Hurling: Ancient Irish Sport Comes To Youth Correctional Facility In Oregon

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It’d be hard to guess the number of times I’ve explained what hurling is to my family and friends. They’ll ask, “Oh, is that where you throw the logs across a field?” Or, “that’s where you slide the things down the ice like a big shuffleboard, right?” I don’t blame people for not knowing. Here in the United States, looks like a combination of field hockey, lacrosse and baseball, it’s obscure. Which is why it’s so unusual that a game would be going on here.

"I came out and gave a couple of the guys shoulders deliberately. It’s all part of the sport, but I knew they’d enjoy it."

Steven Power, Columbia Red Branch hurler

I’m at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, just outside of Woodburn, Ore. A concrete path winds past brick housing units and school buildings toward the athletic fields. If it weren’t for the high, inward-curved fences and security lights around the perimeter, it’d look like a modest college campus.

I came here with the Willamette Hurling Club, which I helped start almost five years ago. We’re joined by the Columbia Red Branch, another team based in Portland. Willamette wears navy blue and gold jerseys, Columbia wears bright red.

And then there’s a dozen or so inmates, dressed in white and grey t-shirts with shorts or sweatpants. They’re finishing up some basic drills right now, learning how to pick the ball up with the hurley. Now, if you’ve ever seen a hurley, which looks like a big wooden axe, this whole thing might seem like a bad idea.

"There’s that split second in your mind of ‘what the hell are [the inmates] gonna do?'" said Steven Power, who plays for Columbia Red Branch. "Are they gonna hit each other, is there some bad blood between them?"

Bringing Inmates And Hurlers Together

The two clubs were invited here today by the Celtic Studies group, one of many cultural study programs within MacLaren. It’s the second time we’ve been here, but it’s the first time they’ve let the residents play alongside us in the game.

"You know, of course there’s a little bit of nervousness about how they’ll react to the sport," Steven said. "But their passion and focus on playing -- I really was very surprised and appreciative of the approach they took. They had all the right questions, they wanted to play the sport fairly but aggressively. Personally, I came out and gave a couple of the guys shoulders deliberately. It’s all part of the sport, but I knew they’d enjoy it."

To make things even, the players are mixed in with the residents for the game. Inmate Kyle Mahan came off the field at halftime sweaty and tired but looking pumped up.

"It’s fun man," he said. "I wanna get better at it. It’d be more fun. I cracked that one. I thought it was gonna go in."

Helping Inmates Grow

Kyle missed out the last time our club came to MacLaren, so he was all the more eager to play today. I knew I had to talk to Kyle — his tattoos gave him away. I spotted a shamrock on his leg and then four Celtic knots covering his shoulder — except his Celtic knots have skulls in the middle of them.

Players fight for possession. (Ashley Cheney/Only A Game)
Players use wooden sticks called hurleys. (Ashley Cheney/OAG)

"You know, they’re my faith," Kyle said. "But everyone’s got some demons inside of them, you know, hidden inside. It’s definitely my favorite tattoo. As far as culture goes, when I was growing up I was told, 'You’re Irish. Fight this dude and drink this much alcohol.' I kinda got in trouble a lot in school and I just was kinda all over the place, you know?"

Kyle is like a lot of the guys I met in here — made some bad choices as a teenager at the wrong place at the wrong time. But the administrators here say that’s the goal of the cultural programs at MacLaren, to give them time and opportunities to grow up. Plus, a game like hurling is perfect for getting some aggression out.

"I got hit in the arm and took a stick to the face," Kyle said. "But I had a helmet on so nothing happened, but that was a pretty fun sport, man. I grew up playing football and wrestling and I never really did anything like that."

Often when I’m talking to a potential recruit for the hurling team, they'll say, "I’m not really Irish, is that a problem?" Trust me, you don’t have to be Irish to play hurling and love it. The game here is the most diverse I’ve ever seen. Most of these guys aren’t from Irish descent. According to Steven, if you know what hurling is and you’ve played it, it goes a long way back home in Ireland.

"It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish-Irish, African-American-Irish, you pick up a hurley — you’re Irish," he explained. "It doesn’t matter what you are. You would automatically become more Irish and get more — as you call it in the U.S. — street cred. Pretty quick the street cred would be there in the pubs."

Dependent On Hurling

When I first heard about going to a youth correctional facility, I thought it’d be a great thing for the hurling team to do as a bonding trip or just to do something out of the ordinary. But after seeing how much Kyle and the rest of the guys engaged with the sport, it got me thinking about how much I depend on hurling and other sports to keep me grounded and active. When I talked with Steven about this after the game, he said he felt the same way.

"It’s been good for me, and I’m a middle-aged man," he said. "I think it’d be really, really good for these guys to get a little structure in their lives and something to really focus on."

I wonder if that’s the very thing some of the guys inside didn’t have growing up. Something that gives you the same adrenaline you get doing something you shouldn’t be doing. Maybe a community-oriented sport like hurling is the perfect vehicle to bring someone back out of prison and into society again.

You know, now that I mention it, that’s not a bad way to maintain a steady stream of young, athletic recruits. So Kyle, and all the rest of the guys in there, hit us up when you get out — there’s always room on the team. And we could use a few bruisers.

This segment aired on July 11, 2015.



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