If you had your wits about you last Sunday in Thurles, you might have seen a club outing at the Cork-Waterford match, but they came a lot further than from Mallow or Dungarvan.
The Hartford Kevin Barry’s hurlers toured Ireland this week, and Semple Stadium was one of their stops. Gaelic games have been played in Hartford since 1914, and in 1968 the Connecticut city team won a junior football championship, but hurling had faded until members Dick Edmonds and John O’Brien revived it.
“They’ve brought us to where we are now,” said club chairman Paul O’Sullivan. “Hartford’s halfway between Boston and New York, so we wouldn’t get many of the students who come out for the summer, though we play teams from those cities.
“Now, probably 80/85% of our hurling team are American-born.”
How did that happen? Team manager Elliot Whitney pipes up: “At the University of Connecticut, we started a hurling team. My older brother Alex and his friend, John Wilkinson, started the team with a bunch of friends and it grew from there.
“Dick and the Hartford club helped us a lot and, as we went through the college programme, that became our next adventure, joining Hartford, in our hurling careers. It’s great.”
With one stroke, the great challenge facing US GAA clubs — numbers — was addressed. Edmonds says the timing of the UConn team’s emergence was perfect.
“We’d brought a youth football team back to Ireland around the same time, and John (O’Brien) and I thought we’d start youth hurling.
“UConn’s hurling team was starting around the same time and we helped each other out. Now, more than half of our team are UConn guys who also play for us. That’s the hurling in Connecticut, us and UConn.”
They have to adapt to the conditions. There are far more humid parts of America than Connecticut, but the atmosphere there can be cruel on ash.
“With the temperatures there, we found the ash hurleys were breaking too often and, as a self-funding club, that was a big cost,” says Edmonds.
“When Cultec hurleys came out it was a huge boost. We use those and Reynolds hurleys, because an ash hurley might survive a month if you don’t take incredible care of it.”
They’re looking to expand all the time, he adds.
“This is development of hurling, it’s not reliant on J1 students, who are around for a couple of months and then go back home. There’s no development of the game in that situation.
“For us, this is the nuts and bolts. It’s hard work, but if you really want to develop the game, you must get American people to play it.
“We’re building,” says O’Sullivan.
“There are more guys in Connecticut we’ll be able to tap into.
“As for facilities, the club’s base is the Irish American Home in Glastonbury. We’re one of the only clubs in New England with our own field. We have 40 kids playing football and hurling there on Saturdays, to help continue building Hartford GAA, and every year new people hear and come in.
“The goal is to continue to grow Hartford GAA. Irish people land in the city and come to the Irish American Home. Then, they realise there’s a GAA context and get involved. We all get together at the weekends and watch the championship.
“Last November, we ran a bus for the Fenway Classic in Boston. That was a great day and it’ll help the bigger picture for the GAA in the States.”
Hartford also helps out other branches of the association, says Edmonds.
“Providence started a couple of years ago and we helped them. There’s a fall (autumn) development league and we invited them in for their first matches. Then, they joined the summer league.
“We have youth and senior teams in hurling and football, so even though we’re small, it’s going well. In terms of where we’re going, in five years’ time we’d like junior B and junior C hurling teams, two adult teams, while we’re also working on a development plan for the club.
“Other clubs have had assistance from Croke Park and we have a field, but want to build our own dressing-rooms, clubhouse, hurling wall and another playing field.
“That’s planning for the next 10 or 12 years, but because we’re halfway between New York and Boston, teams from those cities come to play in our field. If we had the proper facilities, we’d be able to accommodate them better, and teams from Ireland, as well.
“Our immediate goal, though, is to get the clubs we visit here to visit us.”
Ah, yes, the trip. Hartford took on Mungret on Wednesday in Limerick and play Smith O’Brien’s of Killaloe this evening. Their first game was last Monday evening against Passage West in Cork.
“Passage is my home club, so I reached out to them,” says O’Sullivan.
“I’ve been gone 32 years, but they were hugely accommodating, gave us a great welcome and we had a great training session with Justin McCarthy there.
“We went to Thurles for Cork-Waterford and experienced the day. It was great to go out on the field after the game, all of that.”
“Surreal” is Whitney’s description of the Munster championship game.
“It was, because being in Semple Stadium for a big game... obviously this is something we do back in the States, a group of guys having some fun, so then to see those guys play it at the very highest level was something else.
“It was a fantastic experience, absolutely.”
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