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Hurley men

The Orlando Hurling Club celebrates a true Irish pastime

Photo: Jason Greene, License: N/A

Jason Greene

Photo: Jason Greene, License: N/A

Jason Greene

Trying to describe this game requires multiple references to other games. The swinging motions are reminiscent of slugging fastballs, but they can also look like slap shots on ice. All that stick clanging suggests lacrosse, which works well as analogy until you consider the uprights above the goal posts, making allusions to football and extra points inevitable.

The growing group of devotees of the Irish-born sport of hurling know exactly how to describe it. They call it the fastest game played on a grass field.

"It involves every skill you've learned in every sport," says the Orlando Hurling Club's Scott Graves. "Running, awareness of the field, positioning, team play, defense, catching the ball like a baseball, hitting it like a hockey puck, you can kick the ball if you want to." In 2010, the 45-year-old Graves started the club, which is the most sizeable and organized hurling team in Florida. He hopes Orlando can join cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee as hotbeds for hurling outside of Ireland.

"It's a sport that you knew always existed once you play it," he says.

Hurling hasn't gripped audiences in the United States with the same force as that other athletic import, soccer, which has its own professional league and is attracting stadium-sized crowds (see our story last week, "Team Effort," about the Orlando City Lions' bid for acceptance into Major League Soccer). But in the past decade, hurling has steadily grown. Athletes without a direct ancestral connection to Ireland are taking part. Recreational youth and college teams are emerging. Competitive groups are popping up all across the country.

There are a combined 114 clubs for men and women in 50 different cities, according to Tim Flanagan, spokesman for the controlling body of hurling in the U.S., the North American Gaelic Athletic Association. Around 6,000 players are actively involved in the sport. That's double what it used to be five years ago.

"We're starting to get to the point where it's really going to take off," Flanagan says. He credits the rising interest in the sport to a lot of "little fires," as opposed to one big moment. U.S. military personnel who stopped off in Ireland on their way home from Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the game stateside. Social media makes it easier to share links to games and footage, giving it exposure online, and more tourists to Ireland, whether Irish-American or not, are attending hurling matches.

Flanagan thinks hurling has enormous potential in the North American market. His association is throwing its resources behind developing the sport. "We are putting in place a strategic plan for the next five years on how to promote and grow this game," he says. Ideally, he says, national television channels would broadcast hurling games.

But there are some problems to solve first. Like cricket, hurling strikes many Americans as complex, and its Byzantine rules and roots in a distant land contribute to its inaccessibility. In 2007, a reporter with Forbes magazine traveled to Ireland's hurling stronghold, Thurles, a small town in Tipperary County, to dissect the intricacies of the sport. He seemed to have a tough go of it.

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