Buenos Aires hurling: not enough sticks, too many fights

The Hurling Club of Buenos Aires was set up in 1922, with a Corkman as its president

The current president ofthe Hurling Club is Ronnie Quinn – who is a proper porteño, or Buenos Aires native, as well as a third-generation Irishman

The current president ofthe Hurling Club is Ronnie Quinn – who is a proper porteño, or Buenos Aires native, as well as a third-generation Irishman

 

What comes to mind when you think of Buenos Aires: crumbling colonial architecture, gorgeous in its faded grandeur. The cafe where Borges used to have his breakfast. Tango. Gauchos, even. But not hurling, surely?

Yet there is a public park called Plaza Irlandesa in the quirky Caballito area of the city where, on August 5th, 1900, a demonstration game was played in order to display the delights of hurling to locals and immigrants alike. And in the western part of Buenos Aires, in a district that goes by the improbable name of Hurlingham, there is a sports club known to all and sundry as “Hoor-LING”.

The first record of hurling in Argentina is from 1887 and 1888

These days the Hurling Club of Buenos Aires is known more for its prowess at hockey and rugby than for Gaelic games. But it was set up as a proper hurling team in 1922, with James Patrick Harte from Co Cork as its first president.

On the club’s website there is an account of the history of hurling in Argentina, in both Spanish and English, written by its current president Ronnie Quinn – who is a proper porteño, or Buenos Aires native, as well as a third-generation Irishman. “The first record of hurling in Argentina is from 1887 and 1888,” he writes, “three to four years after the founding of the GAA, when Irish immigrants and those of Irish descent began playing the game in Mercedes and near the Passionist monastery of Saint Paul in Capitán Sarmiento.

Detailed information from those early years is, understandably, scant. “It is likely that the games being played were largely un-codified and not competitive in nature,” Quinn writes. “No information exists as to the motivation of the first players of hurling or their country of origin.”

The country held plenty of attractions for Irish emigrants: it was independent, it was Catholic, and there were jobs to be had on its high-quality farmland

Why hurling, you may ask? Well, it goes without saying that it’s a spectacular sport. And it was encouraged by the Catholic Church as a way of nurturing Irish identity, and ensuring religious adherence, among the Irish in Argentina. The country held plenty of attractions for Irish emigrants: it was independent, it was Catholic, and there were jobs to be had on its high-quality farmland.

Amazingly, there were 20 hurling teams in Buenos Aires at one stage, many with names that reflected their Irish associations: La Plata Gaels, Saint Patrick’s Mercedes, Fahy Boys and New Lads.

But there were problems. The principal one was a shortage of hurleys; people tried to grow ash trees in Argentina so that the sticks could be made locally, but the trees grew too fast and the wood didn’t offer the necessary combination of strength and flexibility. Hurleys had to be imported, which was always expensive and, during major upheavals such as the second World War, impossible.

A bigger problem was on-pitch violence. Fighting often broke out during games, partly, it is said, because the teams were based around families. The idea was to get people together, but in a good way – and so it was decided to discontinue competitive hurling and just have one exhibition game every year.

The social aspect of these clubs is hugely important. For young Argentinians of Irish descent, it’s a way of keeping in touch with their past

The clubs switched from hurling to hockey. At which point we should perhaps note that the name “Hurlingham” has nothing to do with hurling but comes from another historic Buenos Aires club, The Hurlingham Club, founded in 1888 by the English community in the area in reference to the upmarket Hurlingham Club on the banks of the Thames.

Hockey, for both boys and girls, is now Hurling Club’s top sport, with rugby and tennis close behind. But they keep up the Gaelic games as well, with help from the GAA in the shape of sponsored summer camps, and came to Ireland in 2013 to take part in a hurling festival during The Gathering.

The social aspect of these clubs is hugely important. For young Argentinians of Irish descent, it’s a way of keeping in touch with their past. And the delights of hurling are still appreciated – in several languages. “Se dice que es el deporte más rápido del mundo sobre césped y dado que tiene pocas reglas el juego tiene pocas interrupciones y es muy continuo,” it says on Hurling Club’s website, hurling.com.ar. Or "It is said to the world's fastest field sport, and has few rules because the game is free flowing with few interruptions." 

Amen to that, say we.

– If you know of an Irish connection which would interest readers of this column, please email awallace@irishtimes.com with details of the story, as well as your contact address.

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