A stopover by U.S. soldiers at Shannon Airport on St. Patrick’s Day 2004 led to the fruition of a New Hampshire based hurling team made up of men who all served together in Iraq.
Fast-forward seven years to St. Patrick’s Day 2011. To celebrate the Irish holiday six of the New Hampshire based players from The Barley House Wolves team plan to hit around some sliotars (the leather ball used in the game of hurling) on the hot sand of the Kuwait desert where they are currently on a tour of duty.
Two members of the team, Lt. Col. Raymond Valas, 37, and Sergeant 1st Class Eddie Clements, 31, spoke to the Irish Voice about their love for the ancient game and how they were first drawn to it.
Clements, via email, spoke to the Irish Voice from his headquarters in Camp Buehring in Kuwait. Valas, from Canton, Massachusetts, is now based in Bow, New Hampshire.
Clements, who hails from Salem, New Hampshire, is part of Delta Company Task Force 3rd Battalion 197th Artillery.
Valas, married with three children, has been part of the National Guard for 15 years. He is currently stationed in Joint Forces Headquarters in Concord, New Hampshire.
Clements, who keeps in regular contact with his mom Nancy, dad, Ed, sister, Kim and brother, Mark, admits he is not sure if he has any Irish roots. However two of Valas’ great-grandmothers were emigrants from Ireland.
So how did these two men come to love and play hurling, a traditional Irish game resembling hockey?
It all began while on route to the war in Iraq.
“We departed the States on St. Patrick's Day in 2004, and our plane stopped over in Shannon Airport for refueling on our way into Iraq. (A year later) we all saw a full year of combat, and despite 14 of our guys getting wounded, we all came home alive,” said Valas.
In an effort to keep his comrades in contact after combat Valas and a few of the men decided on taking up the game of hurling.
“We decided on hurling since Ireland was our point of departure and return of the war,” said Valas.
“We also wanted something that was more than just a once a year reunion, and we didn’t want to have everyone just get together at a bar,” added Clements in his email.
“The fact that the origins of the sport from thousands of years ago lie in warrior roots resonated with us as soldiers and starting a hurling club with a bunch of guys who have never held a hurley, and in a state that has never had a game played is just unusual enough to make it attractive. So, we started recruiting from the guys that we went to Iraq with,” explained Valas.
While stopped over in Shannon airport in Co. Clare for a few hours the soldiers caught a glimpse of a live hurling match on the television.
“That kind of planted the seed,” explains Clements who has been with the U.S. Army for 13 years and has served with the New Hampshire National Guard since 2001.
“Plus with this new game everyone was on a level playing field, cause none of us had ever played before. No one was going to be more advanced than anyone else.”
Valas, the driver behind the team, joined forces with army colleague Ken Kinsella and set up The Barley House Wolves in New Hampshire as soon as they got home.
And the team has been playing ball ever since.
Since the creation of The Barley House Wolves they has played several games against American teams and a few against Irish squads. They have also competed in the North American County Board tournament.
Although most of the team is American their coach Ruairi O’Mahoney is a Co. Cork immigrant.
“He (Ruairi) has been a huge asset in our training sessions and match play. Learning this sport as an adult is not easy and I wish I had the opportunity to pick it up earlier in life. Having a coach with us who grew up with a hurley makes all the difference,” said Valas.
The Barley House Wolves club name came together in two parts.
“Wolf was our call sign for our company while we were in Iraq and The Barley House really helped by sponsoring us when we first came together,” explains Clements.
In an effort to develop their skills as players and foster a greater respect for the sport the team went to Ireland to “really get a feel for how the game is played as its core,” said Valas.
“We got to watch a county match, between Cork and Tipperary. It was almost surreal, we’ve seen matches on TV and we’ve seen matches in the United States but watching a game in Ireland with all the fans in the stands was amazing.”
Remembering the trip Clements writes, the only thing better than watching a game in Ireland, was playing against the Irish Army team at Renmore Barracks overlooking Galway Bay. Playing against another military team from another country was a great honor for us.”
The team also spent time with a hurley maker and met the former GAA president, Joe McDonagh.
“The whole trip was amazing. Seeing that intercounty match was a real eye opener…just to see the game played at a high level like that was terrific for us,” said Clement.
Valas is clear about one thing, the New Hampshire team has no interest in putting an “American spin” on Hurling.
“We want to honor its roots and tradition as an Irish sport,” he said.
The New Hampshire based Lieutenant likens the game of hurling to combat.
“The focus on the hurling pitch is the same as on the battlefield. You have one focus, and everything else fades into the background,” Valas said.
“That intensity, and ability to have a singular purpose, is a great thing that can’t be found just anywhere. Hurling has provided that. It creates a bond and a focus that a lot of us thrive on.”
For Clements hurling has become a part of his everyday life in Kuwait.
“In some aspect I talk or think about hurling every single day. It helps that I work with several of my teammates and they are as passionate as I am about the game,” he said.
Despite already forging a bond while serving in Iraq together, Clements admits that the game of hurling has brought them even closer.
“When you start something brand new and build it yourselves you create a bond as well. So we already had a bond and starting the team has intensified that bond,” he said.
Although six of The Barley House Wolves who are currently serving together in Kuwait shoot around a sliotar at any given opportunity they have been unable to have a proper practice or game because they are still waiting on getting equipment to the Middle Eastern country.
“It takes so long for things to get here from Ireland. One package I received took two months to get here. So any donations we can get would help us towards our goal of having a match in Kuwait.
Basically the team is in need of hurleys and helmets in order to get started over here,” Clements said.
After seeing a documentary on the soldiers in Kuwait and their interest in hurling dozens of sliotars were donated from Irish Hurleys, an Irish company who has been making the curvy sticks for 25 years.
The lack of equipment however doesn’t stop Clements having his own time with his hurley while on duty.
“Hurling is a healthy release of stress, and just being able to get out and hit the sliotar around lets me forget about things and just simply focus on hurling,” he said.
For Valas hurling has helped him “get back to normal life” in New Hampshire following his deployment to Iraq.
“It was also a great way to stay connected with the guys I served with, and a healthy outlet as well. I have grown to love the sport and as I am getting older I guess I am trying to get the most out of it I can before I can’t do it anymore,” said Valas.
“I’m already too old to play this sport, but I think I will have to be dragged from the pitch before I will stop playing,” he joked.
Other soldiers serving with Clements are also showing interest in the sport and hope to someday have an opportunity to play a game that is still very foreign to them.
Clements’ goal before his tour is completed is to “have our first hurling match on Kuwaiti sand,” he said.
Back home on American soil Valas and the team are gearing up for 11 matches this summer, including a Boston Division Junior C Championship.
In the mean time to honor St. Patrick’s Day Clements and the six other Barley House Wolves will get together in Kuwait and “hit the sliotar around for a little bit once we are done our training for the day.”
For more information visit www.hurlingnh.com.