Mairead Durkin

Mairead Durkin brings Gaelic Football roots to Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: Kait Devir
Bruce Miles
Jul 21, 2023

To say Mairead Durkin rode the roller coaster of feelings upon being drafted by Athletes Unlimited would be putting it mildly.

From disbelief to flattery to elation, Durkin experienced it all when the call came to kick off her professional lacrosse career. 

“Oh my goodness, absolutely,” she said. “To be drafted? It was such an honor. I’m so grateful. I was not expecting it at all. It was like out of the blue. Initially I thought when people are getting drafted for sports, the coaches have to put your name somewhere. No one asked me anything.

“I was upstairs taking a final for cyber intelligence and my roommates and teammates were downstairs watching a movie. They were like, ‘’Read, you were drafted.’ The first thing I did was look at my phone, and it was my goalie coach and his two sons with the thumbs up and my name and face on the screen. I was like, ‘What the heck his going on?’ I wasn’t really sure what was going on. I am so grateful and humble to have been given this opportunity and to be able to continue playing this sport at professional level. It’s a dream come true.”

In Durkin, Athletes Unlimited is getting one of its most interesting players across the spectrum of all four of its sports. 

Growing up, she played all manner of sports, some conventional and one very unconventional, at least when it comes to awareness in the United States. 

Let’s go on this journey with her. 

It looked like basketball might be Durkin’s sport when she was growing up in Stony Point, New York. But not wanting to be confined by four walls, she eventually chose the great outdoors and lacrosse. 

“It wasn’t like I was going to choose which one I was going to play in college,” she said. “When I was in sixth or seventh grade, my best friend and I joined a travel team, Metro Club Lacrosse. The whole point of joining club lacrosse is to eventually get recruited. In high school, I was getting looked at by a few colleges for basketball. I honestly thought about it. I was like, ‘Hmm.’ I do miss basketball, but I really did want to play lacrosse. I love lacrosse. I think I need to be outside. I love being outside.”

There was one notable detour in Durkin’s athletic career that kept her outdoors, with an international flavor. 

The sport of Gaelic football might not be well known in the United States, but it’s a wildly entertaining sport that blends the best of soccer, rugby, and basketball. Durkin starred in the sport, helping to lead the U.S. women’s team to a gold medal in 2016, when she was 16. 


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For Durkin, Gaelic football is a family affair. Her dad, Shane, starred for County Sligo in Ireland before he came to the United States. 

“My dad was a midfielder for County Sligo, and he was just incredible,” Durkin said. “He came over to America, to New York, to play at Manhattan College, at Gaelic Park. He came over when he was 24 or 25, and that’s where he met my mom. He was playing with my mom’s brothers – my mom is one of seven. She has four brothers, and they were all playing with my dad. In America, the clubs here will get the best Gaelic people to come over and play.

“I wish there was more video of it. I wish there was more footage, but they only have the county finals. He definitely got me into it. My brother’s going to be 30 and my sister is going to be 27. They grew up playing, too. My brother is still playing. He could play forever.”

Durkin says there is much from Gaelic football that transfers to lacrosse. 

“Absolutely,” she said. “With both Gaelic football and lacrosse, you need to have strong hand-eye coordination. With Gaelic, you need to control the ball while you’re running and going through opponents. You’re cradling the ball in your stick in lacrosse. You’ve got to be able to catch and throw and also be able to pass, especially with defense – footwork and agility. They’re both very fast sports. They require quick changes in direction and nimble footwork.”

And of course, there’s the physical aspect of both sports, something Durkin says she enjoys.

“Physicality, yeah,” she said. “It’s a little bit different. I’m really excited because pro (lacrosse) seems a lot more physical and lenient with the calls. But physicality for sure. You’ve got to be able to take it, maybe not give too much. I’ve never been one to be able to flop. Back in the old days, it was, ‘Mairead, you’ve got to fall down.’ Why would I fall down if I was still up? I can’t find it in me to fake. That’s not who I am.”

Despite her friendly nature, Durkin cuts a stern figure on the lacrosse field. 

“Oh yeah – apparently,” she said with a knowing laugh. “I’m not going to lie. When I’m in the game, I’m not laughing. I’m not talking to anyone. I am stone cold. I’m competitive, but I’m not mean. I don’t trash talk. I don’t say anything. If they’re intimidated, I’m sorry.”

Fans watching Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse this season can expect to see a strong defensive presence from Durkin. But defense wasn’t always her thing. She switched from midfield to defense early in her college career at James Madison University. 

“What prompted me was freshman year, I didn’t play much,” she said. “There was incredible talent. I knew I didn’t deserve to play. I was like, ‘I don’t know how these people are doing what they’re doing.’ I hated being on the sidelines. Who likes to be on the sidelines? I want to play. My sophomore fall came around, and we got a new coach, Kateri Linville. She’s a saint. She’s the most incredible woman I’ve ever met. She became our defensive coach.

“After fall-ball games, she came up to me at the end. She said, ‘Have you ever thought about playing defense?’ I remember being like, ‘I will do whatever.’ I told them in my meeting I would literally ref if it means getting on the field. I do not care. I would love to play. Our captain at the time, Emma Johnson, helped me out a lot. People graduated. We had a really strong defense, and that was the year a lot of them graduated. I was just so completely open and excited just to be considered. I literally thought, ‘I’m never going to play here,’ so I was really excited and open. I really love defense. I don’t know if I would be able to do midfield right now, the running up and down crazy.”

The switch marked an important turning point in Durkin’s lacrosse career. She wound up with the most turnovers caused (135) in JMU history in addition to winning several awards, including being a Tewaaraton Award nominee. 

“I came from being my high school’s leading goal scorer to defense,” she said. “But I love defense. I would not change it for the world.”

She also was a five-year letter winner at James Madison and takes huge pride in a program that won a national championship the season before she arrived and one that may not be the first on people’s lips when they talk about college women’s lacrosse. 

“That kind of hits home because I was on the team for five years,” she said. “Since then the program has still been Top 15, a lot of times Top 10, Top 12. I honestly feel like for them not to be talked about as much is kind of wild to me because there are teams ranked a lot higher and are more talked about because years and years ago they might have won. I feel James Madison is a phenomenal program. I had the best experience in the world. All the people on my team were my best friends. I’m not kidding, I felt God put every person on that team, and we all looked around at each other like, ‘How do we love each other this much?’

“At a lot of schools you hear about a lot of people not really enjoying their time because they’re talked about more and they’re assumed to be higher or more competitive or whatever. But our program is just so competitive. It’s so loving.”

In preparation for her first season of Athletes Unlimited lacrosse, Durkin has been busy putting names with faces and learning about her new teammates, with an assist from rookie goalie Kat Buchanan, with whom Durkin played at James Madison. 

“She’s the best version ever,” Durkin said. “She’s a lax nerd. She knows everything about everyone. At AU, they draw talent in from everywhere. I’m looking forward to being given the chance to learn from these incredible athletes and go head to head with them. I love competing. I hate to lose. But I love to compete and learn. When someone can do something I can’t, it just kind of throws me off. And all these people surrounding me can do everything, and they’re incredible. When I see something, I want to learn from them. So I’m really excited to be surrounded by all this greatness.

“My goal is just to make the most out of this experience. I don’t really know what to expect. When I was drafted, I was shocked. I wasn’t even sure I was going to do it. But after doing more research, I was like, ‘Oh, this is unbelievable. This sounds awesome.’ So I guess my goals is to take it day by day, work hard, learn from everyone, have fun, because this feels like a summer camp so far. Just work as hard as I can, play for my teammates and win.”


Bruce Miles has covered sports in the Chicago area for more than 40 years, covering baseball, hockey, football, college and high school sports, and Athletes Unlimited softball. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceMiles2112. 

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