On a sunburn-inducing Saturday in Littleton, accompanied by the occasional faint sound of bagpipes from the nearby Colorado Irish Festival, orange-jerseyed athletes slam shoulders with their opponents and sprint across a field, balancing a fist-sized ball on a paddle. This isn't football, or lacrosse, or likely any sport you've seen: It's the Denver Gaels and the Regulators Hurling Club facing off in the final game of hurling, an ancient Irish sport, before the Rumble in the Rockies Southwest Invitational Tournament hits Lowry Sports Complex this weekend.
Hurling is the "fastest sport on grass," says Brian O'Haire, who's spent three years working to organize and reserve space for the upcoming inaugural tournament. He stands on the sidelines of the game, coaching the Regulators with a Coors in hand. In between explaining the finer points of the game, he calls out substitutions and — "Don't choke up, baby, full stick!" — motivation.
At a spritely age of three millennia, hurling is alive and growing in Denver. A brief history: The sport, which involves fifteen players on a team punting, slapping and soloing (the running-while-balancing-on-a-stick act) a sliotar ball across a field, is the ancestor of both cricket and baseball. In Ireland, the strictly amateur sport is a national pastime; both deeply parochial and fiercely competitive, hurling was actually banned by England during the Middle Ages on account of its nationalist overtones. Even in the smallest towns in Ireland, says Brian McCarthy, chair of the Denver Gaels, you'll find a church, a pub and a hurling pitch.
McCarthy grew up watching hurling games in the mornings at (now-closed) Fadó Irish Pub with his Irish father, but hardly any of the Denver hurling players are native Irishmen. While traditional hubs of Irish-American immigrants, like Boston or San Francisco, have long had hurling (and camogie, its female equivalent) teams and often pay Irish players to compete for them, areas like Denver rely on word of mouth to recruit new, American-born players.
And despite the relative obscurity of the sport, it's growing, partially thanks to the increasing number of college teams. The U.S. Gaelic Athletic Association currently includes 125 clubs in fifty major cities. After the establishment of the Denver Gaels as a Gaelic football (somewhat akin to Australian Rules football) team in 1996, the scene has expanded to include ladies Gaelic football, hurling and camogie. O'Haire founded the Regulators Hurling Club, which is made up of slightly older players — he estimates the mean age of the team to be 35 — in 2015. And now O'Haire is leading efforts to bring the sport to Denver-area schools — Green Valley Elementary has a hurling team — and he'll be concentrating on getting Gaelic football, which has the benefit of a reduced overhead cost, into other physical education programs.
O'Haire explains the sport to outsiders as a cross of "baseball, field hockey, lacrosse, throw in some soccer," which means that people from a diversity of athletic backgrounds can pick it up, regardless of their physical size. But it takes two years of twice-a-week practices for players to fully master the skills and rules of the game. First, there's the equipment, imported from Ireland: the sliotar, which resembles a baseball with inside-out seams; the bladed hurl, or hurley, made of Irish ash and held in a reverse grip; the recently-mandated, face-caging helmet. Then there are the rules: twenty-minute halves, the lack of offsides (which speeds up the game considerably), fouls, how many steps you can take holding the ball (four).
As O'Haire details these rules, a player named Trina — the only woman who competes for the Gaels because she played at Trinity University in Dublin — directs a ball past the Regulators' goalie into the bottom half of the H-shaped goal. That's three points for the Gaels; if she had scored above the net, it would have been only one.
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While the game at the Irish Festival is a pub league game, casual and social enough that O'Haire doesn't keep track of the score, the sense of competition will be fierce at this weekend's Southwest Invitational Tournament: Rumble in the Rockies, which will bring many of the Southwest division teams as well as some outsiders together for some round-robin play on three giant fields. The Gaels are nursing a rivalry with Indiana, while the Gaelic football team wants revenge for a brutal triple-overtime loss to San Francisco. After the regional tournament, the season, which started in the spring, will come to a close at nationals over Labor Day weekend at San Francisco's Treasure Island.
But, because Gaelic games are as much about culture and community as they are about athleticism, the first stop on the road to nationals will be the tournament after-party.
Curious to see hurling, camogie or Gaelic football in action? Head over to the Lowry Sports Complex on Saturday, July 22, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. (pick-up games open to new players will happen Sunday, July 23, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.). Admission is free. For more information on the Rumble in the Rockies Southwest Invitational Tournament, visit the Facebook event page or the website. And if you're inspired to take up a hurley yourself, the Regulators and the Gaels are always recruiting.