Hurling comes to Notre Dame

South Bend Indiana: Fighting Irish fans arriving early for the USC game who happened to walk by Arlotta Stadium, usually home of the Fighting Irish lacrosse team, witnessed a unique moment.

Arlotta is a stone’s throw from the main stadium and the puzzled looks soon turned to  excitement.

5,000 or so spectators were packed like sardines into the venue to watch the first-ever exhibit of hurling, Ireland’s most ancient game, at the Mecca of Irish American sport. Among them was Irish Ambassador to the U.S. Anne Andersen making her first visit to Notre Dame.

Twenty-two of Ireland’s finest players were doing battle in a modified form of the game called Super 11 where only goals count. The teams from Leinster and Munster were renamed for the occasion as Ireland versus the Fighting Irish. Ireland won but that was not the point.

NBC, CBS and ireland’s broadcasting network RTE were along to show the Americans and the folks back home the world’s fastest game on grass.

And exciting it was. The sheer speed of the game, the clash of the ash as the hurleys met, the incredible split-second skill of the players, enthralled the spectators, who gave both sides a standing ovation at the end.

Unlike the typical exhibition game, the two teams went at it hammer and tongs and some of the physical clashes drew gasps from the crowd. It is not a game for the faint-hearted with the ball flying in the air at well over 100 miles an hour and players fighting for possession like their life depends on it.

Hurling is is also the oldest field game on earth. According to Notre Dame historian Professor Kevin Whelan, the Irish language is the third oldest on earth after Greek and Latin and hurling is mentioned in the earliest texts meaning it precedes even the Christian age by centuries. Whelan calls it “the Riverdance of sport, poetry in breathtaking motion, the fastest, most exciting field game in the world.”

He’s right. But there had never been an official hurling game at Notre Dame between Ireland’s top players, an astonishing oversight when you consider the incredible connections between the two entities.

That was remedied on Saturday by the initiative of the Gaelic Players Association (GPA), an organization originally formed by the Irish hurlers and footballers themselves, which looks after the all-amateur players' welfare as well as seeking to spread the game worldwide.

The GPA has a social mission to help those players who have difficulty post career. They also seek to combat depression and suicide among young people in Ireland by seeking to get them involved in sports and appointing sports figures as community leaders. In the Ireland of today their work is badly needed.

Yesterday, thanks to the efforts of GPA and Notre Dame luminaries such as Don Keough and Martin Naughton who make up the power behind the Keough-Naughton Institute of Irish Studies, the historic game went ahead on playing fields on a campus that has been a Mecca for Irish Americans for generations.

It was yet another unique moment in the relationship between Notre Dame and Ireland. Last year’s game in Dublin between Navy and the Irish was a massive success. This year the hurlers of Leinster and Munster made their bit of history at Notre Dame.

Wonderful hurling and Notre Dame went on to eke out a win over USC.

A great day for the Irish whatever side of the Atlantic you were on.