What could have possibly lured Marie Welsh and two friends from southern Ireland to a freezing cold stadium in Queens, New York, on a Saturday afternoon in Novemberto lunch on $7.25 Nathan’s hot dogs slathered in red onion sauce?
“And it’s a long way to Tipperary,” Marie said deadpan.
They and 11,211 others had come to the home of Major League Baseball’s Mets to watch the first New York Hurling Classic, a tournament with the teams who made the semi-finals of the All-Ireland Hurling Championships this summer: Limerick, Wexford, Kilkenny and Tipperary.
Limerick beat Wexford and Kilkenny beat Tipperary in the semi-finals at Citi Field, and Welsh and her friends stuck around for the final, won by Kilkenny, even though their side had been routed in the real All Ireland Final in September this year. They had spent $80 each for tickets, and said it was worth it. “We’re delighted we came, despite the score,” Welsh said, before adding, “but we don’t mind. We have the All-Ireland Trophy!”
Hurling is a 3,000-year-old Irish sport which bears some, but not much, resemblance to lacrosse or field hockey. Players in helmets but no pads use a curved wooden stick with a flat end, a hurley, to advance a hard ball, a sliotar, scoring by hitting the baseball-size ball at up to 100 miles an hour past a keeper into a soccer-size goal which counts for three points, or above the crossbar for a single point.
Hurling, along with its sister sport Gaelic football, dominates Ireland’s summer sporting calendar with games played to huge crowds from June to September. The final is played before 82,000 people in Dublin’s Croke Park. The players, all amateurs, represent the county in which they were born (hurling is played throughout the 32 counties of Ireland and Northern Ireland) and so these players, and teams, are rooted in their communities. They play among their own, and for their own. It is uniquely Irish.
Hurling, which has its own hashtag, #ancientwarriorsport, is a punishing, fast-paced physical game and organizers brought it to New York after three similar events at Fenway Park in Boston in the last four years.
“It was an opportunity to introduce a sport where they have a rich tradition of Gaelic sports and hurling,” said Mark Lev, the president of Fenway Sports Management, the organizer. “There are plenty of seats available to sell here, but for the first year, we’re pleased.”
Aer Lingus sponsored the tournament, and Welsh and her friends came over as part of a package to New York, where they also took in a New York Knicks game and went shopping in New Jersey. But most of the people who came were from the New York metropolitan area.
Although the food and drink served at Citi Field were standard ballpark fare (although one beer seller was hawking cans of Guinness in the main concourse).
“Makes it a lot easier to have a match here where they can bring their kids,” John Kiely, the Limerick manager, said of the Irish in the crowd.
And most of those people were either expats or people of Irish heritage, including Brian Patrick, a resident of Staten Island who’d always wanted to see hurling in person. “It’s interesting,” he said. “It has a quick pace, which I like, and there’s contact. It’s fun.”
This version of hurling, called Super 11s, was not exactly the same game they play in Ireland. A standard hurling pitch is enormous: 140 to 160 yards long, 90 to 100 yards wide. That would be impossible to squeeze into a baseball park or even an NFL stadium, so a pitch the size of a soccer field was used in New York. There were two 20-minute halves in each game, half as long as usual.
There were 11 players instead of 15, the ball was lighter than the one used in Ireland, and there was a shot clock. In Ireland, players get a point for hitting the ball between uprights jutting from the goal, but those did not count here. A player receives six points from scoring outside a box about 20 yards from the end line, and four points from inside the box.
“From a player’s point of view, it was very, very enjoyable,” said William O’Donoghue, the Limerick captain, his bare legs rubbed raw. “It’s just a pity we didn’t get a trophy in the end.”
The idea was to give spectators a general feel for the sport – but this was not an exhibition, either. It got pretty feisty in Kilkenny’s 64-40 victory over Limerick in the title game, with Darragh O’Donovan flattening Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy with a hockey-style cross-check that earned him a red card.
Murphy seemed to be in good spirits afterwards. They don’t play this version of the game much outside of training, and Murphy thought the matches in New York were “cool. It’s really, really fast to watch, but it’s different to watch.” Later, Murphy said of the ambience, “You sort of know how much home means to people.”
The teams had done some events with their supporters’ clubs while in New York – part of the reason for their visit was to “grow” the sport – then were given some time to explore the city. Murphy and a teammate, for example, rented bicycles to tour Central Park the day before the tournament. “We didn’t expect it to be as big as it is, and we didn’t expect the hills, either,” Murphy said with a smile.
He planned to spend the next day sitting on a high stool in a pub watching NFL action, and specifically his favorite team, the Baltimore Ravens. Kilkenny will return to the US for a holiday in Orlando, and he hopes to catch a flight to Baltimore for the Pittsburgh game at the end of December.
Murphy understood that the tournament trophy hardly erased losing to Tipperary in the match for the the Liam McCarthy Cup at Croke Park earlier this year. “Give it time, and all anybody is going to be talking about is Tipperary,” he said at Citi Field.
But he’d had a good time, and even the Tipperary fans said they had a good time, too. “We want to come here again!” said Mairead Brophy, Marie Welsh’s traveling buddy.