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Hurling: A Druidic tradition, now with helmets

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Hot hurling action at the Sportzone during the Indy Hurling Club's 2011 Indoor Championship. - MARK LEE
  • Mark Lee
  • Hot hurling action at the Sportzone during the Indy Hurling Club's 2011 Indoor Championship.

What do you get when you cross hockey, lacrosse, and baseball? Besides a mulleted East Coast prep-schooler with a penchant for chaw? If you guessed the ancient Gaelic game of hurling, then, as they say in the mother tongue, "Ta an ceart agat." Translation: "You're right!"

"It's very old," notes Nate Roberts, a member of the Indianapolis Hurling Club, the championship-winning locus for all thing hurling in the city. The former soccer player who was introduced by friends to the game three years ago, and has since studied it extensively. "It's Druidic, not necessarily Christian. It goes back to the ancient days."

Indeed, some say hurling dates back more than 3,000 years, making it older than the recorded history of Ireland itself. Perhaps former Irish player PJ Devlin said it best: "The men of Ireland were hurling when the gods of Greece were young."

As Roberts explains, the object of hurling is for players — there are 15 on each team — to strike a small, hard ball between the opponent's H-shaped goalposts using a wooden stick. The stick, called a hurley or camán, is about the length of a baseball bat, but thinner, with a flat, paddle-like end called a bas. The ball, known as a sliotar, looks a little like a mini baseball, with a cork center and a stitched leather cover.

When a player strikes the sliotar over the crossbar between the goalposts, he earns one point; a sliotar struck under the crossbar, into a net guarded by a goalkeeper, is good for three. A hurling pitch can be as large as 158 by 98 yards — a football field and then some. To convey the sliotar from one end of the pitch to the other, players can use the hurley to strike it in the air, like in baseball, or on the ground, like in field hockey.

Feet and hands can also be employed to kick and slap the ball, although throwing is verboten. In addition, the ball can be carried (although not for more than four steps, and only twice per possession) or balanced on the end of the hurley.

Shattered testicles

So ponder this: You have a hard ball, which, when struck, can reach speeds of 100 miles per hour. "In mere seconds, it can go 90 yards," observes Roberts. (This considerable ball speed is why hurling is thought to be the world's fastest game in terms of speed of play.)

You have a wooden stick, which players wield like a bat or a cudgel in an attempt to hook you from behind or block you from the front.

And you have, including you, 30 players on the pitch, all of whom might be reasonably classified as lunatics and generally eschew protective padding of any kind (although as of 2010 — a mere three millenia after the sport's inception — helmets similar to those used by hockey players are required).

That means even though the full-body tackling you see in sports like rugby and football is forbidden, there are plenty of ways to be injured — and badly — while hurling.

"The most common injuries are broken hands," notes Roberts, although "the worst injury our club has ever seen is someone splitting their head open. While wearing a helmet." (I suppose that's preferable to the injury sustained in the late 1990s by Irish goalkeeper Joe Quaid, who shattered a testicle when he took a sliotar to his gentleman's area.)

"It's uniquely Irish," Roberts adds, who, despite being a mere 1/16th Irish himself, identifies strongly with the culture. "It's somewhere between a sport and a faction fight." He adds, "It's war. It's that kind of game."

The Irish diaspora

Although hurling has existed since the Iron Age, it wasn't until 1879 that a formal, written set of rules was developed. Five years later saw the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which remains the sport's governing body even today. (The GAA also governs Gaelic football, handball, rounders, ladies football, and camogie, which is a game for women that is similar to the hurling matches played by men.)

It was the GAA that organized the first all-Ireland hurling championship in 1887 — an event that is still held every year in Dublin's Croke Park. Today, all 32 counties in Ireland and Northern Ireland field hurling teams.

"It's all amateur," notes Roberts. "The great players in Ireland are not idolized for their money. They're idolized for what they're good at, and that's playing hurling. They don’t get paid, even though at least twice a year they fill up Croke Park with 85,000 people. They all do it for the love of the game."

The GAA parlays all the money generated from those big matches into creating new clubs and buying grounds for pitches all over Ireland. According to Roberts, "There are 2,500 clubs on an island the size of Indiana."

Thanks to the Irish diaspora, hurling is also played in such locales as the United Kingdom, North America, Europe, New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina. Although the sport was originally played only by Irish immigrants, recent years have brought increased interest in the sport among non-Irish players.

Indeed, in the U.S. — thanks to exposure through satellite television and the Internet as well as ongoing promotion by the GAA and its local governing body, the North American GAA — older hurling clubs in large, heavily Irish cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago now face competition from smaller markets, including Indianapolis.

Nate Roberts: grocer by day; hurler by night. - MARK LEE
  • Mark Lee
  • Nate Roberts: grocer by day; hurler by night.

Hurling grocers

The Indianapolis Hurling Club, of which Roberts is a member, logged its first official season under the GAA in 2006; just three years later, in 2009, it claimed its first national title. College students are also converting to hurling; both Purdue University and Indiana University boast club teams, with the Hoosier hurlers becoming the first-ever National Collegiate Champions in 2011.

"Hurling takes a lot of time to develop," notes Roberts. "In America, we're all just learning." Fortunately, Roberts says, the Indy Hurling Club has a few bona-fide Irishmen on the team — including coach Ciaran Connery, who hails from County Killkenny.

"You can tell they grew up with a stick in their hand," Roberts observes with a wry smile. Led by these Irish standouts, the team continues to improve. "It's gotten a lot more competitive in the last years, where not every guy can make a team."

Of course, with all running involved, players must be quite fit. To keep up, Roberts logs three brisk runs a week, plus two practices with the club, which take place every Wednesday and Sunday at Broad Ripple Park. (A visit to Broad Ripple's Connor's Pub, title sponsor of Indy Hurling, is a post-practice custom.)

In addition, Roberts takes every chance he can to work on his stick skills. Somehow he fits all this in, despite a demanding day job as general manager of the near East side food co-op, Pogue's Run Grocer. (The grocery will sponsor a team during this year's summer league.)

Interested in seeing some hurling in action? Don't bother turning on your TV; there are no matches broadcast in the area—not even on satellite. Instead, turn to YouTube. For a primer, look for a video called "Hurling - The Fastest Game on Grass." You'll get a gander of some of the basics—as well as a sense of how deranged these guys really are. For info about live action, check Indy Hurling's website; the club's schedule will heat up with the advent of spring.

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