On any given Thursday in Centennial Park in Nashville, and in and around the city on weekends, there’s a group of people who gather to play. The sport they are playing is fast-paced and seems to require a good amount of skill. Passersby aren’t quite sure of what they are seeing – it’s familiar, but not. Some elements of the game resemble lacrosse or field hockey, but it isn’t either one. It’s something different. It’s hurling, an Irish sport, and most who come across it have never heard of it before.
And there’s good reason for that. Until April 2013, Irish sports had little to no representation in the Music City. When husband and wife John Watson and Anji Wall moved here from St. Louis in 2011, they brought their love of Gaelic sports and a lot of knowledge and history with them. John was introduced to the sport in 1995 on a trip to Ireland. He later joined a club in St. Louis, Missouri, where he met his wife. Anji comes from a long line of hurling champions, including an uncle who played at the highest level in Ireland for the Blackrock National Hurling Club and County Cork.
Hurling, known as the “fastest game on grass,” may be new to Nashville, but Irish sports have been gaining momentum in the United States over the past two decades, including right here in the South. Clubs are popping up everywhere from Hampton Roads, and Little Rock, Arkansas, to Charleston, South Carolina, and Tampa, Florida. Cities across the nation with higher Irish immigrant populations have been playing Gaelic sports, which also includes Gaelic football and camogie (women’s hurling), since they set first foot on American soil.
In a nutshell, players aim to get the ball, a “sliothar” in Irish, into the opposing team’s goal. The playing area is roughly twice the size of a soccer field, and hurlers can kick the sliothar or hit it with the hand or a hurley, a stick that has a flattened, curved end. It is a fast-paced game that is gaining momentum in the short time since being introduced in Nashville. The club currently has more than thirty members and is growing.
While Nashville may always be known for country music, it’s groups like the Nashville GAC that remind visitors what Nashvillians already know – The “Athens of the South” is so much more. It’s a city that welcomes diversity and learning something new. The club encourages anyone to come out to watch or join in to see what it is all about. They welcome those new to the sport and are happy to show why Gaelic sports have stood the test of time.
So if you are strolling through Centennial Park, perhaps to get some wisdom from Athena at the Parthenon, and see an unknown sport being played, stop and take a closer look. Because where the Greek gods are watching, Irish eyes are smiling. At least in Nashville, that is.