US warriors champion the warrior sport of hurling

“THIS is a warrior sport and we are warriors” — that’s how one American soldier explains his love of hurling, a passion shared by fellow members of a United States National Guard unit from Concord, New Hampshire.

Lieutenant Colonel Ray Valas, of the New Hampshire National Guard, has no family ties in Ireland and had never heard of the sport until 2005. That was the year he and his comrades “discovered” hurling — not at Croke Park or any other playing field, but on a television at Shannon Airport passing through after a year’s deployment in Iraq.

“We came through Shannon for the morning refuelling stop and I happened to see a little bit of a hurling match on a TV screen by the bar, and a bunch of us said: what is that sport?”

Members of Charlie Company liked what they saw, particularly the passion and the power. They viewed it as a cross between field hockey, lacrosse, rugby and even baseball. Lt Col Valas, the infantry unit’s commander, also saw it as a means of retaining the bond of comradeship formed in the cauldron of Iraq.

“It was a busy year in Iraq for us so we wanted to keep that tie there, keep that bond,” says Valas.

The fact that hurling is said to date from the mystical Celtic warrior era was a good way to get the soldiers interested. “Something about that resonates with soldiers and it made it easier to try and hook guys into trying it out. It was the gut check: you say ‘this is a warriors’ sport, are you a warrior or not?’”

The result is the Barley House Wolves, a team formed in 2006 that not only provides recreation, but has produced an unbreakable bond from the battlefield to the playing field. That team spirit so impressed the military command in Washington that the Pentagon’s own TV channel, tPC, commissioned a half-hour documentary on the Wolves. “Two fields, One Team”, broadcast to an audience of 30 million viewers in the US last Monday, not only tells the story of the unit’s love of hurling but also shows how skilful the soldiers have become in a short period of time. Upon their return to US soil in 2005 they began playing in the Junior C grade in New Hampshire. Now they have even competed at the US National championships.

Hurling is gaining in popularity in the US, and not just with soldiers. Six members of the Belmont police and fire departments began playing with the Wolves in the past year, among them Christopher Gustafson. “We have competed against teams from Worchester, Portland and Allentown, Pennsylvania,” says Gustafson. “It’s growing in the US. It’s national already and there are national championships.”

The Wolves even managed to secure a coaching session with Cork captain Kieran Murphy.

It’s all a far cry from 2005 when one of the original team, Sergeant Lore Ford, thought it was all going to be a bit of a laugh or a public relations exercise.

Now, he and the 30-strong team spend most of their free time with hurleys in hand.

“Not a lot of people around here play it,” says Sergeant Ford, “so anyone of us can say we are among the 10 best hurlers in New Hampshire and we’re not lying.”


Picture: ON THE ATTACK: A member of the US National Guard Charlie Company team, the Barley House Wolves, shoots a point. The soldiers took up hurling after seeing it on TV at Shannon Airport on the way back from Iraq.

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