Ireland’s national sport, hurling, has a foothold in Philadelphia

Pat Loeb
July 23, 2019 - 7:30 am

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — This weekend, the Philadelphia region will host the Continental Youth Championships for the sport of hurling.

Hurling is the national sport of Ireland, but it has an international following, including a team in Philadelphia that is among the best in North America. They've made it to the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) finals in three of the last five years.

"We're still chasing that win," says Ben Liptock, team captain.

The game is difficult to describe and the passion the Irish feel for it even more so.

It's extremely physical. Some have described it as "field hockey played at eye level," but it involves elements of many sports played with a ball and a stick.

Or perhaps, it should be said those other sports — lacrosse, baseball, handball — involve elements of hurling; it's been played in Ireland since before recorded history. 

The athletes are as skilled and committed as any pro, but they're not paid. They're friends and neighbors, playing for their own county in the All Ireland Finals, an event that commands more united attention in Ireland than the Super Bowl or World Series does in America.

Its appeal seems to be contagious. Liptock discovered it on a trip to Ireland with his brother.

"My brother thought it'd be good to get a couple hurleys and hit it around in the park," he recalls. "An Irish guy approached us and told me I was holding it wrong and told me there was a team in Philadelphia and they're looking for people and, next thing you know, I was out at a practice under 95 in the wintertime."

Tara Chadwick, on the other hand, comes by her enthusiasm naturally. She's the captain of the camogie team, the female but nearly identical counterpart to hurling. 

"As soon as I was born, there's a hurley in your hand back home in Ireland," she says. "Every lunchtime at school we played, so you have a stick in your hand all day every day."

Chadwick and Liptock were among the 20 or so players who gathered one recent, sweltering evening in Mander playground in North Philadelphia for a grueling practice.

Running, dodging, swooping, swinging, they went through drills before scrimmaging.

"It's a really fun game," said Anthony Picozzi, explaining why he was inviting heat stroke to hone his technique. "It's really fast, it's really skilled. There's a certain challenge that comes with it."

There's a challenge, when playing in the U.S., even to finding other teams to play against. The team closest to Philadelphia is Allentown. There are a couple of new teams in South Jersey, but outside of that, the Philadelphia team travels to Baltimore, D.C., Pittsburgh and beyond during the season.

Katrina Terry joined the camogie team, finding that it combined the field hockey and softball she'd played growing up. But she found there's more to it.

"It's really challenging to pick up all the different skills," she says, "and there's only one ball, and you've got 26 people on the field chasing the ball, so, you can imagine how competitive it gets when a cup's at stake."

Several cups will be at stake in the GAA Continental Youth Championships, beginning Thursday, at Line Road Field in Malvern. Under-18 to under-6 teams from the U.S. and Canada, even a few from Ireland, will compete in hurling, camogie and Irish football. There will be an estimated 2,500 young athletes in all, playing hundreds of games.

They need volunteers, by the way, which could be your chance to see the games first-hand, for free. 

For more information, visit the GAA Continental Youth Championships website.

The adult Mid-Atlantic finals are scheduled for Aug. 23-25 in Leesburg, Virginia.