Last month an extraordinary event took place in Sydney for lovers of the Gaelic game hurling.
The proclaimed “Liverpool and Manchester United” of the hurling world took to Spotless Stadium to contest the inaugural Wild Geese Trophy.
Galway emerged triumphant over Kilkenny after staging a thrilling comeback in the clash of the Irish titans. It was the first time two elite 15-a-side Irish teams had taken to the field in the southern hemisphere.
So who better to ask about the action, and the inroads hurling is making in Australia than Irish expat, hurling player, Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) of Australasia bigwig and the host of podcast G’Day GAA, Liam Lenihan, who played for Victoria against NSW* in the curtain-raiser.
What was the atmosphere like?
We think there was around 12,000 which wasn’t bad for a first year – the Sydney Irish Festival, only the first time it’s been held. They plan to hold it every two years.
There were definitely a lot of Irish expats but I do reckon that Irish people brought Australians along. I know for instance my wife’s family are from Sydney and I brought her brother, her aunt and uncle, her niece and nephew and they would never have seen hurling before. So I reckon a bit of that happened where Australian friends were brought along to see it and they loved it.
How did the newbies to hurling react?
I think what’s good about it for someone who’s never been is the constant action – even if you’ve never been to a game before you’re immediately taken in by it because there is so much going on and the speed at which the ball moves. It’s not like soccer or rugby – I like all those sports – but you’re guaranteed action, there’s never going to be a boring game.
How long have you been associated with the game?
Oh look I’ve been following the game from when I was a few years old… I’ve been playing it since maybe five or six. I’m involved in the hurling club here in Melbourne (Garryowen). I still play and I’m involved in administration as well.
There’s a huge Gaelic athletic community in all the major capital cities in Australia. So we have a strong playing base not just hurling but Gaelic football, ladies football and ladies hurling which is called camogie? We have around 700 players in Melbourne, 1200 in Sydney, another 700 in Perth and then it drops off a little in the other capital cities.
What’s the appeal of hurling?
Everywhere in the world there's a Gaelic football or hurling team. Europe, Asia – where it’s doing massively well - or in the Middle East, there’s great competitions, like it's huge. And the big thing about it is, as an expat, if you do move overseas it’s an instant community. You’ve got friends for helping you settle in, job opportunities, finding a place to live… You’re with Irish but they’re letting you know how things work in the country that you’re in.
Is hurling difficult to play?
Hurling is a bit more of a challenge. Gaelic football especially in Melbourne and in Sydney is very easy for Australians to take up because they’re familiar with Aussie Rules Football and rugby. It’s not that complicated – you catch the ball, kick the ball everybody can do that. But Hurling is not one you can take up straight away because there’s so much to it. There’s a lot of basic skills that take a while to master. It can be done but it just takes that little bit longer.
Is the game getting more traction in Australia?
The big push on now in Melbourne is to start kids in hurling and Gaelic football. You can go to a place called Gaelic Park and we have between 60 and 100 kids every Sunday morning ranging in age from four to 15 learning how to play. A lot of them are kids of Irish parents, some of them aren’t. But I think they all love the hurling because it’s something completely different. And in fact those kids played at half-time at the Kilkenny–Galway game in Sydney. They drove up in a bus for nine hours and made a weekend out of it. So there’s a huge push on in Melbourne to promote the games to that demographic. And we want everyone there – we don’t want just Irish, we want kids from the local area.
* NSW defeated Victoria