The ancient Irish sport of hurling catches on in America
As they gathered around him in Cook Park in Denver, Colo., Niall Byrne, a native of County Wexford, Ireland, was giving a dozen or so Americans their first lesson in the Irish national sport of hurling.
Each man was handed a "sliothar," pronounced "slither," a hard leather ball with puckered seams about the size of a tennis ball. They were also given a long spoon-shaped paddle called a hurl to hit it with.
The neophytes threw their sliothars up in the air with their left hands, then tried to give them a whack with their hurls. They rarely connected, doing a lot of fanning the air to no effect.
"We called it fly killing," laughed Byrne, 28, a surgical equipment salesman and a hurling coach for the local Denver Gaels.
The game of hurling, an intricate lacrosse-like sport that’s played with a flat-ended paddle instead of a webbed stick, requires a set of skills that Irish children learn early but that are difficult to master later in life.
“There are some people who you know will never get the game,” said Byrne, who played it as a child in Wexford. “Either way, it’s an Irish sport and we love that there are Americans who want to play it.”
But despite its difficulty, hurling seems to be creeping across America at a rapid rate. Sundays in Denver you can find some 60 players donning their red and white Gaels jerseys for practice at Cook Park. Similar scenes are in evidence on Saturdays on the Magnolia Playfield in Seattle. And in Wisconsin there’s the 12-year-old Milwaukee Hurling Club, which has more than 200 members.
The object of the game is for each team, which consists of 13 players, to kick, bat or golf the sliothar into the opposing team’s goal, an endeavor that makes the play fast and rough.
"It’s the fastest game on grass in the world," said Dave Olson, president of the Milwaukee Hurling Club and the sport’s leading American evangelist. "It's like playing baseball using a hockey stick. You can kick the ball like soccer, or you can hit it like golf. The ball is going 90 miles per hour, while you're running 150 yards and back. It’s speed, it's aggression. People call it a brutal sport, but it's just a fast, graceful game."
The goal in hurling is a cross between the one used in soccer and football, with the posts at each end of the net extending into the air. If you get your shot past the goalkeeper and into the net, that gives you three points; if you hit it higher, so it goes over the net but between the posts, that counts as one point. The field of play is 120 yards long and 70 yards wide.
While virtually unknown in North America outside cities with a large Irish population, hurling rates as Ireland's second most popular sport, behind soccer. Towns root for their local teams and matches are often televised. The annual All-Ireland championship in Dublin is a must-attend event for the Irish prime minister.
Irish immigrants brought hurling to the United States more than 100 years ago, and until recently American and Irish teams have played separately from each other, owing to the generally lower skill level of the Americans.
Although there are regular games in some 30 cities, played under the auspices of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Irish participation has decreased in recent years in part because the booming Irish economy has prompted many Irish immigrants to return to the Emerald Isle.
To develop American talent, the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland is planning to use subsidies from the Irish government as seed money for Gaelic youth sports programs in Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
"The reason they have been pushing it is because immigration is diminished, and they feel the game is going to be lost overseas," said Eamonn Kelly, spokesman for the North American GAA. "In about 10 years or so, we're going to see American players brought up in the game."
At the Denver Gaels tryout, on a clear day last month, the new American prospects, mostly recruited from local pubs, seemed a ragtag bunch. One wore baggy jean shorts, another wore a bicycle helmet and another refused to remove his sunglasses.
Yet Byrne vowed to make hurlers out of them all. In one drill, the Americans used the hurls like golf clubs, and some managed to drive the sliothars 40 yards or more, a respectable distance.
According to sport rules, the sliothar can be kicked with the foot and swatted with the open hand, but it cannot be picked up from the ground by hand or thrown. Using his hurl, a player may hit it down the field or balance it on the end of his stick as in an egg-and-spoon game and run with it.
Because the game is so fast and unpredictable, scripted plays generally don't work, Byrne said. When Americans suggest plays, "I say, 'That would be cool if the other team would stay still for a second,'" he said, "but it's logically not the way the game is played."
Not only is hurling fast, it can be brutal, with players suffering bloody noses and broken fingers. Jostling and shoulder checks are allowed, but players cannot grab each other's hurls or tackle one another.
It tends to draw players who are attracted to the more chaotic sports like rugby.
“They want a sport that’s known to be tough and rough and they like the physical contact,” said Christian Whitney, 29, a 6-foot-7 graphic designer in Denver who said he started hurling two years ago to connect with his Irish heritage.
“I like to be part of something with more of an edge than soccer or softball,” he said.