Most people have no idea what hurling is.
Even many Irish-Americans who pride themselves with being “experts” on things such as traditional Irish foods, drink, and songs probably have never heard of it, let alone be able to describe the game.
Some might mistakenly confuse it with Road Bowling, another Irish sport where players throw a ball along a predetermined course on country roads. Even worse, some might confuse it with curling, a shuffleboard-like winter game played on ice.
In fact, hurling is a traditional Irish sport played on a field between two teams of 15 players each.
There are a few sports it can be compared to, and while it doesn’t share the same origins with field hockey or lacrosse, in many ways hurling can appear as a sort of hybrid between the two.
Players use a stick known as a “hurley” which features a paddle-like end to swat at a ball on the ground or to scoop it up and then bat it downfield.
There are two ways to score: a goal is worth three points when the ball is put into the net and a point is scored when a player sends the ball between two uprights above the net.
The same field and scoring system is used in Gaelic Football.
The fast-paced nature of hurling and its Irish origin are what attracted Hawley’s Nick Del Buono.
In spite of his Italian surname, he claims Irish heritage through his mother’s family, but, like many players, most aren’t “100% Irish” and the league certainly doesn’t discriminate.
Similarly, like many of his teammates, he was introduced to the sport through a friend.
In Nick’s case, it was Pat O’Donnell, a college buddy, who is the captain and a co-founder of the Allentown Hibernian’s Hurling Club, which is now in its fifth year and is poised to head to the National Hurling Finals provided they can get past their archrival Philadelphia Shamrocks.
Organized sports are something relatively new to Del Buono.
“I didn’t play any sports at Wallenpaupack,” where he graduated from in ‘01. “I played some intramural and club sports at DeSales University, but hurling is the first sport I’ve ever played where travel, regular practices, and competition are a regular thing.”
Now in his third year of play, Nick splits much of his time between the Lehigh Valley and the Lake Region. He often drives from Hawley to Allentown or Emmaus for games.
Weekends can mean trips to Philadelphia, Washington, or Boston for matches against clubs in those cities.
“There are clubs scattered all over the country,” he explains. “While they’re all important, beating Philly means we can go to Nationals and if we win there the club gains more status.”
While still a relatively new club, the Hibernians play in the Junior-C division. Winning at Nationals will allow them to start a Junior-B team and hopefully, after a few years and more development, a Junior-A team.
“There is a Senior division with As, Bs, and Cs as well, but most of the guys who play at that level are from Ireland or are Americans that have years of experience playing from playing in clubs with youth teams.”
Youth development is very important to the Hibernians and Del Buono is the club’s Youth Officer. In addition to playing for the Junior-C team, he also is a coach for youth hurling and Gaelic football.
“We have kids from 6-15 that hurl,” he states.
“Often we scrimmage or drill but we have 12 or so kids that will regularly go to Philly and play, or they have kids that come to Allentown. Sometimes we combine with Philly to play other areas if we can’t get enough for a far-away trip. It’s only the second year for our youth program, so there’s a lot of room to grow.”
Del Buono isn’t the only Buckhorn in the club. Joining him this year is fellow Wallenpaupack grad Barret Kohrt. The former soccer and tennis player is taking well to the new sport, but has limited to his play to the Allentown Sports League.
This is basically the regular team split up into three smaller teams, coupled with newer players still learning the game that meets once a week. The Sports League plays on a smaller field and uses fewer men but serves as a good practice session for the veteran players and a good introduction to the game for newer players, such as Kohrt.
“There isn’t much I can draw on from tennis,” he begins.
“There are similarities to Soccer when it comes to strategy and field awareness. Like Soccer, in Hurling you might have to pass backwards in order to find an open man. Similarly, a few guys can be battling for possession of the ball on minute and within seconds the ball can be flying in the air heading to the other side of the field.”
The game itself is fast-paced, but surprisingly not as rough as one would expect. Body-checks, tripping, pulling the jersey, wrestling, and pushing are all illegal moves. Players can directly hit the sticks of other players to block shots or passes but slashing another player with the stick is a foul.
You don’t have to fully understand the rules to enjoy watching a match and while it obviously takes some time to develop the skills to play well, there aren’t a lot of rules to confuse players or bog down play.
“It’s a pretty simple game.” Del Buono says. “I think that’s what attracts people to the sport.”
Del Buono hopes the sport will grow. There are over 30 clubs scattered throughout the country. In some larger cities such as Boston and Chicago there are clubs that have several teams. New York has its own league with multiple Senior and Junior teams.
“While we’re focused on own club’s growth and development, we certainly hope to see other clubs form in Eastern Pennsylvania. A new club, say, in Scranton would enhance the regional play and add to the competition that exists between Allentown and Philadelphia.”
Follow the Hibernians and learn more about Hurling by visiting the club’s website at www.pahurling.com.