Hurling’s walk on the wild side

HARD to imagine Lar Corbett or John Mullane coming out with that one and, indeed, neither did. The pithy statement was, rather, the summation of one of the players from a team known as the Wild Geese as they left the field following a game on Saturday.

Hailing from — you guessed it — the United States (the US Air Force, actually) the Wild Geese were one of eight teams taking part in the first Thurles Sarsfields International Hurling 13s Festival.

While none of their number is likely to have Declan Ryan chewing his pencil in the coming weeks, the team made up for their lack of the rudiments of hurling with fierce commitment, enthusiasm and pure enjoyment of the game throughout the tournament in the shadows of Semple Stadium.

As befits its status as the cradle of the GAA, Thurles is keen to promote itself as a venue for sports tourism and the weekend’s festivities are intended as a tentative first step along that road.

The grandly-named festival was the brainchild of former club chairman John Enright and, following months of planning from Michael Dundon, Liam Ó Donnchú, Enright himself and others, the reward was the sight of visitors numbering in the hundreds from around Ireland, across the Irish Sea and even across the Atlantic.

Those behind the venture hope to make the international tournament an annual event, based around the weekend of the Munster final each July.

While the words “hurling” and “international” rarely have occasion to appear in the same sentence, the Thurles event truly crossed borders and seas.

As well as attracting clubs from Meath, Derry, Louth, Kildare and Armagh it also brought two teams from London — Kilburn Gaels and Robert Emmets — along with those Wild Geese.

The latter comprised a group of US servicemen and women based at RAF Lakenhill in England who had little grounding in the game as youngsters but have developed a love of the hurley in recent years.

Such as goalkeeper Scott Daily from Nebraska, hardly a hurling stronghold, who recalled being recruited to the team by Major Tim Neylon about 18 months ago.

“I had no awareness of it [hurling] at all, growing up,” he told the Irish Examiner.

“When I saw it, I fell in love with it. I love the physicality of it and the activity of it and also the camaraderie the teams have. You may be out there on the pitch, beating each other up, but you’ll be talking and laughing about it afterwards.”

The Wild Geese mainly ply their brand of hurling in tournaments and challenge games against teams under the auspices of the European County Board, the likes of Zurich and Brussels, and after John Enright got in touch with Major Neylon about Saturday’s event in Thurles, they didn’t have to be asked twice.

The team is a curious mix of Irish-Americans, such as Tim Neylon whose roots are in in Clare and Kerry; those who may have Irish blood going further back but aren’t sure, such as Scott Daily; and those who just enjoy hurling.

Neylon played for three seasons at the Air Force Academy in Colorado before being transferred to England, where he quickly set about mustering a team.

While he never took part in the game in his younger years, hurling talk was part of growing up as a third-generation Irish boy in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“My family remembers Sunday morning when it was Mass and then over to the pitch and everyone would be out playing and the kids would be on the sidelines, and then on to the grandparents for dinner.”

But there are also those in the squad who never heard of the sport as children.

“I think that’s important, to grow the game internationally. As nice as it is to have that core group of Irish ex-pats, to grow it you need that group of people who have no connection with Ireland.”

That includes teams like the one which took to the field at a tournament in Zurich, Switzerland, issuing instructions to each other in German.

As the final scorelines in their three round-robin games indicated (one saw them on the wrong end of a 4-17 to 0-6 beating), the Wild Geese for all their eagerness were never likely to trouble Saturday evening’s final for the Tom Semple Cup.

One spectator, Fr Paddy Carley of the St Joseph the Worker parish in Salt Lake City, Utah, is originally from Thurles but moved to the US after his ordination in 1969 following his friends, sons of Tom Semple, who also joined the priesthood.

Nowadays he visits Thurles every summer and brings a group from the Irish community in Utah every second year.

“I think this [tournament] is a wonderful idea and I commend the people of Thurles Sarsfields for doing it. It’s something that can grow and become a very significant part of Thurles. The Munster final should be more than just a game, there should be a festival surrounding it.”

Ironically, yesterday’s staging of the province’s showpiece occasion at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, to the annoyance of many within both Waterford and Tipperary, was good news for the fledgling 13-a-side event as it allowed the tournament final to be held in Semple Stadium and the rest of the games at the neighbouring hurling fields.

For some taking part, it was a kind of homecoming: the likes of the Robert Emmets’ captain Aidan Fitzgerald, for example, is originally from nearby Fethard, while other “local” exiles in the London-based side included Damian McCormack (Killenaule), Kevin Bolger (Mullinahone), Paul Kennedy and Aidan Ryan (Moycarkey) and the Kilburn Gaels who were led by Tom Bergin of Moyne.

Eventually, Kilburn Gaels became the inaugural winners of the Tom Semple Cup, beating Dunboyne of Meath in the final. But, apart from that, after suffering a few beatings, will the assorted airmen and women of the Wild Geese be back?

Their response could be summed up as follows: “Hell yeah.”

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