Tampa Bay Irish Sports Club takes hold at Lakewood Ranch

Lakewood Ranch club brings introduces hurling, Gaelic football to area

jajones1@bradenton.comJune 29, 2014 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- By some estimates, hurling has been played in Ireland for 3,000 years.

And now hurling, described as the fastest sport on grass, has quietly attracted a growing band of fiercely dedicated players at Lakewood Ranch.

Recently, the Tampa Bay Irish Sports Club won the annual Peach Cup in Atlanta, representative of the Southeast championship.

While the Lakewood Ranch-based team also plays Gaelic football, a cross between rugby and soccer, coach and full forward Ciaran Dwyer clearly favors hurling.

"Where I am from, hurling is a religion and Gaelic football is frowned on," said the native of Kilkenny County.

"There is almost a purity about hurling that a lot of Irish don't believe that Gaelic football has," Dwyer said.

Players use a tomahawk-shaped stick called a hurley to strike a ball called a sliotar. A ball struck between the opponent's goal posts is worth three points. A ball struck over the cross bar counts as a single point.

Players may catch the ball in the air with their hand, but they are required to scoop it off the ground with the hurley. They may run with the ball in their hand four steps, but then have to either bat it away, or balance it on their hurley as they run.

The ball can also be kicked or passed with the open hand.

"There is a lot of running involved. It's fast-paced and has shoulder-to-shoulder checking. It's like ice hockey on grass," said captain John Hanlon, 47.

Hurling is played without pads, and only in the relatively recent past has a helmet and facemask been required.

Hanlon, who played the sport growing up in New York, began searching the internet for a hurling team in Florida. He found only one, and that was in Orlando.

Hanlon then began recruiting players for a local team in the Bradenton area.

"We have had a lot of players who have come out," Hanlon said.

There are several differences in how the sport is played in the United States, compared to Ireland.

"We typically play seven on a side, rather than 15, and we play on a smaller field," Hanlon said.

Bill Quaid, 52, a native of Limerick, signed on as goalkeeper and sponsor of the team.

"It's a very exciting game to play, a great workout, and a great social experience," said Quaid, who owns a painting company.

Ed Kelly, 49, began playing hurling on St. Patrick's Day of 2013, when he heard about a demonstration game at Lakewood Ranch.

"I ended up playing half the hurling game, and the entire Gaelic football game," Kelly said.

"My grandfather used to take me to see Gaelic football games in Boston," Kelly said.

Like many of the players, Kelly believes the game helps him tap into his Irish heritage.

Tampa Bay Irish Sports Club is an official Gaelic Athletic Association team. When Tampa Bay competed for the Peach Cup, it was combined with the Orlando club, much the way that county competes against county in Ireland.

"In the eyes of the GAA, all the clubs in Florida are one team," Kelly said.

The "youth movement" in the Tampa Bay Irish Sports Club is represented by Austin Rushnell, 23, a 2009 Lakewood Ranch High graduate who is a history major at the USF.

Rushnell learned about hurling during a visit to Dublin. He searched the internet and found that Hanlon was starting a team in Lakewood Ranch.

"It's been excellent. I love it," Rushnell said.

He plans to pursue a masters degree in medieval Irish Christianity in Ireland and perhaps will be able to continue to play hurling there.

Brittany Mulligan, 21, plays camogie, the women's version of hurling.

Mulligan, who majored in journalism at USF, says camogie is fun and that being part of a team is like a family experience.

Scott Cooper, who has been playing hurling for about six years, got his start in Akron.

"I was pleased that the sport has taken hold in Florida," he said.

As is Ciaran Dwyer.

"I get a kick out of seeing Americans take quickly to the game," Dwyer said.

"People in Ireland will say hurling is the most Irish thing they have, even more than dancing," he said.

The team practices 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the county park next door to Lakewood Ranch High. For more information, visit the Tampa Hurling Facebook page, or call 941-243-9904.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter@jajones1.

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