St. John’s hurling into the future

The Harps play their Irish sport on Newfoundland grass

You can do almost anything with the sliotar.

You can carry it, you can throw it, you can kick it, or… you can hit it with your hurley. When you do that, it makes a satisfying thawck, and you could almost be playing baseball, except that it’s no bat you’re holding, and you’re definitely not wearing those silly pants. Because you, my friend, are hurling.

Hurling is about as traditionally Irish as it gets, and there’s no reason to think that Irish immigrants haven’t been playing it for hundreds of years in Newfoundland.

“I always wanted to play, and I finally got the chance when I came here.” —Brendan Toland

But before Brendan Toland came over from the Fair Isle, nobody was, at least, not officially. Toland helped to found the St. John’s Avalon Harps GAA Club in summer of 2009, shortly after he came to the province. It was born, as one might suspect, at Erin’s Pub, on Water St.

“This is a sport I’ve always wanted to play,” said Toland. “Since I was like 5 or 6 years old. I heard about the ancient Irish warrior hero Cúchulainn, the hound of Ulster. And how he killed an Irish wolf hound with a sliotar, the ball we use in hurling… And I was thinking ‘this guy’s like superman, except he’s Irish, and, hey, I’m Irish too.’ I always wanted to play, and I finally got the chance when I came here.”

There wasn’t a local team he could play with in Ireland, but a few months after he came to Newfoundland Toland put an article in the Telegram, and a short while after that the group was unofficially formed. In September of 2009, the Harps played at the Festival of the Sea, in Bay Bulls — and this year they’ll do it again.

Sunday Practice at Bowring Park

For the summer, they’ve got a few exhibition matches planned, and they’ll also be sending a small team to Quebec to take part in a Gaelic Football tournament, and a hurling match against the Montreal Shamrocks.

The Harps are also forming a second team in CBS — the CBS Setanta — which will bring the league membership up to two.

Michael Barrett, going into 10th grade next year, is the youngest member of the team.

“I met the lads in August,” he said. “They were playing on the pitch up by my school.” It was a fortuitous meeting. Both of Barrett’s parents are Irish, and he’d been practicing on his own for two years before he met up with the team.

For now, the club is growing slowly. Toland says that they’ve got somewhere between 20 and 40 members, but getting everybody out on the pitch has been a challenge.

With the hockey connection, it seems like Hurling might have a good chance of growing in Newfoundland. Toland jokes that ice hockey started when Hurlers had to take to the ice in winter to practice — even the term “puck” is borrowed from the original game.

The Harps are open, and friendly, and co-ed — all you have to do is find them in a park, online, or at Erin’s. Practice hard, and someday you might just get to play the sport like this:

The Avalon Harps can be found on Facebook, and practice most Sunday afternoons, at 2pm.

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