Photo by Meagan Finning
By RODNEY ALDRICH
GREEN ISLAND — Do you know the oldest team sport in the world?
Would you believe that it’s Irish, and it has been continuously played for more than 3,000 years?
Hurling is fast-paced, aggressive and exciting, and is billed as the oldest and fastest field game in the world, according to YouthIrish.com. The earliest myths date from before Irish historians put ink to paper. Let’s start with one of the prime tales.
There was a king named Conchobar who was invited to feast at the fort of a smith named Culann. King Conchobar set his prize hound to guard the fort while the merriment inside would occupy everyone. The hero to be, Sétanta, was so busy practicing hurling that he was late to the party. When the hound rushed at him in full attack mode, Sétanta used his hurl to hit the ball hard into the mouth of the hound, killing him. Sétanta scooped up the hound’s body, brought the corpse into the king, apologized, and promised to raise the king a replacement. However, in the meantime, Sétanta committed to shadow the king full time as his personal guard. The king, realizing the strength and skill of Sétanta, agreed, at which point a druid named Cathbad stepped forward and said, “Sétanta, feasta, beidh tú a bheith Cú Chulainn, an cú na Culann,” which translates from the Irish language as, “Sétanta, henceforth, you will be Cú Chulainn, the hound of Culann.”
Meagan Finning, coach of a local band of enthusiasts who meet regularly in Green Island, found the warrior aspect of the sport very attractive. She recounts
how she found her way into the sport.
“I was living in Virginia when my husband, who was in the Navy, encouraged me to join a social group for entertainment while he was at sea,” said Finning. “I joined an Irish step dance group but one member recruited me to play camogie, the women’s version of hurling. I fell in love with it from the start.”
Not only did she find a great group, she changed her lifestyle, too.
“I was a singer growing up, and was never really interested in sports,” said said, “but there was something special about hurling and camogie. You can tell right away this is a sport invented by ancient warriors. It’s fast and rough but the camaraderie is amazing, and the women find the warrior aspect makes us feel strong and confident.”
Off the field, players on opposing teams come together to celebrate after a game — many of whom with pints of Guinness. They even host members of other teams in their homes when travelling for games and tournaments.
Playing the game
A small group of dedicated players play scrimmages at Paine Street Park in Green Island every Saturday morning.
The game of hurling is like a lot of games Americans already play. A leather wrapped ball is hit with a stick using a swing similar to that in baseball or tennis. The ball can be caught and held in the hand for a certain number of steps, or played on the ground, or balanced on the stick. Body to body contact is allowed and happens often like in lacrosse or hockey. The goal is divided into two parts. The bottom half is like a soccer goal with a defending goalie A score past the goalie in this lower part wins three points. The upper half is like football goal posts; a goal between the posts counts for one point. The stick/ball combination creates play similar to lacrosse or field hockey.
Defending against a player who has the ball requires close coverage and quick stick play. Teams often use a man-to-man coverage strategy, called a “mark”, which makes play fast and possession changes frequently. Having field awareness and passing to teammates is important. The timing is non-stop except for the ball out of bounds, goals, or penalties, as in soccer, lacrosse, or hockey. You can block shots like in hockey and lacrosse.
And did I mention play is fast? Hurling’s motto is, “The fastest game on grass!”
In Ireland, hurling and camogie are not only popular, they are a national obsession, with crowds rivaling that of any of America’s favorite sports. Unlike America, though, the professional levels among adults are unpaid and play on teams only for the county they live in. The Irish players are proud of this “amateur” style of organization that the Gaelic Athletic Association uses. They have no intention of taking pay for their skills because they feel that it erodes any regional pride and commitment.
“A lot of the people come to the sport because they are interested in their Irish heritage, or learned about it during a trip to Ireland,” Finning said. “But anyone from anywhere can learn and play. It’s one of the most under-rated sports in the world and one of Ireland’s best kept secrets. If you give it a shot, you’ll get hooked.”
What’s the future of hurling (and camogie) in the Capital District of New York?
“We need to expand to at least 13 to have a full team for a regulation game,” Finning said. “But we can play other teams in exhibition games with a half-team. We hope to play Champlain Valley in Vermont, Rochester in New York, or the Jersey Shore once we have enough players for a half-team.” Finning added, “The turnout has been committed but small. We will be concentrating on expanding our numbers now. This is a great time to turn out. We’re ready for athletes in other sports looking for a way to stay in shape in their off season, or someone who played a classic sport in high school or college and is looking for that team atmosphere again. And, as I was not an athlete before this sport, I’m particularly interested in anyone who wants to try even though they never played much organized sports. The giving nature of everyone playing this sport leads to so much fun and can be really transforming.”
Those interest in play should contact Finning at www.facebook.com/albanyhurling/.