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Really Physical Therapy

From left: Justin Budich, Kate Bartnik, Brian Sullivan, Mauricio Magaña

From left: Justin Budich, Kate Bartnik, Brian Sullivan, Mauricio Magaña

Twilight is closing in on a scrubby athletic field toward the rear of Philadelphia’s Northeast High School. Twenty or so young men—and two women—are racing back and forth, wielding what look like canoe paddles in one hand, and slapping a ball back and forth with it. Occasionally, one of those balls goes sailing over a high chain-link fence into traffic on Algon Avenue.

What you’re looking at is mayhem, with a fair amount of body contact—but still, there’s clearly a rhythm and structure to it.

This moderately anarchic activity is hurling, an ancient Gaelic game transported to the United States by Irish immigrants. By some accounts, Irishmen have been playing some version of hurling for more than 3,000 years. The sport is now drawing steadily increasing numbers of American players.

One of them is MossRehab physical therapist Brian Sullivan. A few other Moss physical therapists are out there on the field, too, persuaded by him that playing this obscure Gaelic sport would be a good idea.

It’s always seemed like a pretty good idea to Sullivan, a graduate of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, who hails from Pittsburgh. He has been with MossRehab for two years. Sullivan’s first exposure to hurling came during a trip to Ireland in the spring of 2010, when he saw his first hurling match.  “That was how I found out that there even was a sport called hurling.”

He was even more surprised when he returned to the United States and, while attending a Pittsburgh-area Irish festival, saw the game being played on U.S. soil. He was incredulous. “I thought: Wait … this is actually happening in America?”

Sullivan had played organized baseball and soccer, and the sheer athleticism of hurling appealed to him, along with the fact that the game combined aspects of many other sports—field hockey, lacrosse, and even baseball—so he joined the local club in Pittsburgh. In spite of the game’s complexity—and perhaps because of it—Sullivan was hooked right from the start.

“It’s just a great game,” he says. “I just wanted to do it.”

So what is hurling? We’ve written about it many times before, but for the benefit of you Gaelic athletic newbies, hurling is said to be the fast-moving game on grass. No one who has ever watched it would dispute the point. It’s also one of the most physical. Hurling has been described as hockey mixed with murder. Maybe that’s a bit of Hibernian hyperbole, but neither is hurling croquet.

Here are the basics:

Hurling is played with a flat-bladed bat called a hurley, and a ball, roughly the size and weight of an American baseball, called a sliotar. (That’s a word from Irish Gaelic, pronounced “slitter.”)

The object of the game is for players to use the hurley to smack the sliotar either into a field hockey-like net for three points, or between two American football-style goalposts on either side of the net for one point.

There are a lot of ways players can move the sliotar down the field. They can hit it in the air, carry it briefly in their hand or toss it to one of their teammates, knock it about along the ground, or balance it on the blade of the hurley and run like the dickens toward the opponent’s goal. This last move, if you’ve ever seen it, seems to defy the laws of gravity.

Purists will tell you it’s all more nuanced than that, but those are the broad outlines.

Over time, for Sullivan hurling became not just a hobby, but a passion.

After graduation, when it came time to explore various cities in their quest for work and a nice place to live, Sullivan informed his wife Michelle that he had but one condition. “My one stipulation was that I’ll move wherever you want,” he recalls telling Michelle, “but they have to have a hurling team.”

Happily, Philadelphia has a hurling team—the Philadelphia Hurling Club—and it has MossRehab, part of the Einstein Healthcare Network, one of the nation’s premier rehabilitation facilities. So they moved to Philly.

Sullivan took to bringing his hurley and a ball along to work at his new job to practice out on the lawn at lunchtime near Moss’s facility on West Tabor Road in North Philadelphia. Co-workers soon became curious. “They’d ask, ‘What are you doing with this weird little stick?’” In time, he’d persuaded four other therapists to find out for themselves.

He says the hurley and ball also have uses for some of his patients, since they’re good for balance and eye-hand coordination. Balancing a sliotar on the end of the hurley, he laughs, “is like balancing an egg on a spoon.”

Sullivan’s involvement in Philadelphia hurling proved to have a side benefit, also relating to Einstein and to the Irish: specifically, helping to determine the carrier rate of Tay-Sachs disease among people of Irish descent. Dr. Adele Schneider, director of Clinical Genetics at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia, has been managing the study.

Tay-Sachs is an inherited neurodegenerative disease that afflicts a very small percentage of infants. If both parents carry the gene, they can pass it along to their children. (The parents are unaffected by the disease.) Children with Tay-Sachs typically do not survive past their fifth birthday.

Most people, if they have heard of Tay-Sachs at all, probably associate the disease with people of eastern European Jewish descent—and indeed, this group is most affected. But other ethnic groups have a higher-than-average carrier rate—for example, French-Canadians, Cajuns and the Amish. Recent research by Dr. Schneider strongly suggests that people of Irish descent also might have a higher carrier rate.

Sullivan heard about the study, and assisted in raising its profile in the local Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) community. A Tay-Sachs study banner hangs from the fence at the GAA’s new fields in Limerick, and representatives of the Genetics Division will be conducting tests this Sunday during the weekly games.

“He (Sullivan) came to our St. Patrick’s Day testing at Einstein and brought his hurley,” says Licensed Genetic Counselor Amybeth Weaver, MS, CGC. “He and Kerry O’Connor (Einstein senior communications manager), who was there, talked about it. Nothing happened for a month or two. Then Kerry forwarded an e-mail from Brian to us, saying they (the GAA) were looking for sponsors for their field.”

It seemed like a good idea, so the National Tay-Sachs & Allied Diseases Association of Delaware Valley, which funds the study, became a sponsor.

Weaver is looking forward to this weekend’s games in particular.

“There are three games scheduled,” she says. “ Brian thought this would be a good Irish draw, and maybe we’d get some folks who are eligible to participate in the study.” (Learn more here.)

Sullivan is grateful that he was able to connect his love of all things Irish to the study—and all because of one crazy game that, for him, is incredibly fulfilling on so many levels. “You get to represent your city,” he says. “It brings in your Irish heritage, which I’m very proud of. It brings in aspects of so many sports, and athletes can relate their sport to it. To me, hurling is the best sport out there.”

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Sports

A Day at the Delco Gaels Blitz

Not a lot of action on this little guy's end of the field.

Not a lot of action on this little guy’s end of the field.

None of the games counted in official standings of any sort.

So what was the point of the Delco Gaels Blitz, a day of Irish football and hurling played under the blazing sun on the athletic fields of Cardinal O’Hara High School last Sunday?

Probably nothing less than grooming the next generation of Philadelphia’s Gaelic athletes. And when it comes to the future of Gaelic games in the United States, there’s probably nothing more important.

Out on the artificial turf of the football field, the little kids held sway. While the big kids played on adjoining fields, some of the small girls and boys donned helmets and swung away with their hurling sticks—the really little ones played with plastic hurleys—at a ball that often seemed to elude a lot of them. Others hurtled up and down the field chasing a football.

On the sidelines, parents an coaches shouted encouragement: “Great kick, Brennan!” “Good goal, Siobhan!” (I’m making up the names, but trust me, the field was filled with Irish-sounding names.)

Some of the kids clearly knew what they were about—especially the footballers—and in some of the games they were evenly matched. There was some terrific action.

You could see that the future was in good hands.

We spent the afternoon slathering on sunscreen and slugging back water like everyone else. Here are some pictures from a really fun day.

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Sports

The Boys of Summer

nator hurling homeAnd, technically, one young woman.

We dropped by Northeast High School a week ago to take in a practice of the Na Tóraidhe Philadelphia Hurling Club. As it happened, it was unseasonably cold, and the grass was soaking. (So were my sneakers and jeans.)

None of which stopped our hurlers, who came off the field soaked in sweat, regardless of the temperature. It’s the season for Gaelic Athletics in Philly, and we thought it’d be good to show you what a shirts-and-skins (OK, they were all wearing shirts) practice looks like. What it looks like is every bit as rough and tumble as what you’d see in a game.

You’ll also note that a lot of the photos are on the dark side. It’s because the players kept playing until it was just about too dark to see the ball.

Note: They’re always looking for members, regardless of age or gender. Details.

Here ya go.

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Dance, News, People, Sports

They’re Dancing Like Stars Again

Gogi O'Donnell practices a dip with instructor Lisa Oster.

Gogi O’Donnell practices a dip with instructor Lisa Oster.

For the past three years, Louie Bradley has suited up for the Delaware County Gael’s popular fundraiser, Dance Like a Star, in which eight couples vie for a trophy while raising money for the youth Gaelic sports club. He didn’t dance. He just made a little speech. He’s president of the organization.

But this year, he’ll be suited up and wearing his dancing shoes. His partner is Michelle Quinn, owner of Blush Salon in Newtown Square, who until this year was just contributing her styling skills to the event. “She’s way out of her element,” said Bradley, with a mischievous grin, when I talked to him after Sunday dance practice at Cara School of Irish Dance in Drexel Hill. “I’m out of mine too. I don’t have feet, I’ve got hooves!”

A couple of years ago, Paul McDaid was helping his DJ brother John with the music for DLAS. This year, he’s wearing a tutu, dancing with Heather Crossan. “I said I would do this on one condition,” says the 29-year-old, a recent immigrant from Letterkenny, County Donegal. “I’d do it if Louie Bradley would do it.”

(There’s a family connection here: Louie Bradley and John McDaid are married to sisters; their wives Carmel Bradley and Una McDaid are part of the committee that pulls off this extravaganza at Springfield Country Club every year.)

Some of the contestants, like Colette Morgan of Media, are Delco Gaels parents. “I got asked to be a stand-in at the last minute, and the club has been so good to me and my family, helping us with our travel expenses when the teams travel, that I couldn’t say no—it was a no-brainer,” says the mother of two teens.

One, Dermott “Gogi” O’Donnell, is a coach of the under 12 team. A couple of years ago, he has a small part—as a garda—in one of the dance sketches, but signed up as a contestant this year “because the kids asked me to.”

But you don’t have to be related or a parent to be part of the fun. Beth Hamilton volunteered because a friend who attended last year “told me it had my name written all over it. I love to dance,” says Hamilton, who does tap and jazz at the McHenry Dance Centre in Havertown.

The dancers practice every Sunday with two choreographers, Jennifer Cleary and Lisa Oster. In previous years, the dancers started the event with a waltz, did a group dance, and then each couple stole the spotlight with a special freestyle dance that involves costumes, fancy steps, and sometimes a little acrobatics.

“We decided to change it up this year,” said Cleary. “We’re opening with a foxtrot, then a swing dance, and then each of the couples pulled a decade out of a hat and they’ll be doing dances from that decade.”

The practice schedule can be grueling. In addition to the three-and-a-half hour Sunday rehearsals they’ve had every week since the beginning of January, the contestants meet with Jennifer or Lisa during the week to go over their steps and sometimes the couples get together for extra practice. “I dance in my basement,” says Bradley, laughing.

“We’ve all pretty much been eating, sleeping, working and dancing for the last five weeks,” says Morgan, who is also a fulltime nurse. “It’s been a lot of fun though. It’s stressful learning all these new moves, but hopefully it will all come together.”

It needs to come together by Friday, February 20. Tickets are $45 and aren’t available at the door. You have to order online, or contact Carmel Bradley at pbradley1510@gmail.com (610-789-9697) or Lorna Corr at aidanlorna@verizon.net (610-353-5556). You can also buy votes for your favorite couple online. 

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Sports

Celtic Supporters Get Ready to Rumble

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Super Bowl? What’s the Super Bowl compared to a match-up between Glasgow’s legendary Celtic Football Club and the Rangers? Now, that’s super.

OK, so it’s the Sevco Rangers, not quite the Rangers team that has been Celtic’s nemesis since the dawn of time, but no matter. It’s a big deal. And if you don’t think so, show up at the Plough and Stars in Old City on Sunday, February 1, at 8:30 in the morning. The game will start at 1:30 in Scotland, so Celtic fans will be up early.

And thanks to the ardent Philly fan group, the 2nd Street Plough Bhoys CSC, there will be a lot of them. A lot, as in hundreds. And not just on Sunday, when the game will be displayed on a giant screen, but the whole weekend, in an event billed as the East Coast Celtic Supporters’ Féile. Féile is a Gaelic word meaning “festival,” but in this case the word seems somehow insufficient.

“This place will be bouncing from Friday through the whole weekend,” said Seamus Cummins, Plough Bhoys spokesman, chatting over beers at the Plough last Sunday along with several other members of the club. “This is our second year. Last year, we had 300, and they came from everywhere. This place was rocking.”

Fellow Plough Bhoy Mairtin O’Braidaigh still seems surprised at that year’s turnout. “We thought we’d bring in people from New York,” he said. Somehow or other members of clubs from around the country came. And from out of the country, too, including Scotland. “We had people drive down from Canada. They left at 4 a.m., and arrived here at 6 p.m. Some people, we didn’t even know were coming. They just came.”

Some of those who joined in the Celtic mania didn’t know that’s what they were joining. Plough Bhoy William “Fitz” Fitzgerald remembers. “People came in off the street, and they were just having a great time. There was just laughter all the time.”

Cummins expects even more fans this time around.

“We expect people to come from Ontario,” he said, “and Detroit, Athens, Ga., the Bronx, Boston, North Jersey, D.C., South Carolina, and Ohio. There will be people who will cross the Atlantic. We call it the Celtic family … and it really is a family.”

One of the highlights of this year, he said, is the premiere of “The Asterisk Years,” a film by author Paul Larkin, documenting the alleged decade-long financial shenanigans by the Rangers organization that many insist cheated Celtic out of titles.

(Highlights of the weekend’s schedule is below.)

The Plough Bhoys are thrilled that this year’s Féile just happens to coincide with a Celtic-Rangers match-up.

“We set this date back in June or July,” Cummins said with something approaching glee in his voice. “We thought the game was going to be against Kilmarnock, just a regular game. But the stars aligned, and we drew our ancient rival. This will be the first time we’ve played a team named the Rangers in three years. We should give them a right hammering. That’ll really kick the party into overdrive.”

Some party it will be.

And, oh, yeah, if you’re interested, there’s some inconsequential little American football game later in the day.

Friday, January 30
4-6 p.m. – The welcoming of the Celtic Family. Celtic Supporters from all over North America will begin to arrive for the Féile weekend. Please bring your club’s banner to be proudly hung in the pub.
7 p.m. – Live Irish/Celtic Music by Jamison’s, John O’Callaghan

Saturday, January 31
11 a.m. – Blessing of the Celtic Family at the National An Gorta Mor Memorial by Father Edward Bradley
1 p.m. – The USA Premier of Paul Larkin’s, “The Asterisk Years”
2:30 p.m. – Q&A Following the film by Paul Larkin, Hosted by Graham Wilson of the The Beyond The Waves Celtic Show
4-7 p.m. – Live Irish/Celtic Music by Ardboe, County Tyrone’s own, Raymond Coleman
7-10 p.m. – Live Irish/Celtic Music by The Bogside Rogues

Sunday, February 1
8:30 a.m. – The first-ever meeting between Celtic & The *Rangers 2012 in the League Cup Semi-Final
12 p.m.  until Kick off of Super Bowl XLIX – Traditional Irish Music Session

Keep up to date on Twitter, official hash tag #celticphillyfeile15

Sports

Field of Dreams

It didn't take long for players to become well acquainted with the field.

It didn’t take long for players to become well acquainted with the field.

The leaders of Philadelphia’s Gaelic Athletic Association were always convinced it was going to happen.

On Saturday, after planning and tireless fund-raising for more than 10 years, the GAA’s long-awaited Limerick Field hosted its first games of football and hurling. They started at midday, and went on for hours, men’s teams, women’s teams, Irish football and hurling, all played with the usual intensity—and maybe a bit of pride of ownership.

This marks the GAA’s long-awaited departure from the athletic field at Cardinal Dougherty High School in the Olney section of Philadelphia, where the league has played for about 20 years.

Nothing against Dougherty, says Philly GAA President Sean Breen. “They were always very good to us. But a regulation field is what we needed.”

Sean Breen

Sean Breen

In Ireland, hurling and football are played on fields a minimum of 130 to 145 meters long, and 80 to 90 meters wide. Rounded out, that would be roughly 140 yards by 85. The field at Dougherty is 130 by 65.

In the past, when out-of-town teams who played on regulation fields would face off against Philly teams, Breen says, “They’d be used to the bigger field, but the local boys wouldn’t.”

The new field, in the shadow of the Limerick cooling towers and the fluffy clouds of steam that hang over them, is nothing short of perfectly flat, with none of the ruts and holes the players contended with before. Even though the day started out rainy, the field was mostly dry by game time. Good drainage was an essential part of the planning for the new facility.

And this is just the start.

The 11 acre-property, Breen says, will have two fields and an 80- by 50-foot building, with four changing rooms, showers and a ballroom. The GAA will rent out the ballroom for receptions and parties, which should defray the costs of the facility. All of this comes at some considerable expense, in the neighborhood of $2.5 million, much of which came from local fund-raising, with a considerable contribution from the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland. “That was a big help,” says Breen.

“We’ll have to keep raising money. There’s going to be a big golf outing in the spring, and we’re looking for a sponsor,” he says.

The showers and changing rooms in particular will offer a marked improvement over the field at Dougherty, where players changed in their cars in the parking lot, and under trees along the sidelines.

The North American GAA’s Gareth Fitzsimons was on hand for the opening games. The new facility, he says, is about more than football and hurling. “When this is completed, it can only help grow Irish culture here in Philly.”

And it’ll do a lot for the GAA in the States, too, he says.

“In the last 15 years, there’s been a big push to promote our games to Americans. Having a place you can call your own can only help promote the GAA, and it will give the GAA new life.”

We have more photos than you can shake a hurley at.

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News, Sports

Fight Night at the Festival

A Holy Family boxer, getting ready to rumble

A Holy Family boxer, getting ready to rumble

It was a packed house at the big tent set up behind the Canstatter Club in Northeast Philly. Outside the tent, it was unbearably hot. UNDER the tent, it was like that scene in “Bridge on the River Kwai,” where they lock Alec Guinness in a small dark iron box in the hot sun in the middle of a Burma jungle for days.

Amazingly, the heat didn’t seem to bother the Harrowgate fighters of Philadelphia—or the Holy Family boxers of Belfast who came across the cold dark Atlantic to face them for a long night of tightly scripted bouts. And they were the ones who were exerting themselves.

It was a raucous affair that seemed to draw a lot of spectators, old boxing hands who really knew what they were looking at, along with a lot of families who probably knew less, but thought it might be a nice night out.

Unless you were getting your body pounded in the ring, it really was a good night out.

See for yourself.

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Sports

Penn State Pride Heads to Dublin

Linda and Michael Bradley, with Penn State coach James Franklin, and the hefty Dan Rooney Trophy

Linda and Michael Bradley, with Penn State coach James Franklin, and the hefty Dan Rooney Trophy

When the Nittany Lions square off in their season opener against the University of Central Florida in Dublin’s Croke Park on August 30, passionate Penn State grad Michael Bradley will be just one of the thousands of fans watching the game.

Bradley, director of the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade and one of the Irish community’s best-connected and most efficient organizers, confesses he had virtually nothing to do with this memorable football game. Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and PSU officials hammered out details, he says, with the involvement of Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney.

“Once he got involved, it started snowballing,” Bradley says. “I was out after that.”

They call it the Croke Park Classic (pronounced crowe), and it’s the first game played outside of the United States for both teams. The last time an American football match-up took place in Croke Park was 1996. It was the Shamrock Classic, Notre Dame vs. Navy. Notre Dame won. Of course.

The winner of this match-up will carry home the very heavy (Bradley has held it) Dan Rooney Trophy, a wood made of bog yew from Ireland, and steel recycled from Three Rivers Stadium.

Configured for this game, Croke Park will hold 70,000. (The stadium typically holds 82,000 for the far more customary Gaelic football and hurling.) Attendance at the Shamrock Classic was poor, but that won’t be an issue this time, Bradley says. “We’re up around 43,000 tickets.  We should be pretty close to sellout by game time.” (Penn State travel packages are already sold out.)

For its part, the GAA knew it had its best chance of success with Penn State. “The GAA really pushed to get Penn State. They have the largest alumni association in the world.”

Even though Bradley was content to let others take the lead, he had the opportunity to become acquainted with the athletic director, Dave Joyner, and the then head football coach Bill O’Brien. “Bill and I became kind of close. He’s Irish, with roots in County Clare. His wife is named Colleen. It was a perfect match.”

He also made the acquaintance of new coach James Franklin. Franklin’s father was black, but his mother was from England. “He said to me, “You know where were they married? Ireland. I’m more Irish than you are, dude.’”

For Franklin’s players, this might be their first trip to Ireland, and after all of the trauma of the past few years, Bradley hopes that, for the players at least, it’s part of the healing process. “It’s great for the kids. They’re really excited about it.”

The excitement won’t last all that long, though. “Franklin is a real taskmaster,” Bradley says. “He’s sticking them on the plane and flying them right back.”

Like any Penn State game, this one will be preceded by a pep rally—this one in Temple Bar. And for this, Bradley has taken on a job—organizing a band for the occasion. “I’m sending out emails to alumni members who are coming on the trip who play an instrument, and I’m asking them to bring it. I don’t care if it’s only 10 guys. It’ll be a lot of fun.”