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Good Sport

Jennifer Bails

Green Games

The Gaelic Athletics Club hurls for fun

Sam May (Tom Altany photo)

The afternoon is chilly and damp—weather the Irish might call soft—but the play on the Cathedral lawn is anything but. Pitt sophomore Sam May manages to fight his way out of a muddy horde of students, all whacking furiously at a ball with ax-like wooden sticks. The orb—the size of a tennis ball, but hard like a baseball—whizzes downfield, and May sprints after it.

Technically, this is just a casual pickup game. But the unusual sporting equipment has caught the eye of a Pitt News photographer. May notices the camera on the sidelines and recognizes an opportunity to show the University what the centuries-old Irish sport of hurling is all about. Just as he catches up with the ball to score an easy goal, he hits a wet patch of grass and careens to the ground, sliding several feet in mud. It’s not quite the shining moment May had envisioned, but it gets his message across.

Hurling is a rough-and-tumble blend of lacrosse and field hockey that is considered the fastest grass sport in the world. Folk legend says that Irish hero Cúchulainn defeated his enemy some 2,000 years ago by shoving a hurling ball, called a sliotar (pronounced slither), down the throat of a ferocious guard dog. That sealed hurling’s place in history as Ireland’s national pastime. Today, the game ranks behind soccer as the country’s second-most popular sport. And May, a history major studying the British Isles, is bringing this craze to Pitt’s campus by forming the University of Pittsburgh Gaelic Athletics Club.

The fast pace and rough nature of hurling have been drawing students who are attracted to sports with an edge, May says. In the game, 15 players use sticks, or hurleys, to send the sliotar racing as fast as 100 miles an hour down the pitch, or field. Points are scored by hitting the sliotar into a net or through goalposts. Falling down every so often is all just part of the fun. “It can look daunting with people bumping into each other and a lot of sticks swinging around,” he says. “But anyone can be taught how to play hurling. It’s not that hard if you practice.”

Through the club, May is sharing his lifelong appreciation for Irish history and culture with his fellow students. He learned how to play hurling by watching matches on the Internet and practicing with friends during summers in his backyard in Doylestown, Pa. At Pitt he began teaching others, and now several dozen students have joined the co-ed Gaelic Athletics Club to play hurling; the women’s version of the game, named canogie; and a related sport called Gaelic football.

This spring, when the organized games begin, the Cathedral lawn will surely have a touch of Irish green.

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