if it weren’t for the signs.
Blennerville 1. Cloghane 38, Ballyheigue 3 ½. Tall road signs, straight from Ireland, dotted the front yard, giving impossible directions to places in Kelly’s homeland.
A smaller, subtler sign of Kelly’s heritage hung from the corner of the garage – a green and yellow checkered flag, the symbol of Kelly’s home county of Kerry.
The whole place oozed Irishman.
As we shook hands and he led me inside, it became clear how much he relished the chance to simply share. Photo albums, newspaper clippings, and pamphlets that stretched across the decades were stacked up on the couch and table, ready for our perusal. Five thick, spiral-bound notebooks sat to the side, which he would later reveal as his journals from the last five years. He’d kept one each year for more than four decades. Nothing escaped him.
Later in the day, he began a tale about the time he shared a drink with John Wayne by asking me if I’d believe it if he told me he’d done such a thing. After spending an hour with the man, I’d have probably believed him if he’d told me he’d taught Jesus how to kick a Gaelic football.
“I was born there,” he said, gesturing to a painting hung prominently on his living room wall. It depicted a scenic Irish countryside, with a white cottage in the foreground and what Kelly said is the oldest windmill in Europe in the distance. It was Blennerville, home to one school, two pubs, and the origins of Connie Kelly.
In Kerry, your love affair with Gaelic football, another central Gaelic sport, begins the day you’re brought into the world. Born in a stationhouse to a railway man father in 1942, Kelly was no different. He and the rest of the Blennerville boys spent their days making their own fun in the small village, and their passion for the sport bloomed.
In 1955, the 13-year-old Kelly won a championship with the Blennerville school team, a memory he’s eager to share in the form of a faded photograph. He stands in the back, third from the left, unmistakably Connie—the wooly hair on the grinning boy is a dead giveaway.
“Football is a kind of religion in Kerry. If you get on the Kerry team, which is next to impossible, you’ve got it made,” he said. “I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have Gaelic football.”
In 1966, living in England, Kelly decided to apply to come to America. He had family in the Boston area he could live with, an aunt and uncle, and his aunt could land him a specialty job that would allow him to bypass restrictions on Irish immigration at the time. In 1967, he was accepted.
Those who knew him told him plainly that he was nuts. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and he was sure to be drafted. Kelly, who was a member of the Forsa Cosanta Aitiuil (a force he likened to the U.S. National Guard) in Ireland and was prepared to do his duty, preemptively contacted the Air Force to avoid that fate.
He was never enlisted.
“They sent me a card saying that, if I was still interested in becoming an airman, to come and see them. My wife—we had been going together for a while then—said, ‘Why don’t you wait until they contact you again?,’” Kelly said. “I’m still waiting.”
In the foreign land, there was one constant that tied Kelly, and countless immigrants like him, to Ireland.
“You had very little phone service, and no computers and cell phones and all that. But you did have the GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association],” Kelly said. “The GAA is a unifier.”
After gathering around a radio in a Brighton garage to listen to the All-Ireland final with men who had come over before him, he got his start with the local GAA. He formed a relationship with the local Kerry football club, and was quickly named secretary.
Five decades later, his eldest son Neil, who grew up in Boston playing alongside his father, would label him a member of the golden generation of the local GAA.
Kelly and his son are emblematic of what the GAA is about. As the elder Kelly puts it, it centers around “the continuation of generations.” It’s mother and father passing their passion for Gaelic sports on to sons and daughters. It’s Connie Kelly playing football into his 60s, people he’s helped along the way naming grandchildren after him and someone playfully hanging the Dublin colors in place of his Kerry flag when Kerry falls to the Dubs in the All-Ireland.
For Neil Kelly, the nature of the community was evident early on.
“The phone was always ringing, and somebody’s son or daughter was coming out to America,” Neil Kelly said. “[Everyone knew] if you got Con on the phone, if he couldn’t sort you out, he would find someone that could. Between the phone calls and people coming and staying with us, there was always something going on. It was a giant sense of extended family.”
Father and son played football together at Dilboy Stadium in Somerville, which was home to the GAA before the Irish Cultural Centre was constructed. When he was 4 years old, Neil Kelly, now 45, watched his father play from behind the net. In 1993, he suited up for Kerry’s first local senior football championship. The game forged much of his early sense of identity and his relationship with his father.
“Walking off after winning the championship in Boston, I looked at my dad, and he looked at me, and I could tell he was proud,” Neil Kelly said. “I looked at him like, ‘After all these years, here we go. Kerry’s going to be the team to beat.’”
Following the heyday of the 80s and 90s, the local Gaelic sports scene has shifted. The Cultural Centre replaced the hallowed grounds of Dilboy and the stream of Irish men and women emigrating to the area to join local teams slowed.
“Over the years, it’s dwindled a little bit,” Neil Kelly said. “The thing about my dad and his generation is that they were the ones that were the stalwarts. They kept the ball rolling, so to speak. They made sure that things got done. They were the glue that held everything together.”
However, the younger Kelly, now living on the Cape and less directly involved with the GAA, says the passion he experienced at Dilboy is still alive and well.
“The dressing rooms were down under the stands,” he said. “The smell of Bengay and everything else down there—you know how you get an aura if you walk by and smell a fire going outside? It might bring you to a place where you’re like, ‘Oh, I remember that smell from when I was a kid.’ Sometimes, I get a certain smell, and it brings that aura back.”
“You can hear the cleats, the click-clack, and you can hear guys firing each other up. Those are the things that are still there. They’re just done in a much better facility. Something like the Cultural Centre and where they play the games now is a testament to the hard work that’s been done by my dad’s generation.”
The GAA’s numbers will ebb and flow, but there will always be people like Connie and Neil Kelly. The Gaelic sports may be an excuse to gather, but it was the people doing the gathering that made me feel like a part of their community. In just a weekend, I was welcomed into a world of family, identity and a connection to things bigger than yourself.
For Connie Kelly, the future of Gaelic sports is hardly in doubt. They’ve lived on through countless generations, but their path forward lies in the passion that can be found among the Irish from Canton to Croke Park.
“If you go to Croke Park on All-Ireland day and see the excitement—that will never die,” Kelly said. “How many countries can say that? You get 90,000 people at a game, whether it’s windy, wet. It doesn’t make any difference. Hopefully that will last forever. I can’t see why it won’t.”
After my weekend among the Irish, I can’t either.