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Baltimore Gaelic Athletic Association brings Irish sports closer to home

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When Tadgh Prendeville moved from his native Ireland to Baltimore for work more than a decade ago, he couldn't play Gaelic football without going to Washington. The same was true for Lucy Clerkin in her pursuit to play camogie, or hurling for women, which the Maryland native learned while visiting her grandmother in Ireland.

Eventually, Prendeville and Clerkin found themselves commuting together to Washington for weeknight practices and weekend games as members of the Washington Gaels. Their love for traditional Irish sports turned into a love for each other — and eventually into the now-married couple forming the Baltimore Gaelic Athletic Association.

"It grew out of the frustration for the traffic on the Baltimore-Washington beltways," Prendeville said, and he wasn't kidding.

Starting out with an information table at the Irish Festival near the Convention Center in 2003, Prendeville was impressed by how enthusiastic Baltimoreans seemed to be for Gaelic football, which has similarities to soccer and rugby, as well as for hurling, or camogie, which combines aspects of ice hockey and lacrosse.

The response was immediate.

"The Sunday after the Irish Festival, we had 14 people come out to Patterson Park," Prendeville recalled.

Not that the group's enthusiasm translated into success on the field.

"The first couple of years we weren't very good," he said.

The club, which competes regionally throughout the spring and summer, has grown to between 60 and 75 members and fields two teams for men and two for women. The Baltimore Bohemians have won the Junior Grade 3 (out of six) national football championship in 2010 and 2011. The club will host the GAA North American County Board Championships in 2015 or 2016, Prendeville said.

In search of new members — and potential Gaelic football and hurling stars — the BGAA will host its Irish Sports 101 clinic Sunday at Latrobe Park in Locust Point.

The Bohemians are one of four clubs in the Baltimore-Washington area, with the Gaels playing out of the nation's capital, the Mason-Dixon Bulldogs playing out of Frederick and Westminster, and a team from Northern Virginia.

A nonprofit organization that charges a $50 membership fee and contributes to local charities such as the Maryland Food Bank, Make-A-Wish Foundation and The Maryland School for the Blind, the BGAA combines competiton with social activities. Prendeville said that "if you join our club, it's an instant 100 more people in your social circle."

It has virtually taken over Jillian Szczepaniak-Gillece's life.

After learning about the club on craigslist three years ago, the former rugby club player at La Salle signed up. She now plays both Gaelic football and camogie.

"I was just joking to someone at work this morning that five out of my seven days have something to do with Gaelic sports," said Szczepaniak-Gillece, a social worker.

Szczepaniak-Gillece said the Bohemians are more competitive than the teams from the Baltimore Social and Sports Club, which has coed activities, such as kickball and dodgeball, "but there's balance between the competitive and social."

Compared with rugby, Szczepaniak-Gillece said, Gaelic football has less tackling "but it doesn't make it any less physical." Wth no offside rule, it's also more fluid than other sports.

Prendeville said that about 30 percent of those he meets playing the sports are Irish expatriates like himself, while the rest are more like his wife, who grew up in Rising Sun and played club soccer and club field hockey while attending Maryland, where she graduated in 1999.

"There is the first group that might have some connection with Ireland or they've seen it on television," Prendeville said. "Many are new to Baltimore, never saw the sport, come to a new city and try to figure out how they're going to meet people, so they're looking for some group to hang out with."

Although the social aspect "was the main reason we started the club," Prendeville said the club takes the competition fairly seriously.

"It is about the sports," he said. "If we played an Irish team at our level, we could compete. When we step on the field, we want to take care of business. We train as hard as anybody."

Jimmy Zabel, who played soccer at Mount Hebron and later at Mount St. Mary's, said the BGAA has a little for everything — less competitive teams during the spring and fall and more competitive teams during the summer for travel to tournaments across the country.

"We're definitely out there to win," said Zabel, who still plays soccer in a men's league in Howard County, where he grew up. "But there's a big social part to it, too."

The atmosphere now is more what Prendeville remembers from his childhood.

Prendeville said he grew up in a town called Castleisland, in the southwestern part of the country, playing every sport imaginable — for the town. The town's Gaelic football teams were dynasties, so the competitive instincts remain even as Prendeville is closing in on 40 (he's 38, "and I feel very sore after I play").

Gaelic football grew out of soccer during the 1850s, when "it was dangerous for Irish people to play an English game," Prendeville said. Still, Gaelic football is more like soccer "if you had 13 goalies playing at the same time using their hands and feet," Lucy Prendeville said.

Gaelic football is not as rough and potentially bone-jarring as Australian Rules Football, which some Americans have become familiar with on ESPN. Prendeville said the Australian game was started when the most notorious of Irish criminals were sent Down Under rather than to local prisons, bringing their footballs with them.

"Australian Rules Football is lawless Gaelic football," said Prendeville, an operations manager for a Baltimore-based cosmetics manufacturer. "You can see how the game could spawn from people who were in a prison yard."

Hurling — camogie for women — also had its share of social and political influence. According to Prendeville, hurling doesn't go back thousands of years like Gaelic football, but when the country was split for political and religious reasons, the Irish kept their sticks for playing hurling "in the air" while the English continued with two similar sports closer to the ground: ice hockey and field hockey.

"Lacrosse players say that their sport is the fastest on grass, but hurling is," Prendeville said.

As their club has grown, so has their immediate family. The Prendevilles now have a daughter, Patricia, 20 months.

"She has her own [camogie] stick," said Lucy Prendeville. "There are a lot of kids who are under 5 coming to our games."

Lucy Prendeville said the Washington club to which she and her husband once belonged is starting to form a league for kids. She has similar aspirations for the Baltimore Bohemians.

"We want the sports to grow," said Lucy Prendeville, who works in sales for Under Armour.

don.markus@baltsun.com

Irish Sports 101 clinic

When: Sunday

What: A free clinic, open to the public, where beginners and returning players can learn how to play Irish sports

Where: Latrobe Park (baltimoregaa.com/fields)

When: Hurling/camogie, 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m.; Gaelic football, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

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