For many people, the only Irish culture they get to experience comes in mid-March, with jaunty music, lively dance and dark, heavy pints of Guinness.
But on athletics fields throughout central Indiana, the spirit of Ireland comes alive in competition. People knock the sliothar around with their hurleys during hurling matches or play what looks like a cross between soccer and rugby called Gaelic football.
When the games aren’t being played, the Indianapolis Gaelic Athletic Association does everything from community service projects to viewing parties of professional Irish sports.
“In other cities, it’s mainly just a sports league, like intramurals. Ours is as much a social club as an athletic club, so that’s helped bring a lot more people in,” said Tim Cabeen, a spokesman for the association.
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The Emerald Isle’s most obscure sports come to the public through the Indianapolis Gaelic Athletic Association. Local participants have the opportunity to play games such as hurling, Irish Gaelic football and camogie — popular games in Ireland that are otherwise foreign, particularly in central Indiana.
But more than offering an outlet for sports-loving residents searching for something new and those with Irish heritage thirsty for something familiar, the athletics association takes pride in providing a year-round outlet for Gaelic culture.
“Like any big city with distinct neighborhoods, Indy thrives on individuality and novelty and diversity. Despite the fact that hurling is a 3,000-year-old sport — it is a novelty to the people of Indiana,” said club member Susan Beaurain. “And there is Irish heritage here — and a strong current connection — and it’s important that people have the opportunity to know that Irish culture isn’t just Paddy’s Day and green beer.”
The Indianapolis chapter is part of a larger organizational Gaelic Athletic Association. In North America, the group oversees sports in about 50 cities, including Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit and St. Louis.
Locally, the association had its start in 2002, with a group of local residents with Irish roots playing a seven-on-seven hurling match after a wedding.
Hurling is played with a bouncing ball, called the sliothar, as players chase it back and forth, catching it and thwacking it with a hurley — a long, flat stick with a curved end. The direction of play switches rapidly back and forth, and points are scored if the ball is hit under or over the cross bar.
Stephen Quigley, a former Indianapolis resident, was one of the instigators of a larger league. Quigley had spent a semester in college studying in Ireland, and became familiar with the sport of hurling.
When he returned to the U.S., he started talking to friends about playing. They purchased some hurleys and became playing informally in Broad Ripple Park.
Eventually, Irish expatriates learned about the sessions and joined in. Colin Conlon, hailing from County Tyrone, Ireland, was named coach of the team. Ian Heraty, another Irishman from County Mayo, was elected cathaoirleach, or chairman, of the league.
“They set up a club with two teams. A lot of times, they didn’t even have enough people to fill out a match, so they’d just practice,” Cabeen said. “Back then, it was just Irish people who knew about the sport.”
The initial club had 22 people signed up to play. But the effort has grown into a semi-organized league of nearly 200 people with club games every Wednesday, Cabeen said.
Ten teams play in the weekly pub league, representing businesses all over the Indianapolis area.
Many of the club members were high school or college athletes looking for something new to do to stay competitive even in their adult lives, Cabeen said.
“They want to keep playing or stay in shape. We can explain to them how a lot of the skills they learned in their sports can apply to hurling or Gaelic football,” he said.
For example, hurling requires people to catch the sliothar on the fly, then toss it in the air and whack it down the field. Anyone who has played baseball has practiced similar moves, so the action feels more natural.
Beaurain first heard about it while attending a trivia night hosted by the Indy Hurling Club. She got to know some of the people in charge and liked their approach. They explained the intricacies of the game and invited her to come to a match.
After she did, she was hooked.
“It immediately appealed to me,” Beaurain said. “A new sport was a challenge, which I love, the people were so nice and passionate about this crazy sport, and it filled the competitive hole in my soul left after college athletics.”
The popularity of the hurling league has lead to outreach into other games, Cabeen said.
Though the hurling leagues have always been co-ed, an all-women’s version called camogie was organized in 2010. Gaelic football, which involves bouncing, kicking or passing a ball down the field into a goal, has grown to include an adult and youth program.
The success of the club’s offerings is in part due to the significant Irish heritage in the area, Cabeen said. Indianapolis reports about 10 percent of the population with Irish ancestry, according to the 2010 Census.
That close knit community has helped make the organization a cultural force in the area.
Members get together for children’s events on weekends, and hosted a pub crawl together in December. Trivia nights at local bars are both club bonding experiences and chances to recruit new participants.
The club hosts exhibition matches during high-profile events such as the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Indianapolis and the Shamrock Run 5K.
“We try to do things at places where people already have buy-in to Irish culture,” Beaurain said.
One of the club’s most visible activities is its participation in the Indy Irish Fest, conducted every September. Members take turns staffing a demonstration booth during the four-day festival, showing people how to knock around a sliothar or kick a Gaelic football back and forth.
“We always say once you get a ball in your hands, you’re already into it. You’re hooked,” Cabeen said.
Cabeen was recruited to the league himself during an Irish Fest demonstration.
He studied Irish literature from IUPUI, and had studied in Ireland during his college years. Hurling and other Gaelic sports became a way to reconnect with that culture.
“I’m not from Ireland, but I have an Irish background,” Cabeen said. “For me, as an Irish person, I wanted to give it a try. That’s what probably half the people who come in do.”
Indianapolis Gaelic Athletic Club
What: A central Indiana-based organization aimed at promoting traditional Irish and Gaelic sports to adults and youth.
Who: The club is open to anyone, and leagues are available for kids as young as 5.
Hurling: Considered the national sport of Ireland, it involves players catching a hitting a small ball called a sliothar with a curved stick called a hurley. Points are awarded for balls that go under or above a goal bar.
Camogie: An all-women’s version of hurling.
Gaelic football: The most popular sport in Ireland, it involves moving a ball roughly the size of a soccer ball up the field using a combination of passing, bouncing, and kicking the ball. The aim is to get the ball into goals on either end of the field.
How to get involved:
Registration is now open for upcoming summer leagues, with play beginning April 10.
People can learn more by requesting more information on the club’s Website, or by going to Facebook.
Though matches start in April, people can join throughout the season and the year.