Dancing at Lacrosseroads
By John Kernaghan, Contributor
October / November 2006
A look at the impressive development of the sport of lacrosse in ireland, normally known for Gaelic games, soccer and rugby
It was not so startling to see the vivid green Ireland uniforms at the World Lacrosse Championships in London, Ontario, as it was to see the result, a sixth-place finish in just two years of life for the Irish Lacrosse Foundation.
How did this unstructured toddler go from an unranked, thrown-together development team in 2002, to within a couple of goals of fifth on the planet in 2006?
To hear head coach Richie Moran tell it, the surge to a point where Ireland rocked a shocked Germany 13-5 is a classic case of Irish-American cooperation. Ireland finished 5-2 overall and won its division in the 32-team global showdown two years after the foundation was incorporated.
“To get this result was sensational and thanks to the dedication of volunteers and players from both countries,” gushed Moran as he stood in a sea of green following the thorough victory. “There was a lot of volunteer help from the United States, people who went over to Ireland and helped develop some players there for this.”
Moran, who guided Cornell University’s lacrosse program across 30 seasons, fused 11 American citizens of Irish parentage, four Americans born in Ireland, and seven Irishmen into a team that was the surprise of the world championships, which are held every four years.
“The game was almost nonexistent in Ireland five years ago,” noted Michael Conway, a Long Island, New York native who has traveled back and forth to Dublin working with Michael Kennedy of the Dublin Lacrosse Club. “They’re adding teams, but it’s a slowly developing thing. You can’t rush things.”
Said Kennedy: “We’ve come on in leaps and bounds when you consider we were seventh in the European championships two years ago, when Germany was a finalist, and now we’ve beaten them here.”
There was also an unseen hand at work, the inspirational No. 10 each player wore on his helmet. It was to honor Eamon McEneaney, a former Cornell star who died on 9/11.
The hall-of-fame player led Cornell to national championships in 1976 and 1977, and was a vice-president at Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial firm wiped out in the attack on the Twin Towers. “Eamon was involved in our early discussions about helping Ireland start a lacrosse program and wanted to help coach,” said New Yorker John Cavanaugh, vice-president and medical director of the Irish Lacrosse Foundation.
Surely there was some magic in the air, agreed Sean Bodie, a 21-year-old Boston native who moved to Dublin at age 16.
“Hard to believe we could do this, considering where the sport was a few years ago when I was looking for a place to play. All I could find was some leagues in England.”
Then roaming the Internet one day, Bodie saw a notice for the Dublin Lacrosse Club.
“I showed up expecting a lot of players but there were just three of us to toss the ball around in Phoenix Park. But soon enough people got friends interested and we had 30 guys and could have some real scrimmages.”
John Kelly, a 23-year-old novice at the attack position for Ireland, was one of the early converts in Dublin. He liked the passion of the game, seeing some similarities with hurling.
“I kind of stumbled into it but now, after two years, I’m hooked. I like the idea of having some input into a new sport.”
Kelly says lacrosse has some attractive parallels to hurling but noted “there’s probably more pace to lacrosse because of the rolling substitutions.”
There’s also more protection, with helmets, gloves and shoulder pads.
Even so, his parents were startled by the aggressive nature of lacrosse when they flew to London, Ontario, a university city about halfway between Detroit and Toronto, to watch their son play for the first time.
“They said, ‘Geez, it’s physical, isn’t it’?” A highlight for him and the other Irish players, which included another 11 from the developmental squad, was a scrimmage with the Iroquois Nation, a cross-border North American team made up mostly of native people from the Onondaga area near Syracuse, New York, and Six Nations in southern Ontario.
“They had our heads spinning, the way they could pass the ball around,” said Kelly. But Irish lacrosse had its own heady moments leading up to the World’s, stressed coach Moran.
“Last year using Irish players only, we defeated Wales and Scotland to win the Celtic Cup in Cardiff. That was unbelievable.”
It was also a touching moment for the veteran coach. “I saw young men win medals who had never won medals before. It was important for them to have that kind of success.”
Also, a young women’s Irish team composed of players with just four months experience won the European Newcomer’s Cup last year, a hugely impressive feat, considering that women’s numbers are lower than men’s and centered on the solitary University of Dublin lacrosse club.
“So, 2005 was a watershed year for us,” explained Kennedy. “And with our success here we can take a lot of enthusiasm back home to continue the work of getting more teams.”
He noted that well-traveled Irish know about the sport and many would like to try it but there has been no infrastructure.
“There’s not even a shop in Ireland right now where you can buy a lacrosse ball.”
Moran says that building up the game in Ireland and gradually supplanting American players with Irish-born talent will take getting lacrosse into the primary schools.
“It’s important that people in Ireland understand we’re not asking hurling and Gaelic football to move over. We’d love to have some of those players on the margins in those sports, people who aren’t playing that much, to pick up a lacrosse stick.”
He says that to get past Japan and Australia, the two teams which his team lost to, Ireland needs to get quicker and bigger.
“We were down 8-2 to Japan and came back to lose 11-9, but their quickness hurt us. When we lined up against Australia (which won 23-5) it was like men going against a junior high school, there was a considerable size difference.”
Australia, by the way, won the bronze medal with a convincing win over the Iroquois Nation, while Canada ended 28 years of American dominance in the sport with a 15-10 victory over the U.S. for the gold medal.
As a footnote, lacrosse is not entirely new to Ireland. The Irish Lacrosse Foundation points out it was played there in the 1800s and in 1908 a team composed of Irish and British players won the Olympic silver medal, losing 14-10 to Canada.
Kennedy says the notion of Irishmen on the Olympic podium in eight years, given the arc of improvement, is not a far-fetched goal.
Indeed, in their center-field celebration at the World’s, Moran drew the team together and held his hands above him like a steeple, asking the players to note the college divisional ring on one hand and championship ring on the other.