A sweatshirt hood drawn over his head, his hands shoved in the sweatshirt's pockets, Brendan Tunney scans the ragged practice field at Bishop Kearney High School. It's a cold, gray, windy day in late May as the Rochester Erin's Isle Gaelic football team takes to the pitch for another practice. Tunney, the squad's founder, coach, and spiritual leader, describes the sport to the uninitiated.
"It has the finesse of soccer but the toughness of rugby," the native Dubliner says. "Basically, it's a rougher type of soccer."
As Tunney talks, punted balls fly overhead. Groups of guys play keep-away and practice the sport's signature toe-tapping ball maneuver. Men thump shoulders and work the ball around, some of them congealing into a patchwork defense in front of rusty, net-less goalposts. A sense of chaotic glee falls over the pitch. The boys are at play.
Tunney watches it all. He's tall and muscular, the type of guy you'd expect from a sport that shares a close kinship with the unrestrained madness of Australian-rules football. Standing next to him, however, is short, wiry, bespectacled Rich Baker, who looks like he'd be chewed up by the game.
After a recent one-day tournament in Cleveland, Baker returned with a charley horse so deep he could barely walk for two days. But Baker says he's getting better at mixing it up, especially because he came in as an experienced rugby player.
"I don't have a problem with the roughness," Baker says. "It's not for the weak-hearted, but it's certainly not rugby. It has a different type of physicality."
Speed is vital, which plays right into Baker's hands. "When it gets going at a good clip," he says, "it makes soccer look slow."
Baker isn't the only one who's fallen in love with the sport. After only two years, Erin's Isle has enlisted dozens of players ranging in age from 16 to 42. The team has so far posted a record of 2-2 this season and has several tournaments on its schedule, including what is thought to be the first-ever Gaelic football tourney in central New York, at the Great American Irish Festival near Utica on July 30.
While Erin's Isle is relatively young, Gaelic football has been a national passion in Ireland since the mid-18th century. With its formation in 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association brought the sport under an Ireland-wide organization, one that eventually grew to include clubs in New York City. As traditional Irish sports blossomed across the US, the North American County Board of the GAA was created; today, the NACB includes dozens of affiliated men's football clubs and roughly 20 women's teams.
One of those affiliated squads is Erin's Isle, the first Gaelic football team in the Rochester area for more than three decades. It all started with the Rochester Harps, a squad founded in the early 1960s that lasted for about 10 years.
One of that unit's members, 68-year-old Paschal O'Connor, who now serves as manager for Erin's Isle, picked up the game in his native Ireland and was thrilled to discover he could keep playing here with the Harps. He's glad Tunney and others have revived the Gaelic football tradition in Rochester. "They've come a long way," O'Connor says of Erin's Isle. "As far as catching on, they're doing an excellent job."
In fact, the team has attracted so much attention, says recruiter Ron Wieszczyk, plans are being made for a second men's team. A women's team and a youth squad are also in the works.
It also helps that the Rochester gang almost always follows matches with rounds of Guinness and baskets of wings at places like Shamrock Jack's. Such camaraderie, say local enthusiasts, is a trademark of the sport. "There's a leave-it-on-the-field attitude," Baker says.
Adds Tunney: "We like having a place and friends to go to when you have a hard week. Whatever hassles you're going through in life, you can come here."
Rochester Erin's Isle plays Saturday, July 16, against the Albany Harps at Bishop Kearney, 125 Kings Highway in Irondequoit, at 6 p.m. rochestererinsisle.org, nagaa.org, gaa.ie, greatamericanirishfestival.com
How it's played
Gaelic football is played by teams of 13 or 15 on a pitch roughly 137 meters by 82 meters with a ball slightly smaller than a soccer ball. Players may carry the ball up to four steps before it must be bounced once, tapped from toe to hand, kicked, or passed via hand punch or slap. Scoring occurs through an H-style goalpost, with one point given for a score over the crossbar, and three for passing under the bar. Physical contact is allowed, but only shoulder-to-shoulder, with no body tackling.