Irish football's Detroit Wolfetones go on full-press for new members

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News

The Detroit Wolfetones, who endeavor to keep the Irish sporting tradition of Gaelic football alive in this area, are looking for a few good players.

And they don’t have to be Irish, either.

“Our goalie is from Poland,” said Wolfetones member Brendan O’Leary, who is seeking a Ph.D. in engineering at Wayne State.

Detroit Wolfetones in action against Pittsburgh GAA last season.

The Wolfetones are seeking to supplement their ranks as the 20-member outfit leans heavily on 30-somethings like O’Leary, 31, Patrick Laabs, 32, and Tim Mulcahy, 37, who want to pass the torch onto a new group of “speedier” firebrands.

The club is hosting a recruitment drive from 3-7 p.m. Saturday at Thomas Magee’s Sporting House and Whiskey Bar, 1408 E. Fisher Service Drive, in Eastern Market. Thomas Magee’s sponsors the Wolfetones, whose flag is prominently displayed in the saloon’s back parlor.

The Wolfetones play their home games in the picturesque setting of Belle Isle during the summer months. Practices take place in Canton and Detroit to accommodate the commutes and schedules of its members.

The camaraderie and a hearty workout are two selling points for newcomers, said Laabs, who grew up in Farmington playing baseball and hockey. 

Gaelic football is the marquee sport of the Irish competitive games, which include hurling and women’s camogie.

In Gaelic football, teams play 15 a side (though in many U.S. competitions the number is reduced to 13) on a rectangular field where they attempt to score on H-shaped goals at each end. A ball kicked or punched between the uprights is worth 1 point; an attempt put into the netted under portion of the goal — manned by a goalkeeper — is good for 3 points.

Players advance the ball by either carrying, bouncing, kicking and hand-passing. A player has a maximum of four steps before either bouncing the ball, passing it or "soloing."

The rhythmic act of soloing, which involves dropping the ball onto the foot and toe kicking back into the player’s hands, enables a player to maintain possession without incurring a foul.

Two 30-minute halves are played with a running clock. Gaelic football draws comparisons to Australian rules football and rugby, but those who play lacrosse and ice hockey will find some of the skills required overlap.

The sporting spectacle is equal part artistry and pure mayhem.

The All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final, which is Ireland’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, draws more than 80,000 to Croke Park in September and millions of Irish diaspora who watch worldwide.

“Unless you play an NCAA sport, you won’t find anything else that is as competitive,” said Mulcahy of Ferndale who is a software engineer for General Motors.

Detroit Wolfetones compete in the U.S. Gaelic Athletic Association Midwest Division.

Mulcahy reflects Detroit’s rich tradition with Gaelic sport, having played since he was 12.

His father Tim played with Padraig Pearse, which served as a Gaelic football cornerstone in Detroit’s close-knit Irish-American community for decades. Pearse, Michigan Gaels and Wolfetones all competed in the Great Lakes Division as late as the 1980s.

As Irish immigration waned, at least in the Detroit area, interest in Gaelic sport also appears to have skipped a generation. Padraig Pearse, whose roots went to the 1920s, disbanded in 2008

Detroit Harps Youth Gaelic Football Club is doing its part, offering instruction for boys and girls ages 8-12 during the summer in Canton.

Wolfetones remain as Detroit’s sole representative in the U.S. Gaelic Athletic Association’s Midwest Division, which includes Kalamazoo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, Buffalo and Cincinnati. The rivalries are fierce but so are the bonds.

When Mulcahy’s mother Mary died in December, Pittsburgh and Cleveland GAA clubs sent flowers to the funeral home.

“We take someone’s neck off and then we all get together after games, he said.

Twitter: @larryo1961