When someone mentions that they play the sport of hurling, inevitably people first think they're referring to curling or making a bad joke about drinking too much whiskey. In fact, hurling is actually an Irish sport —it's not that Brit export cricket—that has a growing team in Charleston.
So how does a Southern boy like me end up playing an Irish sport? Well, you bike solo across Ireland one summer and you find yourself looking for friends in interesting places. I had a vague understanding of the sport before this youthful sojourn, but I was fortunate enough to see it in action while in Galway in 2005. Lonely from the open road, I was so taken with it that when I got to puck around with some locals, I immediately procured my own ax-shaped piece of equipment called the hurl. Who knew that one day I'd be able to wield this tool in friendly competition with the Holy City's very own competitive team, the Charleston Hurling Club?
Hurling is actually quite an ancient Gaelic sport. In old Ireland, rival chieftains would compete against one another, and that spirit has carried through today. Competition is still quite high in Ireland, and hurling is truly a national sport that is wrapped up in one's county identity. Cork, Tipperary, and Kilkenny are some of the top squads.
Truly a high-intensity, high-scoring field game, hurling pits 15 players against one another. From a distance it may look like field hockey, but players are really hitting a ball sometimes like a baseball. The ball is called a slither (very Harry Potter, no?) and teams move it down a football-sized field either by striking it on the ground, striking in the air, hand passing, or soloing, where a player runs with the slither balanced on the boss (or head) of the hurl. Needless to say the latter is quite tricky and involves lots of skill.
This is often where the confusion with field hockey and lacrosse comes in. Hurling scoring is achieved by either hitting the ball "over the bar" of a goal — think of a football goal — or between a soccer-like goal. Striking above and between the two posts earns one point, while hitting it in the goal earns three points.
Now, you can't pick the ball up off the ground with your hand. Instead, you have to pull (or scoop) it up with the hurl, and then into your hand. (If you're having trouble visualizing this, all I can say is YouTube this shit.) Or better yet, swing by Hampton Park on a Wednesday evening or Sunday morning like I did. There you'll see the Charleston squad in action.
One of the founders, Ryan Shrum, got his start playing hurling in Indianapolis. "I'd been in Charleston a month and was desperate to get back on the pitch again," Shrum says. "I heard about an Irish/American couple in town who was also looking to play."
That Irish expat turned out to be Brendan Dagg. Hailing from County Offaly, Dagg grew up playing the sport.
"I started playing hurling from as early as I could walk and could hold a hurl at about age six," says Dagg, who got his start with his local club, Tullamore.
When Dagg moved to Charleston to take a job with Boomtown, he says he didn't think hurling would take off here. "There isn't a very big Irish population," he explains. "However, Ryan had seen it grow among American players in Indy, so he was sure that the same could happen here."
And indeed it has. With Dagg's help, Shrum began to drum up interest via Facebook. They reached out to some Citadel cadets and even got the nascent club to participate on Irish night at a RiverDogs game, a move aided, Shrum says, by Guinness specials.
As of right now, the club boasts 50 active members and regularly turns out 30 players to a bi-weekly practice. "No one had played in an organized way before the club in Charleston," says Shrum. "But we've remained competitive in the southeast against teams that boast more Irish fellows which is rather rewarding." That's thanks in no small part to the level of dedication Dagg, Shrum, and Richie Jennings (another Irish expat team member) have given to the team.
The three men spend hours running practice, organizing tournaments, and hosting after-practice pub runs. A typical practice runs two hours and begins with warm up followed by a host of skill drills. Rounding up each practice is a healthy scrimmage which wears out one and all. And the effort is not for naught. The team has hosted several Charleston tournaments, bringing in other teams from South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia and managed to hold its own.
Perhaps the best part for the players isn't just the great physical activity but the opportunity to play an age old sport with an international group of players. And Dagg assures us, just because it's Irish doesn't mean Charlestonian's can't pick it up.
"A lot of the skills that people pick up from American sports are transferable to hurling," says Dagg. "Most of all, the club has grown because it is a good mixture of athletic endeavor and social activities, which keep people coming back and telling their friends."
For more information on Charleston Hurling Club, visit charlestonhurling.com.