Why is Obama holding a hurley stick?

HAIL TO THE CHIEF: U.S. President Barack Obama, left, reacts after he was presented with a hurley stick from Irish Prime Minister and Taoiseach Enda Kenny while in Farmleigh, Dublin Monday May 23, 2011. Obama said Monday that the U.S. and Ireland share a "blood link" that extends beyond strategic interests or foreign policy into the hearts of the millions of Irish Americans who still see a homeland here.(AP Photo, Pool)

I have to admit, I’m writing this post with the exclusive hope that someone is going to ask Google or Yahoo! about the strange stick U.S. President Barack Obama was holding in his hand during his stop in Ireland today.

He’s holding a hurley, the stick used in the Irish national sport of hurling, and it is truly a great game. I want every American to know about it. I want every American to want to play it.

Americans who know of the sport say hurling is what would happen if you mixed lacrosse, baseball and rugby.  The truth is, the game is older than every one of those sports, and some even suspect that lacrosse is a bastardized version of the game.

This very blog, Hurley to Rise, is dedicated to raise the prominence of the sport in the U.S. If you found this blog in a web search, I guess it’s starting to work.

One of the best introductory tools I have ever seen to the sport is this video. Watch it and be amazed:

I will admit that most Americans have never heard of the sport, but it shouldn’t be that way. There actually are lots of hurling players here in the U.S. Just look at the “U.S. Clubs” list I have here, or check with the owner of your local Irish bar.

To learn more about the sport, keep checking out this very blog. I’ve been working the last two years to develop my skills in the game. It’s a hard game to learn, but at the same time it’s glorious.

You won’t believe me, but I can say with all my heart that it beats football. It beats basketball. It beats hockey and any other sport you can name. All you have to do is give it a try and see for yourself.

In fact, with crippling gasoline prices, that’s just what I would like to do for my town. I’m located in the South Central region of Pennsylvania, and I would happily travel to York, Hanover, Harrisburg, Lebanon, Carlisle or Lancaster to begin assembling a local chapter of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the governing body of hurling and its sister sport gaelic football. Right now, I’m a member of the Baltimore GAA, but I’d jump at a chance to start a new division of the GAA here in Pennsylvania.

Just let me know if you’re interested, and I will welcome you a whole new world because a world with hurling is indeed a better place.

And who knows, you might just join an O’Bama on the pitch soon.

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Hurling should be fun first

Here in America, when hurling enthusiasts get together, we talk about how great the sport is and how we can make it grow. We want to show everyone we meet how great the game is. We want them on the field and having some fun.

CLASH OF THE ASH: Hurling is a field sport a lot like lacrosse and was developed in Ireland. If you're interested in playing the game, do a web search of the word hurley or camogie and your nearest big city or university. (Art by John Simcoe)

But over in Ireland, the country where hurling was born, there’s a different sort of talk. The Sports Desk Blog of the Irish Examiner does a good job in summing it up the constant drumbeat of angst:

The fact is hurling is elitist. There should be no shame in that. It’s an art-form, something that can only be performed by a minority because it takes years upon years of mastering. That’s why it’s such a treasure.

It’s a fanciful thought to believe every boy and girl in the country is going to puck a ball. It should be that way but hurling can’t and will never be that game simply because it’s so difficult to play. Not enough people have the patience to pass on or absorb the skills.

Such talk continues on to complain that hurling is a sport that will be continually dominated by just a few regions because no one else can even consider catching up — Kilkenny and Tipperary counties are just too good to even bother stepping on the pitch when they’re your opponent.

That dominance, they say, is what’s killing the sport. People aren’t interested in watching the game, and they certainly aren’t interested in learning the almost-cryptic skills needed to play. These issues are draining the life right out of the game, they say.

Hogwash, I say.

Here in America, we are just playing hurling for the fun of it. Someday, we might have clubs to rival the greats. But until then, we just play because it’s an incredible way to spend an afternoon.

We may not have even a sliver of the skills of the Kilkenny Cats or Tip’s Blue and Gold squad, but as long as we’re having a good time, we’re gonna keep having a go at it.

I would suggest the Irish naysayers do the same. Just get out there. Get better at the game and keep the sport alive.

You don’t need to win a championship to play a sport.

You just need to be willing to walk out on the field.

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Sing a Journey song for Ireland’s hurlers

As you would expect, the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is especially feverish in Ireland. Hurling fans even get their own treat as Ireland’s famous stadium, Croke Park, is hosting the All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling Championship today.

HURLING CHAMPIONSHIPS: Martin Comerford, here in action against Mark McFadden of Loughgiel during their recent All-Ireland semi-final, has been crucial to O'Loughlin Gaels' march to today's Croke Park showdown with Clarinbridge. CLICK THE IMAGE TO VISIT THE IRISH INDEPENDENT PREVIEW ARTICLE.

This championship is between club teams — that is, the local-est of local amateur teams — from two of the four Irish provinces.  To explain this in more American terms, it would be like having the two best post-college age softball teams in America,  say — the Council Bluffs, Iowa, team vs. the York, Pa., team — play in a national title game, after they have already eliminated all the other post-college age softball teams in America.

Whoever wins today’s match (which, given the time zone difference, may have already been played) is sure to spark a few more raised drinks on this St. Patty’s Day.

Such celebrations often go hand-in-hand with a pub-wide singing of the unofficial song for each county division of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the governing body of hurling. For the Irish, these songs are source of community pride, often expounding on the greatness of their region, and although certain songs fade in and out of popularity, most are familiar enough to sing from memory.

If you’re looking for a few to sing at the pub tonight, try these:

Though sung here by Mary Duff, it’s not hard to image a rowdy group of drinkers clanking their glasses as each chorus of “Beautiful Meath” comes up:

Here’s one made popular for Wexford’s run in the 1990s:

But by far, the most curious pub song to gain national attention is Ireland is one by Journey, San Francisco’s mega-rockers. Inexplicably, the song became attached to Waterford’s County hurlers.

It even spawned a Waterford-specific spoof featuring a muppet:

With all this love of Journey washing through Ireland, I turned to my Irish friend, Paddy Sullivan, for an explanation. Here is what he said:

“I’m not sure if you’d be familiar with the popularity of that particular tune in Ireland. ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ went to No. 1 immediately after the final episode of ‘The Sopranos.’ Not only that, but it remained in the charts for the best part of a year. Always a handy tune for a nightclub DJ to finish up on if he doesn’t normally play the national anthem. By that stage in the evening, everyone is drunk enough to sing along loudly.

“Fast forward two or three years, Clare’s talisman goalkeeper Davy “The Sparrow” Fitzgerald retires. A hero in his county, he was a key part of a team that won Clare’s first All-Ireland in 80 years and scoring a penalty in either the semis or All-Ireland final as a goalkeeper. (He then) starts training the Waterford team practically the same year (with the) same passion and drive as he had as a player.

“The devoted Deise (a nickname for Waterford) crowd take him into their hearts. The last three years with Davy, Waterford have been as good as they’ve been in the last 10 or 15. Munster finals and hard fought All-Ireland Semis, even though they did lose by 20 points to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland of 2008. A virtual cricket score in hurling.

“Davy Fitzgerald’s mantra to the fans throughout his time has been to ‘Don’t stop believing’ and it can often be seen on banners in the crowd at games!”

Who would have thought that 80s rockers Journey, by way of “The Sopranos” could have such an effect on hurling?

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Celebrating our collective Irish-ness, even if you skip the hurling

It was a strange series of errors last year that meant I had to skip mentioning St. Patrick’s Day and a variety of local Irish-themed events in my area, York, Pa.

Of course, that’s just totally not cool at all since this blog is about the very Irish sport of hurling. Though most people in the U.S. haven’t heard of the lacrosse-like field game, it’s one of two national sports in Ireland and once you get a glimpse of it, you’re sure to be impressed.

HURLING: This centuries old sport was developed in Ireland and is slowly making strides around the world as a fast-paced and challenging game. (Kristin Sullivan Photo)

HURLING: This centuries old sport was developed in Ireland and is slowly making strides around the world as a fast-paced and challenging game. (Kristin Sullivan Photo)

I certainly was, and desperately wanted to try it, the result is this very blog where I document my effort to learn it, play it and figure out how I might possibly be able to watch it here in the U.S.

I found my “hurling home” with the Baltimore Bohemians, the closest group of players to York (though if anyone wants to try starting up a team here in the Harrisburg-York-Lebanon-Lancaster region, just let me know) . As part of the gear-up to the spring season, the Bohemians are set to appear on Baltimore’s WBAL from 5  to 7 a.m. on Tuesday, March 15, where they will guide the host Sandra Shaw on what it takes to play hurling and gaelic football. Later in the month, they begin their Irish Sports 101 clinics to teach new players about the games.  (You should also check out these flyers: Drink Like the Irish and Irish Sports 101 for more info.)

As with the Baltimore team, all things Irish are popping up in York County, Pa., as well.

Most important of all is the fact that the local McDonald’s restaurants are tempting us all with their luscious Shamrock Shakes, a thick ice-cream drink that’s loaded with calories, and actually used as a stunt double for toxic waste.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have already partaken of one small-sized Shamrock Shake this season. I figure one or two more might be on my future menu.

Be warned though, not every McDonald’s is smart enough to participate in the annual Shamrock Shake promotion. One website, shamrockshake.com, is doing its best to help you out. It offers a shake locator for those trying to get their fix.

GOING GREEN: A float cruises down Market Street and through Continental Square in the 2009 York St. Patrick's Day Parade. (paradelady photo)

Shamrock Shakes aren’t the only St. Patty’s Day tradition you can indulge in here in York.  This Saturday Gaelic-ophiles can get their Irish on with the 2011 York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Along with the parade itself, there’s bands, food and all things Irish.

To and from your St. Patty’s day-themed events, check out Maewyn’s  Irish Pub & Restaurant here in York.  Nearby in Cumberland County, check out Coakley’s Irish Pub, which is next door to the Oxford Hall Celtic Shop in New Cumberland.

Coming up in June is the Penn-Mar Irish Festival, which offers music, food, dance and shopping as well.

So even if you’ve got no interest in my blog about the Irish sport of hurling, you’re sure to find some Irish-friendly activities here in York.

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Converting America (Part 3): Tap the Catholics

Welcome to Part 3 of my series about how the Gaelic Athletic Association can increase interest and participation in their sports here in America. Now on to the entry …

GAA AND THE IRA: Irish patriot Michael Collins with the Kilkenny hurling team in 1921.

GAA AND THE IRA: Irish patriot Michael Collins with the Kilkenny hurling team in 1921.

In Ireland, hurling and gaelic football are largely, though not exclusively, played by Catholics, and as the Gaelic Athletic Association works to expand in the United States, it needs to use this tie to its advantage, rather than play it down as it does in Ireland.

First off, it’s important to understand how the GAA was created. Way back in 1884, the organization was founded to preserve Irish sports and Irish culture. The (essential) reason that both came under threat was that the English rulers of Ireland were actively promoting English culture and, at its worst, actually outlawing various aspects of Irish culture. This attitude prevailed throughout much of the next century.

As the anti-English sentiment transformed into violence in the form of the Irish Republican Army, the GAA as an organization was even outlawed for a time. To further dampen interest in the sports, occupying British forces were banned by their own government from playing gaelic games. The animosity between the Irish and English was quite intense and resulted in riots, beatings, ambushes and vandalism, some of which were directed at GAA players, coaches or spectators. There’s several instances, for example, of vandals pouring broken glass on GAA playing fields to limit their use.

During this turbulent time, some actually considered the GAA a terrorist organization, or, at the very least, a front for a terrorist organization. Whether that is true is a case for historians to sort out, of course, but the English certainly saw strong connections.

Fast forward to modern times, and the GAA rightly and exclusively promotes itself as a cultural organization (which it has always been) and not a religious one (which it has never been). That’s a perfect position to maintain in Ireland, where the wounds of the era are still strong, but at the same time the GAA shouldn’t ignore the massive 68 million Catholic base in America, many of whom are struggling to find their cultural and ethnic identity.

Of those 68 million U.S. Catholics, a  substantial percentage can trace their heritage to Ireland, and those are the people that the GAA needs to reach out to and say: “Look at what your grandparents did back in the home country. This is a sport they played to build up their community, and you should play it too so you can be part of something too.”

Back to school: In particular, the GAA should create an educational program that highlights the organization’s history, the history of its sports and their historical (though not direct) association with the Catholicism. In Ireland, they already have youth outreach progams, so it’s not too big of an effort to brush it up for Americans.

But here’s the key: Once they have an Americanized program ready, the GAA should market it to America’s Catholic schools.  As of this writing, there are more than 7,000 private Catholic schools in the United States, and every one of them is going to eagerly embrace a game that was often used to champion the Catholic cause, even if their school isn’t entirely Irish Catholic.

Just consider this as a sample course of study, which could stretch over the years American kids spend in their local Catholic schools:

  • Athletics: Starting in the earliest grades, the GAA should provide equipment and instruction material to American Catholic schools. Hurling, in particular, is a game that takes many years to master, and teaching kindergarten and first-grade students is going to eventually build some excellent American players.
  • History: Starting with the gaelic games origins hundreds of years ago, following through to the founding of the GAA and its evolution into its modern form is actually fascinating reading. Layer that with the fact that the games’ players are professional in skill, but totally unpaid, is an amazing story of its own in a modern world where people are paid tens of millions of dollars because they can throw and catch a ball.
  • Politics & Geography: Along with the story of the Irish political situation that resulted in the creation of the GAA, there’s also another set of politics that comes into play on the field. Players for gaelic sports aren’t traded or lent out. They can only play for their home team. This results in heated rivalries between neighboring towns and counties, and a good lesson in geography for those interested.

Right now, Catholics in America are vehemently proud of their heritage. They celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with abandon. They flock to Irish festivals.  They have essentially claimed Columbus Day as their day.

Why not give America’s Catholics their own sport as well?

And once you do, the GAA might spark interest from America’s non-Catholics and non-Irish population.

When and if that happens, the gaelic games will truly go global.

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Amy Adams, yes. Hurling, not so much.

Though I stumbled on the “CSI: NY” episode that has hurling in it quite by accident, I figured that “Leap Year,” the Amy Adams film about a road trip through Ireland, would have some glimpse of the sport in it, so I added it to my Netflix queue and waited with dread.

ROAD TRIP: Amy Adams and Matthew Goode travel Ireland in "Leap Year."

I say dread because the film was the subject of scathing reviews upon its release early this year, and none were more foaming-at-the-mouth than The Irish Times’ review.

The film drops the perfect-nosed Adams into Dingle, a town in extreme southern Ireland. The problem is that she needs to be in Dublin, a major city in northern Ireland. Being an American, she hasn’t got any idea on how to get there, so she hires Rick Springfield-look-alike Matthew Goode to get her there. An attempt at a charming romantic story ensues. (Notice I say “attempt.”)

The film was largely criticized for a dull plot, horrid stereotypes of Irish hicks and unfortunate use of cliches. Even Goode admitted he signed on only because it was filming close to home.

How does hurling work into the film? Well, I only spotted signs of the game twice — maybe three times.

NOT-SO-IRISH: English-born Matthew Goode is a dead-ringer for circa-1980s Rick Springfield.

The first was just as Adams and Goode were about to begin their journey. In the background you can see a small group of kids whacking away with their hurleys and sliotars. The little yard they played in seemed awfully small.

The second appearance was far more obscure. When Adams and Goode are at a bar, you can see two old-style hurleys hanging on the wall. The bartender at the same bar might also be wearing a Gaelic Athletic Association shirt, but I’m not sure.

And that’s it for “Leap Year,” no glorious scenes of a rousing game here. Just some out-of-focus kids.

Don’t worry though, I’m sure that somewhere, sometime a sensible filmmaker has decided to highlight the sport in all its glory. All I have to do is keep looking.

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