Argies taking hurling into their hearts

It comes as a bit of a shock when Ronnie Quinn jokes by email that when he takes the phone call from the Irish Examiner, his English will have a “strong Julio Iglesias accent”.

The 52-year-old president of Hurling Club of Buenos Aires is a true born and bred Porteño, as the citizens of that great city are known, but, sure enough, his almost perfect English belies the perfect Irishness of his name.

Like so many of his Irish-Argentine compatriots, most of his ancestors left Ireland in the 1800s and subsequently formed a community deeply in touch with its roots.

Hurling Club was founded in 1922, emerging a couple of decades after the first organised exhibition game of hurling took place in the port city’s western barrio of Caballito, on the site of what is now a public square known as Plaza Irlanda.

Before the sport was almost wiped out in the country during World War II as ash became hard to find and the games themselves became a little too violent for the local association’s liking, the many clubs reflected the happy assimilation of the Irish: Wanderers, La Plata Gaels, Saint Patrick’s Mercedes, Fahy Boys, St Pauls, Irish Argentines, New Lads, Santos Lugares, Club Nacional to name just a few.

Hurling Club retained its name and began to focus on rugby and field hockey until eventually several club members decided it was time to reconnect with the past.

A couple of exhibition games every year served a ceremonial purpose until GAA-sponsored summer camps delivered the coaching expertise of George O’Connor and Martin Lynch five years ago and subsequently, Damien Coleman last year.

From that relationship emerged the opportunity to send a team to Galway for the Aer Lingus International Hurling Festival being held this week as part of The Gathering.

Hurling Club will compete against other teams from around the world: the US, the Middle East, Europe and Australia.

“We have been working towards this for a long time,” a proud Quinn admitted last week. “This is the fruit of a long project, the cherry on the pie.

“The GAA coaches that came over five years ago helped our kids learn how to play the game without getting injured. That was very important. I actually broke one of my fingers when a hurley slid up because I wasn’t close enough in the tackle. The first thing they teach you is how to block a ball. I was used to the hockey style of tackling.”

Adding to the intrigue of this incredibly historic sporting outfit is the fact that this year, they celebrated their 65th anniversary playing in an area called Hurlingham, no relation to the game itself but rather a traditionally British enclave which possessed a polo field more suitable to the space demanded by 30 players and 30 sticks. The grand occasion took place on the 25th of May, the same day that acknowledges their nation’s independence.

“It was a union between Argentina and Ireland … there was Argentine folk music and a hurling game.”

For players like Francisco Catan Kenny, the huge event is going to be a strange sort of homecoming. Francisco’s mother gave him the Kenny part of his name and also inducted him as a hockey play at Hurling Club.

“When we first started playing hurling again, we didn’t even dream about an invitation like this. We were just a bunch of guys who got together to have fun, but from last year up to now we started to practise very hard, and we’ve given the sport a lot of our time.

“A lot of the team members are Irish descendants and we are thrilled to visit our homeland. The Kenny tribe started in Galway so not only am I going to visit my homeland but also my home county. It’s a great chance for us to get in touch even deeper with our roots and know a little bit more about where we come from.”

His teammate Stevie Cartledge agrees that it will be special.

“It’s very hard to explain in words,” he admits. “Returning to Ireland to play hurling... I get nostalgic just thinking about it.

“Playing hurling is very new for me as I am an active rugby player. I really enjoy playing it — there are a lot of skills to learn and fortunately, it has part of the rugby toughness. I’m looking forward to keeping on playing, improving the skills and helping to pass it on to other players and maybe other places in Argentina.

“On the one hand, we have to be aware that we started playing hurling eight months ago so our first objective is being competitive enough against the other teams. Nevertheless, I have a strong feeling that we are going to do well as I believe in the skills we’ve learned and in the quality of players selected for the trip.”

The only Irish accent I do find belongs to Michael Connery who developed his hurling skills in that other overseas hurling stronghold, Warwickshire in England, before moving back with his family to Dunnamaggin in Kilkenny. He will now have the unique privilege of bringing a panel of inexperienced Argentinean hurlers to Galway.

“It’s definitely a strange feeling but I’m very proud too,” said the 30-year-old who along with Hernan Magrini Scally and Eduardo Cabrera Punter, will accompany the 21-man panel to Ireland.

“They’re very enthusiastic and they’re really keen to test themselves.”

“It’s a huge motivation for us to keep playing on into the future,” notes Quinn. “I’m sure they’re going to give a very good account of themselves. I’m very excited about it. Our immigration has been very low and we were losing our Irish identity. For me, what’s very important about this is to recapture that. Anything to expand the Irish culture.”

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