Hurling is the red-headed step-child of the GAA. Or so says Larry McCann, who brought a team of hurlers to play an exhibition game at the Connecticut Festival on Sunday. Hurling requires skill and training, and the GAA has neglected it.
“It’s difficult to coach, it’s difficult to play, and it’s expensive,” McCann explained. “And at the youth level, the GAA don’t give much attention to hurling.” McCann, originally from Belfast, came to the States in 1977, and he trains teams of young hurlers in his spare time in Boston.
He wants the GAA to set up a youth association especially dedicated to the game, which he says it at risk of dying out otherwise. “We’re trying to keep hurling alive, and to encourage clubs that play football to play hurling,” he says.
Hurling is Europe’s oldest field game. It features in Irish folklore and has always been a specialist sport. It’s like hockey but there are important differences. Players use a wooden stick (hurley), curved at the end, to hit a ball called a sliothar. If they want to carry the ball for more than four steps, players must bounce it or balance it on the hurley. As McCann puts it, “anybody can play football – but not just anyone can play hurling.”
Playing exhibition games at Irish festivals is not enough to raise the game’s profile, McCann argues. A national youth organization dedicated to hurling and to hurling and to gaelic games in general would strengthen the position of the game, which has suffered especially since 9/11, when immigration laws tightened and many young Irish players were forced to leave the country. “The prospect of empty playing fields loomed,” McCann says.
In response, the GAA brought in the Continental Youth Championships for Irish football and hurling, but that’s not enough, he adds.
“Most Americans don’t know what Gaelic games are,” he says. “But they know about soccer. Our games are not in the schools. We need to introduce youth games into the American family and to mirror the successes of the other associations – like soccer and rugby.”
After the game, McCann was loading up sports gear into his red van and driving back to Boston with two young hurling players, Nick and Corey Smith, who are brothers. Both were enthusiastic about the game. “I like how it’s fast-paced and it keeps you on your feet,” said Nick, 15. “I play Gaelic football, American football, hockey, baseball, and I swim. But I love hurling the most,” Corey, 16, said.
Nick added, “It takes a while to learn but once you do learn the basic skills it’s more fun – it’s like fast-paced, violent golf!”