Give it a hurl

28th November 1997, 12:00am
Graham Hart


Give it a hurl
Anyone for hurling? Or Gaelic football? Leafy Berkshire may be a long way from the Emerald Isle but the boys - and girls - of one Newbury school have found a taste for the Guinness-flavoured games. Graham Hart reports.

Here are a few questions: where did you last read Shakespeare? Or give any thought to Marco Polo? Or immerse yourself in the Periodic Table? You get the point. Schools aren't just about performance, results and targets (you knew that already, of course) but about the first - and last - experience of so many aspects of our lives.

If you missed the chance at school, you may have missed the chance for good. The same goes for sport. It's in school that you probably enjoyed certain games for the first, and last, time. Hockey, cross-country running, javelin? Done much triple-jumping recently?

And what about Gaelic football or hurling?

The Clere School, an 11-16 comprehensive just south of Newbury, now fields teams in both these sports, although the leafy suburbs of middle England are a far throw (or hurl) from the shamrock fields of Ireland.

Gaelic football, for those who don't catch the games on Sky TV, is a cross between rugby and wrestling: a sort of running fight with the ball. Hurling is the same, only with sticks. Both are played professionally in the Republic, but rarely elsewhere. So why are they currently being pursued with both zest and skill in the English Home Counties?

Jim Hawkshaw, head of humanities at Clere, is the man responsible. Son of a Mayo father and a Cork mother, Jim was born and bred in England but retained enough of his roots to introduce Gaelic football when substituting for an absent games teacher. His pupils loved the idea of a mixed-sex game where anything goes, and soon lunchtimes were taken up with a Gaelic football club.

Jim contacted the Gaelic Games Association in Dublin who were keen to support the school and volunteered the services of two coaches for a day. Dublin's Paul Curran and Kilkenny's Lester Ryan travelled over from the Republic and completely charmed the children.

Jim was quite impressed too - the pair left the school a complete set of "hurls" (the sticks), ball and helmets for indoor hurling.

Today, one year on, the school runs energetic clubs in both sports. The football is played out of doors on a rugby pitch, which happens to be about half the size of the Gaelic Football version. The ball can be picked up, kicked, punched and thrown. You score a point if you get the ball over the rugby posts and three points if you score in the goal. It's 15-a-side in Ireland, or as many or as few as you've got in Berkshire.

The scoring is similar in hurling. This involves a small, rounders-style ball which can be kicked, or hit with a paddle-like stick. At Clere the game is played indoors with a soft ball and rubber paddles. In the genuine article the ball is very hard and the wooden sticks are bound with metal rings. Helmets and gloves are worn but not, surprisingly, shin pads.

And talking of the genuine article, Guinness are big sponsors of the sport. Their poster strapline, under a very hairy hurler, is: "This man can break your heart at 50 metres". It's not a sport for softies.

Which is probably why both sports are so popular among the girls. "Just great," says Fran Dodd from Year 11. "Much better than hockey," claims Lorna Parr, who can actually claim some Irish ancestry.

The non-stop element of the games is very beguiling. In hockey at this level there are numerous infringements: turning, feet, dangerous play and so on. In hurling, although there are a number of technicalities, the player is free to catch the ball, kick it, hit it or run with it. Tackling is also much more liberated: you do almost anything to prevent your opponent doing his or her thing.

In other respects there are similarities. Teamwork and fitness are the keys; competitive mixed games are possible. Interestingly, the man-to-man marking aspect is crucial, with an overlap here between the Gaelic games and netball. There's a small matter of having a really good time too. After all, these are Irish games!

The good time factor at Clere was hugely enhanced by an away match in Dublin. The games were lost, despite lenient referees and gentle opponents, but the legendary Irish hospitality came into its own. And there were some magic moments when, just once or twice, the Clere teams managed to outwit and outmuscle their experienced opponents.

The school has now been invited to put on a show game at a local Gaelic festival - in very English Basingstoke - and has received considerable media attention.

"It's just doing something different that has been so successful," explains Jim Hawkshaw. "Most of the children will never play the games again, but this doesn't matter. For a start, it makes a change from the all-embracing football culture, not that I've got anything against the game - despite Ireland's World Cup exit."

There have also been cultural spin-offs, with the team members coming into contact with other elements of Irish life, both in the Republic and the UK. Jim is already thinking about introducing some other sports -perhaps from India and Africa.

There's no doubt that the Clere players are enjoying their uniqueness, but they wouldn't mind some opponents in the UK as well. So if you could fix up a game - or perhaps want to challenge them at real tennis, stool ball, Australian rules or caber tossing - Jim's your man.

For information contact Jim Hawkshaw, the Clere School, Burghclere, Newbury, Berks. Tel: 01635 278372. Or the Gaelic Games Association, Croke Park, Dublin 4, Ireland. Tel: 00 353 1 836 3222.

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