“What the bloody hell is hurling?”
Mitchell replied, as we are leaving the site on a Friday discussing our weekend plans. “Ya put 30 Irish lads on a field with big sticks, ya throw in a ball, and ya let them bate the shite out of each other for 60 minutes” I reply. That’s my go to synopsis these days when anyone queries the game of hurling. There was a time when I’d break out YouTube videos and give them a full introduction, but I’ve shortened my explanation down over the years. Just not enough hours in the day! After the mental image of 30 Irish lads swinging sticks at each other, anything I’d show on YouTube would be a let down. Let the Australians imaginations run wild I say. Gotta do your bit for the game after all!
Training is at 7:40 on a Sunday morning. That time would usually be a hard sell, but it’s the McGregor fight today so everyone wants it wrapped up good and early. Training is on a green next to Coogee Beach. By the time I arrive onto the green the group has already split into pairs. The boys are pucking about and the mood is laid back. There’s no sign of Disco Des at training so the whole congregation exudes a collective sigh of relief. Disco, as he's well known, is the bad cop in the management team. Well known for taking a fire and brimstone approach to the game and always pushes hard training sessions. It’s best to keep him hidden early in the season so new recruits aren't immediately scared away from the prospect of facing up to Des every weekend. Fearghal and McCullough are paired off together and talking plenty smack at a fair volume so everyone can join in on their pissing contest. They’re good friends, but natural enemies. Fearghal is a Meath man, and McCullough hails from Down. Probably where it all started, nothing Royal is tolerated by the Down hurling class. So, as you can imagine the nickname of The Royal's bestowed on County Meath isn't the most popular. The Down lads have an unwavering anti-crown status. The rest of us listen in and roar our approval at whoever cuts deepest. You’ll find these two clowns on every GAA team across the world. The sport just wouldn't be the same without those type of characters. I start pucking with my club mate from home, Jim is his name. Over by the edge of the park, locals out on their early morning walk often stop to figure out just what it is we’re doing. An elderly Asian lady takes a seat on a nearby bench to get a better view, eyes locked on the ball her head bounces back and forth like a puppy watching ping pong. Jim has forgotten more about hurling than most of us ever learned. The kind of guy that will quote you the stats of the game he’s just played off the top of his head. He played senior hurling with Mullinavat at home for 7 years before he came to Sydney, so he’s used to a whole different level of commitment than most of us. I suspect he misses it, but it looks like the pandemic has grounded him here for another season. Which is good for us so I'm not complaining! Seany Mac and Saville are weaving their way through the group, only stopping to confirm our attendance in the pub later. The guys are selectors, and help out with training but mostly they come for the Craic. Saville is from that generation of Wexford folk that remember 96, but were too young to drink for a month. It leaves an empty space in a grown man that can only be filled by Gate crashing house parties and playing ‘dancing at the crossroads’ at full volume. I genuinely fear for the man if Wexford ever win another all Ireland. Saville does all the little chores that go into a club that no one ever notices. Filling team sheets, umpiring games, washing jerseys etc. The club just wouldn’t work without him. Seany Mac holds the title of top recruiter, he can close a new camogie recruit within 15 minutes of introduction. The kind of guy that will serenade your girlfriend while your standing beside her. Built like a prop and smiling widely behind a jet black beard he looks a lot like a pet bear. Almost every girl he knows is trying to set him up with a friend. It’ll be the death of him. Our manager Liam blows the whistle and we rattle off a few drills and finish with a possession game. Afterwards, we head for the Ocean to cool down. We wade neck deep in sea water and talk about the McGregor fight. Some of the boys are hoping McGregor gets knocked out. Understandable I guess. The conversation steers around to Covid 19. We all know someone with the Virus back in Ireland now. Seems so far away from us on a sunny Sunday morning on Coogee beach but that's life. We soon break up, and agree to meet in the pub for 12. There are 5 hurling clubs in Sydney, it’s Pot luck what club you end up playing with. Sometimes it’s through a friend, but more often than not it’s a chance occurrence. Once you've picked your club there’s no looking back, transfers are rare. I do feel lucky that I came to Central Coast, it has a great club culture. Our ex-goalie Sean Power told me before he returned home that ‘Central Coast reignited his love of hurling.’ I understood exactly what he meant. In Sydney, hurling is not the all encompassing commitment it is with your club at home. The gym programs, meal programs, recovery sessions, tee totalling and attending weddings sober while listening to ditch hurlers talk beans about back in their day. (It’s a sacrifice I’m glad I’ve never had to make...I took my 20’s very seriously) It’s more than that. Anyone who’s ever hurled with their senior club at home will have sat in their local pub after a sore loss and felt the cold steel of a knife plunged into the back. Usually off some eejit who never hurled past under 14. Sean’s point is that this never happened in Sydney. We were lucky to have a group of lads who always had each other’s backs, win or lose. Anyone who puts on the jersey is slow to thrust a knife. They understand a bad game can come for anyone. Why do we do it?
My U14 trainer told us we were Kilkenny men and that hurling was in our blood. I don’t know about any of that. But there’s something about GAA, it’s more than a game. I am not aware of any other country that is so consumed by an amateur sport. It’s woven into the fabric of Irish life. It’s part of our identity and that Irish identity is something we just can’t escape. No matter where you are on this globe! How many of us have found ourselves in foreign cities and exotic places abandoning the pursuit of local culture for an Irish bar and a steak and Guinness pie. We find ourselves hamstrung by what’s comfortable, what’s familiar. For those of us that live away from home we feel it even more acutely. We gravitate back to our roots, to our own people. It’s not surprising when we (it’s people) are our own biggest export. We are the only country in the world to have a higher population in 1840 than now. Immigration is a part of Irish life. I always shunned the Irish bubble while travelling in my early twenties but now I have come to embrace it, it just seems natural, we are all creatures of habit. Irish pubs, bacon and cabbage, championship haircuts, the ceile band, long periods of abstinence followed by superhuman feats of alcoholism, constantly taking the piss, Mammy's brown bread, pints of Guinness, lads from Galway asking ‘Whatch the schtory?’ O’Neills training tops, rebel songs in the back of ubers, Ritchie fuckin Kavanagh! The Craic!!! Our culture revolves around it. Craic is the thread that weaves us all into the fabric of community on the far side of the world.
We may be a far cry from the Island of saints and scholars. But in the internet age where multiculturalism is replacing traditional culture I think we are doing better than most to hold our own. And why shouldn’t we? I was discussing the Australia/invasion day debacle recently with an Aussie mate of mine and he made the observation of how lucky I was to be Irish. We are one of the few Western European countries who can be proud of our history. Patriotism for him comes with the sins of his countries past, it makes him easy pickings for politically correct millennials with hemp sandals and chai latte’s. Me and Jim land at the pub for 12. (Jim’s always on time, it’s a habit that can drive a man to madness in Ireland) We are the first in. We set ourselves up in front of the big screen. The boys filter in. The beers are flowing and the Craic is good. By the time the McGregor fight comes on we are in full flow. Out of our seats in excitement. In round 2 Poirer knocks him out. The atmosphere deflates in an instant. Still watching the screen we lower ourselves back into our seats. Even the anti McGregor guys are quiet. Guess they were rooting for him in spite of themselves. He’s a gobshite, but he’s our gobshite. Nationalism baby!!
Central Coast GAA club Sydney.
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