Irish heritage recaptured in sports in Worcester
WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — A fast-moving field game that is part soccer, part baseball, part lacrosse and all Irish is becoming increasingly popular in Worcester.
Both adult and youth club teams have formed in recent years for Irish hurling, as well as Gaelic football.
At a practice earlier this month at Lake Park, children ages 7 to 11 prepared for a multi-city hurling “blitz” that is expected to draw youths from several cities to Springfield this weekend.
Their coaches are a part of the adult team, which was to play its own game later in the day.
Irish hurling is played with a short stick, called a hurley, that ends in a flat paddle, and with a ball, called a sliotar, that is somewhat smaller than a baseball. Players can strike the ball with their stick, or pick it up and hit it to advance it down the field.
Fast and intense when played among adults, the game is less so with children, who wear a full face mask for protection. It is thought to be the oldest game in the world, according to Mike O’Connor, a coach with the Worcester Gaelic Athletic Association. In Ireland it’s been played for more than 2,000 years, he said.
Here in Worcester, many club parents of Irish descent say they grew up watching it, or playing it themselves, and wanted their children to have a cultural connection to Ireland.
No one has to be Irish to play, but it’s one of the reasons why the athletic club has grown in popularity, members say. Sally Hurley of Upton learned about the GAA club team for children when she met another parent through their daughters’ Irish dance classes.
Last Sunday, her son, Sean, 9, was among the dozen or so boys learning skills in both hurling and Gaelic football, which is similar to soccer.
“My husband is from Ireland,” Hurley said. “It was something he wanted them to have exposure to.”
O’Connor, whose family is from Galway, said he played hurling a bit as a child but watched his cousins in Ireland play it regularly. Now, his young son, Michael, 7, is among the club members on the youth team. And his two daughters, Aine, 5, and Isla, 3, were learning how to defend the goal last Sunday.
In Ireland, girls play a slightly different version of the game called Camogie, said Karen O’Connor.
O’Connor was born in Ireland, and emigrated at age 5. When she was younger, hurling was only played in Ireland, but now it’s played worldwide through club sports.
The Worcester Gaelic Athletic Association hurling club is part of the North American Gaelic Athletic Association, and formed in 2009. The group added a Gaelic football team this year and is reaching out to parents interested in having their children learn that sport, as well.
The O’Connors have encouraged their children to learn both hurling and Gaelic football.
“It’s important because it’s part of our heritage and we want to keep that going,” O’Connor said. Worcester and surrounding towns have a large Irish population that might be interested, but unaware of the GAA club teams, she said.
“We’re just trying to spread the word. A lot of people don’t know about it.”
According to the Gaelic Athletic Association website, hurling players can strike the ball on the ground, or in the air. Unlike hockey, players can pick up the ball with the hurley and carry it for not more than four steps in the hand. After those steps players may bounce the ball on the hurley and back to the hand, but players are forbidden to catch the ball more than twice. To get around this, one of the skills is running with the ball balanced on the hurley. To score, players put the ball over the crossbar with the hurley or under the crossbar and into the net by the hurley for a goal, the latter being the equivalent of three points.