The sport of hurling, though ancient, is new to the city of St. Louis, thanks to a new club promoting the sport here in the metro area.
Hurling is Europe's oldest field sport, originating from the Celts over 2,000 years ago. Hurling and Gaelic football are Ireland's national sports and along with football (soccer) help comprise Ireland's sporting identity.
Hurling's ancient roots are steeped in Irish mythology and folklore. It's believed the sport evolved as a method of training warriors for battle. Hurling matches often occurred in lieu of battles to settle disputes over property claims, and on at least one occasion a war broke out over the results of a match.
Over the past three centuries, the sport's popularity has been directly linked to periods of revival of Irish nationalism and culture, particularly during the late 19th century. In 1884, a group of Irish nationalists met in Galway to form what is now called the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Its purpose was to counter the crown's attempt to eliminate Irish culture. The sport itself was viewed as too rebellious and was banned several times throughout history by England's monarchy. The GAA's original purpose is still promoted today: "...to actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, songs and other aspects of Irish culture." They continue to be the governing body of hurling in Ireland.
A Grand Sport
Hurling enjoys success in countries all over the world, including the United States. The fastest of field sports, hurling requires the skills found in soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, rugby and other sports.
The stick, or hurley (called 'camaan' in Irish), is approximately three feet long. Its long, slender handle widens out to a flat, oval end of around six inches. This flat end (bas) provides a surface to strike, pick up or carry the ball (sliothar). The ball resembles a baseball in size and weight, with more pronounced outward stitching. Its exterior is leather, and it contains a cork center.
The playing field, or pitch, is approximately 150 yards long and 100 yards wide, with goals at either end. The goalposts are similar to those in soccer, with a higher crossbar. Each post extends above the crossbar and into the air, providing a target similar to the uprights in rugby or football. Putting the ball through the goal and into the back of the net is good for three points. A ball over the uprights, between the two end posts, scores one point. Scores are tallied by adding goals and points together, although they're kept separate on a scoreboard. Two 30-minute halves (35 minutes in championship play) constitute a game.
The ball can be hit on the ground or in the air with a hurley or, occasionally, with a foot. It can be caught in the hand and passed using an open palm. Players may not pick up the ball from the ground or throw it. The most common method of advancing the ball downfield is to catch it in the hand, drop it and hit it in midair with a hurley. Players can carry the ball in their hand for a short period of time (four steps) before they must pass it off to a teammate. With all respect to the late, great Ted Williams, the most difficult thing to do in all of sports is balancing the ball on a hurley during a full sprint (called soloing), with defenders in pursuit, bumping and poking for the ball all the while.
Defensive play includes lots of shoulder-to-shoulder charges with an offensive player in play with the ball. Like any field sport, defensive strategy centers on keeping the ball out of the goal area, and maintaining possession up through the field and to teammates in scoring position. There is no offside rule in hurling, although offensive players are restricted from entering the immediate goal area prior to the ball, similar to the 'crease' rule in hockey. Ball possession changes quickly during a match, and the shift from offensive to defensive play is constant.
The lineup of players consists of five lines and a goalkeeper, making up fifteen players a side. The five lines consist of one line each of three full-backs, three half-backs, two midfielders, three half-forwards, and three full-forwards. Goalies are given some consideration in the rules, but are otherwise treated as any other player in this very physical sport. Officials include a referee, two linesmen to indicate when a ball has gone out of bounds and four umpires to monitor the play along the end lines.
St. Louis Hurling Club
Three transplants from the Milwaukee Hurling Club coincidentally moved to St. Louis within a year of each other, the most recent arriving in December 2001. It wasn't long before they were hitting around in Tower Grove Park, wondering if the sport could attract more players in the Gateway City. During the spring of 2002, they began working to recruit new players, teaching the basics of the game to people who, for the most part, had never even seen a match. The modest number of players continues to grow on a weekly basis, and plans for sponsorship are in the works. The club's purpose is to introduce St. Louisans to the sport of hurling, create an opportunity to play and to help players become better hurlers.
While the sport is growing in St. Louis, it still remains a mystery to most people. Passers-by who come across the group practicing inevitably ask with a puzzled look about this 'new' sport. St. Louis has a lack of exposure to the Irish level of play, in particular. "One of the biggest changes in moving to St. Louis," says Pat O'Connor, co-founder of the St. Louis Hurling Club, "is that we can't watch the Irish matches anymore. Some Chicago pubs carried the Sunday matches on satellite. A few Milwaukee pubs would sometimes broadcast them. So far, no pubs in St. Louis have stepped up to broadcast the county level games, so the sport is still a mystery here."
The St. Louis Hurling Club hopes to change that, too. "We hope to find some bars willing to broadcast the games, to give St. Louis a chance to see what makes the sport great," explains Dan Lapke, another co-founder. "We want to get sponsors for uniforms and equipment, too. St. Louis has a great Irish background, and a reputation for being a great sports town. Hurling is a great sport, but it just needs a public relations boost here in St. Louis."
The hurlers are already taking their act on the road. St. Louis hurling will be represented at the Milwaukee Irishfest, the largest festival of its kind in the States. The St. Louis club members will scrimmage with the Milwaukee club August 17th and 18th, then again on August 24th at Peoria's Erin Feis. The North American GAA championships are in Chicago the following weekend. The club plans on watching the best of the 84 continental GAA clubs compete, with hopes to one day be among them on the field.
Hurling in Ireland
Hurling is played among all ages in Ireland. A version for females exists, called camogie. Local clubs hand down the love of the sport from one generation to the next. The highest level of the game, however, pits county against county for bragging rights in the All-Ireland Championship. Rivalries among Irish counties are storied and intense, even more so than the Cardinals-Cubs or Blues-Redwings affairs known in St. Louis. Part of the reason is that county teams are comprised only of county residents. Many of the fans know their players directly, lending to a great sense of loyalty for a team. Free agency is unheard of. And the county teammates proudly play their hearts out for their fellow countymen and women.
Thirty-three counties compete for bragging rights and the Liam McCarthy Cup. This is the American equivalent of the Super Bowl and World Series combined, drawing tens of thousands of fans to Croke Park in Dublin, and millions watching worldwide. When Cork beat Wexford in the 1954 final, 84,856 fans attended the match. Ireland's four provinces, Connacht (with 6 counties), Leinster (12), Munster (6), and Ulster (9), each have their own championships, similar to divisional playoffs in baseball. The victors of these province championships then go on to play in the All-Ireland Championship, held in mid-summer and overseen by the GAA.
For more information on the St. Louis Hurling Club, call Paul Rohde at 314/664.3134 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Rohde is a co-founder of the St. Louis Hurling Club.