An Irish tradition builds a following in Kalamazoo

There's more to the Irish than Guiness, shamrocks, and a good Gaelic tune. There's also the competitive side that created what is believed to be the world's oldest field game, hurling. Now it's being played in Kalamazoo.
On a bright, clear Sunday afternoon in April at the end of a cold and gloomy week, Upjohn Park on the edge of Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood buzzed with activity. Children swung on the playground, mothers pushed strollers, men played three-on-three, and teenagers did kickflips in the skateboard park. A helicopter drowned out the sounds of a train whistle and hip hop booming from a parked car as it flew overhead, toward Bronson Hospital, which loomed in the background.

And on a patch of green on Walter Street adjacent to Kik Pool, a group of nine men in their 20s and 30s, wearing shorts and cleats, wielded flat axe-shaped sticks like warriors, and alternately chased, balanced, and smacked baseball-like balls, sending them soaring through the air with a satisfying thwack.

It was the second practice of the year for the Kalamazoo Gaelic Athletic Association, a club formed in 2014, and the game they played is hurling, a wildly popular worldwide team sport thanks to the Irish diaspora. It originated more than 3,000 years ago, combines the skills of lacrosse, baseball, and hockey, and is touted as the “fastest game on grass.”

“It’s a very fast, fluid, just exciting game,” says Mike Jones, who started the local club last year and coaches the team. “There’s really nothing in the rules or anything that slows down game play. After a score there’s no reset. If there’s a penalty it’s very brief. There’s no offsides. You can score from anywhere.”

Jones moved to Kalamazoo in 2013 from Indianapolis where he learned about hurling at an Irish Festival.  “I was actually drunk and got recruited and agreed that it looked like a fantastic thing to do,” he says with a laugh. “At my first practice I learned the basics and I went to a scrimmage. I put a helmet on and they said, ‘You’re playing this position.’”

From that point forward, his commitment to the sport took off.

“I grew to love the game but then just the club itself and the way it was set up--the camaraderie--plus it was competitive, which just added to it,” he says. “Then when I left Indy I missed it and I just said, ‘I’ll start a club.’ Kalamazoo seemed like a somewhat forward thinking place and with the colleges here I thought it might pick up some traction.”

Hurling has been played in the United States since the Irish began immigrating here, with the largest clubs in places one might expect, including New York, Boston, and Chicago. But it’s recently gained significant attention in cities such as St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee. And in the past 10 years, the sport has gained popularity among university athletes, with clubs cropping up at Purdue, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, among others. Jones said he’d be “totally down for coaching” a local collegiate team if the interest is there.

The Kalamazoo GAA officially has 13 players registered this year, the majority of whom are new to the sport.

“We’re all basically beginners,” says Alex Quinlan, who has returned for a second season with the club.

As the players practiced hand catches and passes and how to lift the ball off the ground with the hurley, a couple of guys wandered over from the nearby basketball courts.

“What’s that game you’re playing?” one asks. Quinlan quickly put into their hands a hurley, the axe-like stick made from the root of the ash tree also known by its Irish name, camán, and a sliotar, the ball that looks like a baseball with a raised seam.

“You can run with the ball in your hand for four steps at a time, but then you have to bounce it off the stick or pass it,” Quinlan explains. The men struggled to lift up the ball from the ground, which can only be done with the hurley. “Trust me, I’m very athletic, and I know you’ve seen me play basketball,” one of them says. He promised to come back and keep trying.

The Kalamazoo GAA is eager to recruit new players and welcomes all interested men and women who are 18 and older. Right now they’re focusing on hurling, but they hope to eventually add camogie, women’s hurling, and Gaelic football, which is like hurling with a soccer ball. They belong to the Midwestern Division of the North American County Board in the United States Gaelic Athletic Association.

Last year they competed in tournaments in Akron and Indianapolis, and this year they’ll play in the Chicago GAA Tournament on May 16 and the Indianapolis Invitational Tournament on June 20.

“Anybody that likes sports would be interested to try it once--if you’re even halfway interested in something new or different,” says Ron Strzelecki, treasurer of the Kalamazoo Irish American Club that hosts the annual Irish Festival and St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “I think when people are exposed to the culture they enjoy what they see. For example, I think there are a lot of people who don’t know they like Irish music until they hear it.”

And activities such as the GAA are important in Kalamazoo for both fun and tradition. “It adds to the culture of the city having more things to do to make it a cool city,” Strzelecki says, “and if you don’t even try to make a connection to the past it will be lost.”

Cultural significance is important to Liam Hickey, a Mattawan man involved in the club who grew up in County Clare in the West of Ireland and won county medals for hurling there in the 1970s. “If people of Irish descent wanted to emulate being more Irish, it’s a cool way to do something that’s unique instead of just Guinness and shamrocks. We celebrate our Irishness, but there’s more to it than that, and Irish sports are a part of that,” he says. “It’s really neat to be able to show a side of Ireland that a lot of people are very surprised about.”

Hickey is excited to share his love of a game that draws upwards of 80,000 fans to championship tournaments in Ireland. “It’s like football here. Going all the way back to mythical times it’s a big part of being Irish,” he says. “I’m past my prime but still fit enough to do drills and bring anecdotes and bring more Irishness to it. There’s not that many born Irish around, you know.”

It’s both sport and culture that brought Sean Martyn, a sophomore marketing major at Western Michigan University whose parents are from Ireland, to the field. He grew up around hurling in an Irish neighborhood on the south side of Chicago but never played because of the costs and travel distance to games. But the Kalamazoo GAA has made a lifelong desire a reality. “My parents are very excited,” he says. “My brother’s very jealous.”

Another player, Josh Frasure, who held a hurley for the first time that afternoon in Upjohn Park, left practice with a huge smile on his face. “I’m hooked,” he says.

For more information or to get involved visit the club’s website or their Facebook page.

Marin Heinritz has spent 15 years writing freelance in Boston, San Francisco, and Kalamazoo. A Kalamazoo resident, she teaches journalism and creative writing at Kalamazoo College.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.