Like any Bostonian worthy of the title, I grew up confusing civic pride with a fanatical devotion to local athletics. Every summer (and with luck, every fall) belonged to Red Sox, and each winter was marked off for the Celtics. This was before Tom Brady made the Patriots into a team that was likewise honored and celebrated, and far before I came to understand hockey enough to give the Bruins their due. So growing up it was all red and green, basketball and baseball, Boston summer and Boston winter.
As a kid (let's say about 8), I was convinced that basketball was an Irish sport.
I know, I know, that seems totally ridiculous, but consider my perspective. The local professional team was called the celtics and featured a winking leprechaun spinning a basketball as the team logo. And my whole mother's family, a long-line of Sullivans stretching back to County Cork, was absolutely smitten with the sport. Family legend proudly recorded that my grandfather, a man of maybe 5' 7" was an absolute terror on the hardwood, and several state basketball trophies around the house attested to this talent.
But the more I learned about basketball, and I learned a lot growing up in Boston, the more I grew suspicious that this game had nothing to do with Ireland. Irish-Americans might love it and cherish it, but that seemed to stem from their American heritage and not the mystical Irish roots I reserved a deep curiosity for. I found Basketball everywhere. Every major city in America had a team, and they were not all named after Irish cultural objects. In fact, none of the rest of them were. The Washington Wizards in particular led me to conclude that a basketball team names did not even have to reference real things.
But no matter. I loved basketball just the same, and possibly even more. For now I knew that anywhere I went in the US, I could play a pick-up game. It felt uniting in a way.
A few years ago, while working alongside some Irish college students working in the States for the summer, I discovered hurling. At first, I thought they were messing with me (which is something they did often). They were talking about a "Hurling Final" in Dublin, and I asked them if that was a test or something academic. They laughed like I was crazy.
Hurling is sport they told me. An Irish sport.
My interest was piqued.
What do you mean an "Irish sport" I asked.
They laughed again.
Its a sport from Ireland they said. Only Irish people play it. It's complicated, but its very old and its very important.
I asked them to explain it to me and they tried. But I became incredibly confused about what the type of field the game was played on, what these "Hurley" bats were, and how you scored. When they continued laughing at me and my struggle, I became certain that this "Hurling" was a thing they made up to tease me.
Not thinking too much of it, we went back to work.
The next day, one of Irish students brought his hurley. It looked like a canoe paddle, narrow up at the handle and broad down at the blade end. He had a ball. He balanced the ball on the hurley and began explaining the game again. I was enchanted. I followed his descriptions closely. With the hurley in hand the game began to take shape in my mind. It seemed thrilling.
The Irish students and I became good friends. When they went back to Ireland, we kept in touch, and they sent me videos of hurling matches. They were from County Cork, and they maintained that their hurling teams were the best in the Republic of Ireland. They invited me to visit and see these games first hand. But school was beginning again, and I needed my summer cash for books. Some other time I thought.
Now begins the story of that "other time." In collaboration with Colleen Brogan, a filmmaker and generous support from the AT & T New Media Fellowship at the Watson Institute for International Relations, I am preparing for a summer of examining Irish games and what they mean to the Irish. I have my hunches, but as I learned with basketball as a kid, it's best not to assume anything about the origins or meaning of sports, because context can be misleading.