The highest attendance at a GAA game in the US since the 1950s will gather at the home of the Boston Red Sox next Sunday when the hurlers of Galway and Dublin battle it out in the AIG Fenway Hurling Classic.
With ticket sales heading north of 25,000 and possibly hitting 30,000, the Super Hurling 11s contest in Boston's Fenway Park could yet prove to be a seminal moment in the history of Gaelic games in the States.
In 2013 All-Star Cork hurler and chairman of the Gaelic Players Association, Dónal Óg Cusack, along with Donal O’Grady, Tom Barry, Mattie Kenny and the GAA’s Director of Games Development and Research Pat Daly, helped devise a short form of Ireland’s ancient game.
The rationale was clear to Cusack: the burgeoning players’ organization (GPA) in Ireland wanted to showcase top level Gaelic games and inter-county players at iconic venues – and specifically to a new audience in America.
Hurling and football at grassroots level have always been sustained passionately by the Irish diaspora and, in recent years, have blossomed in new locations in America and all over the world thanks to the voluntary efforts of Gaelic games enthusiasts. The GAA is now a global force uniting the Irish abroad and sharing its rich values with communities in every continent.
However, there remains little or no awareness of inter-county hurling and Gaelic football among the average American sports fan and Cusack felt passionately that a new audience could be attracted to our All-Ireland championships back home if an opportunity was afforded to view the elite players in action.
Why? Well after the extraordinary All-Ireland hurling finals of 2013 and 2014 – both of which went to thrilling replays – there was a consensus in Ireland that hurling really did measure up to, if not surpass, the best sports in the world and it was a shame that there wasn’t a bigger global audience. The introduction of GAAGO, RTE’s internet-based service broadcasting championship games, has provided a welcome accessible platform, but the GPA believed that it was essential to bring the top teams and top players to the people, to actively stimulate and promote Gaelic football and hurling played by its leading practitioners.
So Super Hurling 11s was born. Cusack and his team reduced the size of the playing surface to an American football field, chose soccer-style goals so that the ball could remain in play and devised rules tailored to the new constraints. The result is a fast-paced, highly physical and hugely skilful game of hurling.
For sure it sacrificed long-range point-scoring, but Cusack and his innovative group of hurling experts were tired of hearing how it was ‘impossible’ to showcase 15-a-side hurling in US sporting venues due to pitch size.
After a number of trials and with the support of the GAA and the sponsorship of Aer Lingus the game traveled to the University of Notre Dame in October 2013 where, as part of the Fighting Irish v USC game day card, the leading hurlers from Munster and Leinster went to battle in the first Super Hurling 11s Classic in the US.
And what a battle it was. In a highly competitive encounter at Notre Dame’s Arlotta Stadium, 5,000 enthusiastic match-day football fans were treated to a ferociously contested game which simmered throughout. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
And so began the journey to the Irish heartland of Boston and Fenway Park next Sunday, one of the world’s great traditional sporting locations. With the template established, Cusack and the GPA approached the Red Sox and planted the idea of hurling returning to Fenway for the first time since Christy Ring led the Cork team into the famous baseball arena back in 1954.
And thanks to event sponsors AIG and Fenway Sports Management, who rowed in behind the project, along with the support of Aer Lingus, the Super Hurling 11s caravan returns to the US this weekend for the AIG Fenway Hurling Classic and Irish Festival.
It will be a proud moment for everyone involved in Dublin hurling, including the county’s sponsors AIG, to see the famous Sky Blue jersey paraded in Fenway Park. However, with Galway’s Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh, no stranger to the small ball, leading the support for the county of his mother and father, the pairing of the two teams appears to have struck a chord with Beantown’s sports fans, no doubt underpinned by the city’s unrivaled Irish community and strong GAA presence in Canton.
The hurling game is fixed between the clash of Notre Dame and Boston College in Fenway next Saturday night and the Patriots game against the Bills the following Monday. However, this hasn’t deterred fans from snapping up tickets for the hurling which will be followed by a concert featuring American Irish punk ensemble Dropkick Murphys. If anything the Irish festival is sitting nicely between the two domestic fixtures.
For the traveling hurlers it will be a chance to walk in the footsteps of Ring, to hurl the sliotar (the ball) with the backdrop of the Green Monster and showcase their talents live on NESN to a new audience. For those back home, the game is being televised live by TG4 and a documentary on the visit scheduled for the following week.
Many sports around the world have benefited from an active short-form version – rugby, soccer and cricket among them. Cusack and the creators of Super Hurling 11s believe the ancient game will benefit in the long term from having a model that can roll into famous stadiums all over the US and further afield.
Next Sunday’s AIG Fenway Classic sees the next big step in that journey. Watch this space.