A look at the Northeast Hurling Blitz

Allentown's T. J. Hirsh (13) looks for his teammates positions in a hurling match against Hoboken at Haines Mill field on Saturday, July 23. Credit: Betty Cauler of the South Whitehall Patch.

With high humidity and temperatures climbing into the mid 90s, four American hurling teams came together in the shadow of Dorney Park for the Northeast Hurling Blitz in Allentown, Pa., on Saturday, July 23.

The day was hosted (and won) by the Allentown Hibernians, who went 3-0. Also attending was the Baltimore Bohemians, the Hoboken Guards and the D.C. Gaels. A group of players from Pittsburgh also made an appearance. The Pittsburghers didn’t have enough participants to field their own team, so those players were split up among the other squads and used as substitutes.

I was worked in as a substitute for Baltimore, and got some decent playing time. For some that might be a disappointment, but I was completely fine with that since I haven’t attended any Baltimore practices this year. Aside from playing and taking pictures, I also worked as a line judge for one game. More than anything, it was great to see some hurling action up close, and not just watching it on TV or the computer.

The games began about 11 a.m. and lasted until about 4:30 p.m., and at the conclusion of the event, one person summed up the experience as “a great day of quality hurling.”

Moreover, the assembled players vowed that the hurling instruction they offer their communities wasn’t just for Irish-born players or those with Irish ancestory. Instead, it’s a game for everyone — Irish and non-Irish. American hurlers are keenly aware that hurling must be a game for all comers, and doing so is the absolute key to its success.

This blog entry isn’t all I have to say about my experience at the Blitz. I learned a lot just by attending, and I have a lot more to talk about.

But for now, just take a look at some of the pictures I took of the day’s action. (And for even better photos, check out this article in the South Whitehall Patch.)

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Building a hurling club — Where do you start?

Lately my time for hurling has been scant — new baby, projects at home, etc. — but a few times here and there, I’ve had a hour to spare and used them to run out to some local parks for a little bit of hitting practice.

GOT GAME? Hurling is a field sport that started in Ireland. The game requires lacrosse-like skills as you try to hit a baseball-sized ball through a goal or above the crossbar.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve resigned myself to an extremely limited schedule for hurling this year — up from a projected “nothing at all” earlier this year. But with that limited time, I have decided to work on generating some interest in my community for the sport.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, gasoline prices and my tight schedule have meant that I can’t practice and play with my “home” team, the Baltimore Bohemians. Instead, I just get their e-mails, check out their facebook page and wistfully dream of the fun they are having on the field.
That means that I have to try to build some interest in the game on my immediate home turf (Pennsylvania’s York, Adams, Lebanon, Dauphin and Cumberland counties). I figure between all those people, I’m bound to find a few interested in the game.
But I do have to start small.
This blog, which I’ve used to promote the Irish sport here in America, was the first step. It’s been going for about two years now, and I’d call it a success. A lot of American clubs link to it. I often get “thank you” notes from people interested in the sport.
More recently, I began to post listings on Craigslist in an effort to reach out. Those posts read:

 

Ever heard of the Irish sport of hurling? (Watch this video if you haven’t: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmzivRetelE)
It’s a great game and last season I tried playing the game with the Baltimore Club, but gasoline prices being what they are I can’t afford to travel there.With that in mind I want to start some club or group around here.
I’m pretty much a total newbie at hurling, and I’m not from Ireland. It’s just so much fun that I want to keep playing.
With that in mind, lets try some casual get-togethers in the Harrisburg-Lancaster-York-Lebanon area for hurling (or even gaelic football).
Also, I’ve been documenting my effort to learn hurling here: http://www.ydtalk.com/hurley/
Let me know if you’re interested. I know I am!

That’s where I started. So far, I haven’t had any bites, but I still have my fingers crossed.

But that’s only the beginning. One of the other parts of the plan is to make more “face time” at local parks. I stop by during especially busy times and begin batting around the sliotar with my hurley — and that’s really worked. In my last three outings with the my hurling equipment, I’ve had someone stop me and ask about it every time.

None were ready to join up (yet), but I have them thinking about it.

And now I need to go further with my effort.

As I said, here’s what I’ve done so far:

  • Advertise on the web: Post to local online forums requesting players. I suspect that these ads will only draw those already interested in the sport, such as Ireland natives.
  • Face time: As I mentioned above … visit local parks, get a game or skills practice going and hope people walk up and ask you about it. I certainly need to do more of this, but I’ve started.

 

And here’s what I need to do next:

  • Advertise at local Irish establishments and events: Make up some fliers that talk about the game and ask interested parties to give you a call. The problem here is that since I am currently a team of one, I don’t have a lot to offer.

And that’s where I’m stuck. What should I do next? Can any successful club founders offer me some tips?

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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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A hurling season in peril

Although spring is just around the corner, my opportunities to participate in hurling seems to be dwindling.

The biggest threat to my game is a simple matter of economics. Here in the United States, gasoline prices are expected to go up through the spring and summer. Economists, or whoever it is that does this, are saying prices could hit $5 a gallon at some point this year.

THE GOLD & BLACK: Baltimore GAA Club founders Lucy and Tadgh Prendeville are featured in the March 2011 issue of Baltimore Magazine. Click on this image to activate a PDF and read that article.

THE GOLD & BLACK: Baltimore GAA Club founders Lucy and Tadgh Prendeville are featured in the March 2011 issue of Baltimore Magazine. Click on this image to activate a PDF and read that article.

I’m like a lot of people who participate in niche sports: To play or train, I have to travel. If the Baltimore Bohemians schedule continues this year like it did last year, then there will be practice once a week, and a game twice a month.

My round trip to Baltimore and back is 130 miles. My vehicle, which is admittedly a gas guzzler, gets a dreadful 15 miles to the gallon. That means at the low end, it costs $35 per session to train. On the high end, it would be about $44 for each session. That’s $210 bucks a month just to learn the game at four practices and play it twice. That adds up fast over the spring and summer when you’re on a tight budget, and something I can’t really afford, especially when you look at “Reason No. 2″ for my troubled season.

Reason No. 2 that my season is in jeopardy is actually a blessing. My lovely wife, Laura, is pregnant with our second child. The new kid is due on April 16, just about when the hurling season would begin. If everything works out fine, the wife will be taking off a significant amount of baby-bonding time. This of course means we will be running the Simcoe household on a tight budget, and traveling for hurling is almost assuredly the first to go. Along with that, my actual time to participate in the game will be cut down — Babies need time with their dads, too.

There’s also a third reason why hurling might be out of the question this year. Last year, the men’s hurling team at Baltimore mostly  limped along. The number of players showing up for each week’s practice hovered around five, and was never more than 10.  That kind of attendance is never good for building a quality team.

Now word is that last year’s coach won’t be coaching this year, so that’s another blow to our effort because at some point, you kind of have to ask, “Why bother?”

And don’t for a second think that the Baltimore GAA isn’t a good organization. They have great male and female gaelic football teams. They also are getting great turnouts for their camogie team, and I would happily train with them if that was my only option. (Camogie, by the way, is the women’s version of hurling.)

WHAT A PAIN: Maybe I have a bone spur on my foot as shown here, which can happen if you have over-tight calf muscles or suddenly increase your physical activity. I'm probably guilty of both of those since I have big calves and was a lazy bum prior to taking up hurling.

To add more pooper to my hurling party, I’m nursing a nagging injury that persisted through all of last year. My left achilles tendon just doesn’t like it when I run around on the field. While playing, it feels fine, but after a night’s rest it goes from “barely fine” to a full-blown limp that lasts two or three days. The limp is actually so bad that walking down stairs is difficult.

After talking to my doctor about the problem, she referred me to a local foot-and-ankle specialist. I have been a bad patient and haven’t sought out the treatment yet, deciding to try to give it time to heal up. Months later, the agitation remains, especially when running. You want me to ride an elliptical trainer for a half-hour? Sure, no pain at all, but running for 30 seconds brings on the pain twelve hours later.

Of course, all is not lost in my effort to learn and understand this great game. I love practicing the skills. I’d readily join a more-local team (Harrisburg, York or Lancaster hurlers out there?). I’m still interested in the game, and will eagerly play whenever and wherever I can.

But this year, it just might not happen when I look at all the factors in play.

 

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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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