Skills and thrills – Norman Freeman on hurling in Argentina

An Irishman’s Diary

Hurling had been brought from Ireland by the Irish emigrants who came to Argentina from 1830 onwards

Hurling had been brought from Ireland by the Irish emigrants who came to Argentina from 1830 onwards

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Many years ago I took part in a hurling puck-about at the Instituto Fahy in the Moreno suburb of Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina.

The hurlers were all teenage students of Irish descent, attending the college. They had fresh complexions and many had various hues of brown and gingery hair.

As they jostled and shouldered for the sliotar, they shouted to one another in Spanish. One of them was called Murtagh but to me it sounded like Moorrta. I was the only one there not able to speak Spanish and probably the least skilful in wielding a hurley.

The first mention of hurling came in the 1880s from the ranching town of Mercedes, which had a large Irish population

The session was being supervised by two of the Pallotine priests there – Tony Kelly, who had played for Thurles Sarsfields and Tony Stakelum, who came from a well-known hurling family in Tipperary. These lovers of the game, who have both passed on, had hurleys sent out to them from Ireland but the whistle had long since blown on hurling as a competitive sport in Argentina.

Incidentally, the Instituto Fahy is named after Bishop Dominic Fahy, from Loughrea who, in the mid-19th century, was a leading figure in the Irish community in Argentina.

The game had been brought from Ireland by the Irish emigrants who came to Argentina from 1830 onwards. The biggest wave took place between 1850 and 1870, with most coming from Westmeath, Longford, Offaly and Wexford where a form of hurling was played.

At that time there was much emphasis on ground hurling, or first-time pulling on the ball. There was immense satisfaction in having the skills to strike the flying sliotar accurately, either meeting it against its flight or propelling it onwards without having to take it in hand. With it came the exhilaration of tough physical clashes that called for courage and endurance. So, many of the emigrants had a deep regard for the sport and didn’t want to neglect it.

Apart from seeking a better life, some were attracted by the prospect of becoming landowners on the vast grasslands of the Pampas. This was a region where huge herds of cattle helped to create the wealth of the burgeoning economy of Argentina.

Many of the newly arrived emigrants had enough money to rent or buy land. Others found work on the ranches as hired hands, cattle dealers and sheep-shearers. Their aim was to save enough to eventually buy their own holdings.

Some stayed in the environs of Buenos Aires as merchants, labourers, skilled tradespeople, and teachers.

Those who were doing fairly well wrote home to Ireland and encouraged others to join them. It is estimated that in the 19th century about 11,000 Irish arrived there.

The first mention of hurling came in the 1880s from the ranching town of Mercedes, which had a large Irish population. In 1900, the Irish-Argentinian newspaperman William Bulfin, who came from Derrinlough in Co Offaly, printed a set of rules and did a great deal to promote and encourage the game. It attracted enthusiastic followers and teams were set up, often encouraged by the Irish priests in the Pallotine and Passionist orders.

Games of hurling were played at weekends. For many young Irish-Argentinians the sport was part of their heritage. Attempts were made to make hurleys from mountain ash locally but it proved to be too heavy and rigid. As a result, hurling depended on the import of hurleys from Ireland. However, the outbreak of the first World War made this impossible. Hurling gradually went into a decline. Another reason may have been that the team rivalries were so intense that matches sometimes boiled over into fights.

People in Mercedes or Buenos Aires or anywhere else in Argentina can watch on screen or laptop or PC the big games in Croke Park

After the second World War there was only a trickle of emigrants from Ireland, some of whom might have had an interest in hurling. By that time many of the clubs had turned to a sport with some similarities– hockey.

When I visited the country in 1961, hurling was no more than an occasional, nostalgic use of hurley and sliotar.

Yet in recent years there has been a very significant revival of interest in the sport. This was stimulated with the tour of the All Star hurlers in 2002. Their exhibitions of the skills, speed, vigour and continuous movement of the game enthralled the spectators.

In February 2009 the GAA sent out former Wexford star George O’Connor and leading coach Martin Lynch to set up a training camp to promote both hurling and football. It worked very well and was repeated in some subsequent years.

The Hurling Club, which had replaced hurling with hockey, has again embraced the sport. Teams from Argentina have participated in some international gatherings of GAA followers.

The revival of hurling, however limited, has been given a great impetus by the internet. People in Mercedes or Buenos Aires or anywhere else in Argentina can watch on screen or laptop or PC the big games in Croke Park or other leading venues. They can delight in the skills, thrills and physical jousts of one of the fastest and most entertaining sports anywhere.

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