WORCESTER – The Worcester Fenians Hurling Club just may be the city’s best-kept secret.
Founded in 2009 by Dan Donahue and Paul Curley, the Fenians – members of the United States Gaelic Athletic Association (USGAA) – are the defending Northeast Junior C Division champions, a title they also won in 2013 and 2014.
In 2014 in fact, the Fenians went on to win the USGAA National Championship, defeating the St. Louis Gaelic Athletic Club, the title match being played in Canton.
The Fenians are on track this season to successfully defend the title they won last year, when they defeated the Barley House Hurling Club of Concord, N.H. Worcester is currently 3-0 with three games remaining: July 14. vs. Portland; July 21 at Providence; and Aug. 4 vs. Concord, N.H.
The July 14 and Aug. 4 games are home games for the Fenians and will be played at Greenwood Park on Forsberg Street. The start time for both games is 3 p.m.
The Northeast Junior C Division Championship Tournament will be played Aug. 18-19 at the Irish Cultural Center of New England (ICCNE) in Canton. The National Tournament, if the Fenians get that far, will be played in Philadelphia this year on Labor Day Weekend.
The Fenians practice every Wednesday night at Greenwood Park from 6:30-8:30 p.m. The practices begin in late April and run through late August.
“Dan Donahue is the guy that got everything started,” explained Patrick Joseph “P.J.” Heffernan, a member of the team since 2012. “Dan went to school in Dublin for a semester and he saw hurling over there and he liked it. When he came back he talked to Paul Curley, who used to own the Greyhound Pub in Kelley Square, and together the two of them decided to start a hurling club.
“We had a meeting at the Greyhound in 2009 and a lot of guys who had played hurling in Ireland before coming over to the states – guys like me and Liam Kelly and Hubie Scott and Joe Fitz, and a few more Irish lads – were there and we helped organize the team.”
While Heffernan was interested in playing he didn’t start right away because he had his hands full helping his wife Katie raise their three children: Patrick, now 17 and a junior at Grafton High; Eilish (the Irish name for Elizabeth), 15; and Mary, 13. Heffernan didn’t join the Fenians, known then simply as the Worcester Hurling Club, until 2012.
“We decided to change the name of the club to the Worcester Fenians because we wanted to go with something a little more Irish,” Heffernan said. “The Fenians is an Irish-American Society that goes back a long time; to the 1860s, I think.”
Hurling is the national sport of Ireland and has been played on the Emerald Isle for more than 3,000 years. The game is considered a combination of the endurance needed to play field hockey, the finesse needed to play lacrosse and the physicality needed to play ice hockey.
While hurling is a full-contact sport, the players do not wear pads. The only equipment worn is a helmet with a faceguard. Other equipment needed to participate in the sport is a hurley, a 24- to 36-inch wooden stick, usually made of ash, which has a flattened, curved end, and a sliotar. A sliotar is the ball, usually three inches in diameter, used to play the game. It has a cork center and a leather cover, and has ridges on the outside to help with catching and gripping the ball.
“Hurling is like lacrosse, but instead of having a net at the end of the stick you have a flat surface so you have to actually bat the ball instead of carrying it, although you can carry it on the end of your stick, too,” Heffernan said. “You can score points one of two ways in hurling. You can take a shot at the goal and try to get the sliotar past the goalie, that’s a goal and worth three points, or you can hit it high between the goal’s uprights, and that’s called a point and is worth a point.”
The field, 140 yards long and 70 yards wide, is considerably longer than an American football field.
“If you’re 50 yards out you would shoot it over the bar, but if you’re in close you go for the goal,” Heffernan said. “The game is broken down into two 30-minutes halves and we play 13 a side. In Ireland they play 15 a side, but here it’s 13 a side.”
Teams typically field squads that feature a goalie, five backs, five forwards and two midfielders. Unlike lacrosse however, all 12 field players are allowed on both the offensive and defensive ends of the field. Heffernan said strategically hurling is set up like soccer; one team’s defenders mark the other team’s offensive players.
“There are no rules in hurling like there are in lacrosse – that the forwards have to stay in the offensive end and the backs in the defensive end,” Heffernan said. “But the field is so big you really don’t want you forwards or backs going past the midfield.”
Heffernan said many hurling players, with a good strike, can hit bat the ball through the air up to 70 yards, while on the ground a good hit will travel between 20-30 yards.
“What a lot of lads do is carry the sliotar on their stick, get to an open space and then pop it up in the air and strike it,” Heffernan said. “You can also stop and throw it up with your hand and hit it, but you can’t advance the ball down the field when it’s in your hand.”
Along with the Fenians, other teams in the Northeast Junior C Division include Hartford, Concord, N.H., Portland, Maine, and Providence.
“The Providence Club is new this year,” Heffernan said. “Two hurlers that were playing with us here in Worcester moved to Providence and they formed their own club down there. It’s a branch off of our club, really, which is great to see. All the cities in New England, the big ones, have a hurling club. We play each other twice a year.”
Heffernan said the Fenians also run a fall league at Greenwood Park.
“It’s a practice league, really, for people to come by and learn the game,” Heffernan said. “It’s just a for-fun league. On Sundays we usually split up whoever shows up into three teams and we all play each other for a bit of fun and to get kids familiar with the game.
“It’s a lovely field,” Heffernan said of the Greenwood Park facility. “The city has been very good to us. We’ve been using it once a week, twice a week if we need to.”
The Worcester Fenians Hurling Club has about 35 playing members and about 12-15 social members. More information about the Fenians can be found on their Facebook page (Worcester Fenians) and the team also has a twitter account (@Worc_Fenians). This season the Fenians also started up a camoige team, which is a hurling team for women. Camoige is a Gaelic word that means ladies hurling.
Heffernan said the Fenians attempted to start a youth program but found competing with other, more established sports was too tall a task.
“It was just too hard to compete with baseball and other sports,” Heffernan said. “There’s no real age limit on either end, if you’re 17 or 18 you can join us, and the still let me play and I’m as old as dirt (Heffernan is actually 50). The guys take it easy on me when I show them my AARP card.
“But seriously, it’s a young man’s sport. You want to be in your mid-20s to really go well at it. Our good players are all in their mid-20s,” Heffernan continued. “Some of our players are in their late-30s and early-40s and they’re still good. It’s like anything else; your mid-20s is a good time to be playing the game because there is a lot of running in hurling.”
Heffernan said former lacrosse players seem to make the best hurlers.
“Kids who have played lacrosse pick up hurling very easily because they understand the spaces to be in; you’re always trying to run into space and give your teammate the option of trying to get the sliotar to you,” Heffernan said, “and that’s where the contact comes in. When you have the sliotar I need to get it from you. So, I can give you a shoulder to knock the ball loose or when you’re getting ready to shoot I can come in and knock it away.
“If it’s on the ground it’s a fair fight for everyone. You have to be rough and tough and you have find players that can shield the ball and won’t let you get at it. Possession is 75 percent of winning or losing. If a lad has the ball, it’s hard to get it off of him,” Heffernan said. “That’s why it’s a young man’s sport; you’ve got to get out in front and get to it first. But then, if you lose the ball you have to hustle and get back on defense from offense.”
Heffernan said the Fenians have received lots of sponsorship support from business throughout central Massachusetts, including: Funky Murphy’s; Galway Bay Irish Pub; O’Connor’s Restaurant & Bar; Quinn’s Irish Pub; Patsy Dugan’s; the Worcester Chapter of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians; Connie Cremins, Custom Building of Northborough; Window Logic General Contractors of Grafton; and Marty Green Properties of Northbridge.
Many of the Fenians’ players who were a part of the 2014 National Championship team are members of this year’s team as well.
The list of the Fenians top players include Heffernan, the O’Shaughnessy brothers – Seamus and Sean, Liam Kelly, Luke Lagorge, Tom Lind – who is serving this year as team captain – Mike Dufault, Connor Kenny and Dan Smith.
The Fenians are coached by Frankie Maloney of Marlborough, who is originally from County Clare.
“He’s been super for us. He changed the club around when he came on board four years ago,” Heffernan said. “We’ve won the national title under him. He’s been terrific.”
Despite all the strategy involved, Heffernan said the difference between winning and losing is the quality of players you have on your team.
“We’ve been very lucky to get good players,” said Heffernan, who answered ‘the left outside’ when asked what position he played. “The O’Shaughnessy brothers went to college in Ireland, so they were familiar with the game. Liam Kelly is a very good player for us; he was a founding member of our club. He’s off-the-boat Irish, from Tipperary.
“Guys come over from Ireland to work and then they look for a club to play with because they’ve been playing the game all their life,” Heffernan said. “Here, in America, there are a lot of sports to play but in Ireland hurling is all we’ve got. With hurling, for an Irish lad, it’s like Bill Shankly, the famous Liverpool coach said about football when asked if it was a matter of life and death: ‘It is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.’”
Heffernan knows of what he speaks. Like many of his teammates he is off-the-boat Irish.
“I came over to the states in 1994. That was the year Ireland was playing in the World Cup (soccer). I came over to see Ireland play and I stayed around,” Heffernan explained.” Ireland played Italy in Giants Stadium in 1994. Ireland won, 1-0. It was a fantastic game.
“Ireland-Italy is a big rivalry but they’ve always been too good for us,” Heffernan continued. “We consider it a rivalry but they probably don’t. I was at that game and then I went to Orlando, Fla., to watch Ireland play Holland in the quarterfinal round on July 4. Ireland lost to Holland that day, but that was a fun trip.”
After the World Cup ended Heffernan ended up in central Massachusetts, working for Rossmore Painting of Worcester, which is owned by Kelly and former hurler Joe Fitz. Heffernan formed his own company, Heffernan Painting, located in Grafton, about 20 years ago.
The Fenians welcome any and all newcomers. Membership is free for the first year and the gear needed to play the game is provided. Follow the team on Facebook or Instagram or come down Greenwood Park any Wednesday evening.