Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Hampshire's Barley House Wolves

Some four years ago my curiosity was piqued when I noticed on the Boston GAA's Web site that a hurling team from New Hampshire was included in the list of clubs registered with the board here.  I got in contact with the club and Ray Valas had a very interesting story to tell.  Since then the club made up of New Hampshire National Guardsmen has continued to dedicate itself to the national game of Ireland, and have made a pilgrimige of sorts to the mecca of Gaelic Games, Croke Park.  The club also played some "friendly" games against St. Mary's Athenry and an Irish Army team from Renmore Barracks.  There is also a video featuring the club that can be viewed on Dennis O'Brien's Gaelicsportscast.com site: 


Action from the Barley House Wolves trip to Ireland.

I thought it would be interesting to revist the story behind the club from 4 years ago, please read on.

The Wolves of New Hampshire – A Hurling Club is Born

For many years now the efforts going into the promotion and development of Gaelic Games in North America has focused mainly on football. Fledgling underage hurling programs have started in Boston and New York and the work going on in this regard has been showcased at the Irish Cultural Center in Canton during the Interprovincial Football and Hurling Finals. However, outside the two cities there had not been as much of a focus on promoting the game involving the small ball with the youngsters. The logical conclusion as to why football has been the more prominent of the two games probably lies in the assumption that hurlers are bred, not made, and only bred in select parts of the country of Ireland mind you. In fact, the theory of natural selection as regards what makes a skilled hurler might have us believe that over the next few generations people from Kilkenny, east Galway, Cork, and Tipp will evolve with bas shaped hands. Evidence that the game in Ireland is becoming more geographically concentrated is found in the fact that outside Cork and Kilkenny there are only two or three other counties that might have an outside chance of winning the All-Ireland. While the GAA are trying to change the direction the game is taking in Ireland, one wonders what hope is there outside of the homeland of the game that it might take hold?

Well, it might surprise some people that evidence of the potential of the game abounds the length and breadth of the United States. A quick glance at the North American Web site (www.nagaa.org) shows a plethora of Hurling clubs being formed outside of the traditional strongholds of Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. In fact, Chicago has faced difficulties in recent years, and just one year after making their Ulster final debut, New York will not be entering a team for the Ulster championship in 2007. Difficulties also lie ahead for Boston and San Francisco where the clubs have relied on emigrants and summer players to fill their ranks and the pool of these players is drying up, like a parched lake in the middle of a drought there is no longer a stream of players from traditional sources to feed the pool. Hurling Clubs are springing up in places like Portland Oregon, Albuquerque New Mexico, and closer to home, Concord New Hampshire. These are places that could hardly be described as having a hurling tradition, or be populated with people coming from such a tradition, and whether the game takes root and blossoms remains to be seen, but it certainly is a development that is worth a closer look.

I got the chance to ask Ray Valas, one of the founders of the Barley House Wolves a few questions about the newly formed hurling club based in Concord New Hampshire. The circumstances surrounding the foundation of the club was as unlikely as you could expect. A combination of pints of Guinness at the Shannon Airport bar and a 12-month tour of duty in Iraq formed the basis for New Hampshire’s first – and so far only – hurling club. Ray talked about how the club was formed, “The club was started by Ken Kinsella and I. We serve in the same Army unit, and went to Iraq in 2004-2005. We departed the States on St. Patrick's Day in 2004, and our plane stopped over in Ireland for refueling on our way into Iraq. It was 2:00 in the morning and we let the guys go into the airport bar and have a Guinness before going into country. No alcohol is allowed in the combat theater, so it was the last drink for a year. So almost 200 soldiers lined up to get a quick one in the hour and a half before we went wheels up again. I've never seen a bartender work so fast. We all saw a full year of combat, and despite 14 of our guys getting wounded, we all came home alive. On the way back out of Iraq a year later, we stopped in the same airport in Ireland, again at 2:00am, and again had a Guinness, this time to celebrate. We decided we needed to do something to keep in touch, since guys go separate ways after a deployment. We ended up deciding on Hurling since Ireland was our point of departure and return for the war.” In addition to the Irish connection everybody would be on the same level. “It was also attractive because not a one of us had ever played before” continued Ray. “With Hurling, we were all on the same level. We started recruiting from the guys that we went to Iraq with and about two dozen of us got involved.”

Ray had heard of the game through his brother who had visited Ireland and from there developed an interest. Also, coming originally from Canton Mass., HQ of the ICC and the Boston North East Board of the GAA, Ray had some exposure to the sport. With a group of players trying to pick up the skills of a sport none have ever played before, the question of coaching comes to mind. The core of the team comes from the NH Army National Guard Mountain Infantry unit based in Milford, NH and all are American born but one. After relocating to New Hampshire from Ireland, Tipperaryman, Brian Slevin, joined the club on hearing about it from one of the club’s sponsors. According to Ray, “He is a great guy and has actually played before, so we were excited to have him. He has helped out a lot with practice drills and basic skills development.” This is the only expertise that the club had drawn on, but the club has done some of it’s own research on practice drills and the players work on those. “We have not had any coaching from outside the club yet. We have seen that our players who also play hockey or lacrosse have some skills that definitely translate into hurling. A lot of the hand-eye coordination is similar between those sports. We end each session with a scrimmage, since keeping it fun is definitely of the utmost importance. I think Croke Park is a long ways off for us, so we just try to have a good time and improve as we go. We have registered with the Boston-North East Board and they have been very helpful with information and getting us pointed in the right direction.”

The club has not had any competitive encounters yet, and Ray feels that the competition from Boston would be a little too advanced for the New Hampshire lads at this point. “Last year was our first season, and we certainly were not ready for any games,” said Ray. “We were starting from scratch, and just learning the rules was one of the first steps for us. We are not yet ready to play Irish-born teams, but we are seeking other American-born teams to play this season. We have been trying to taunt other groups into starting teams so we can get a league going up here!” According to Ray the biggest challenge is finding suitable opposition, and there has been interest in areas close by. A group from Burlington, Vermont expressed interest in starting a club and the Wolves invited them to practice and provided information on where to get the necessary equipment to help them grow. “It is also in our interest to develop as a club that other clubs form and grow close by” said Ray.

The players have traveled down Interstate 95 to the Irish Cultural Center to sample some live action. It seems that this has whetted the appetite amongst the Wolves to continue to try and hone their skills as well as get a feel for the game. “We have gone down to Canton as a team to watch games, which was incredibly helpful in learning the game. You can read the rules and look at clips on the Internet, but nothing compares to seeing a live game to really get a feel for the tempo and the conduct of the game. I have brought my family to the ICC to watch games as well, and we have a great time. The intensity of the competition is great, and the sport has us hooked.” Ray also noted the importance of what they saw as regards the coaching that was taking place with underage players. “It was good to see a lot of the kids playing since that is the best way to grow a sport. Just like with baseball here in the States, when kids start playing young, the skills get ingrained and the sport improves overall,” added Ray.

The Club trains indoors during the cold months and switches to outdoor training on soccer fields in the Summer. The Barley House, the best tavern in Concord, NH says Ray, and The NH Police Emerald Society each provides sponsorship to the club. “They have helped financially with the purchase of equipment and uniforms, and with the overall promotion of the team” said Ray. So enthusiastic is The Barley House that the pub sells team jerseys and the bartenders wear them while working.

Ray has no doubt that Hurling will take root in America. “The game has everything Americans want in a sport- speed, skill, intensity, high scoring, and overall fun. I remember when Lacrosse was just beginning to catch on, my high school started a program. None of us had ever seen or played a game, but we got a team going and got a foothold in the sport.” “Our club has only grown over the past two seasons, and I see that interest continuing to develop”, said Ray. “The bottom line is that it is a fun sport to play, and so as people become aware of it, they will get hooked.”

As regards future goals the next step is to get a schedule of games with other American born teams. “We need more games to keep the interest up, and to develop the sport” according to Ray. “We would like to be the first, but not only, club in the state of New Hampshire!” The club hopes to have a junior and senior within two to three years and then start getting the kids involved. Ray also said that one of the goals for this season is to get some scrimmages with some of the junior teams in the Boston area and to learn from the experience.

At Croke Park are Lore Ford, Luke Koladish, and Ray Valas.

Ray also provided the story behind the club’s name. “We named the team the Wolves because that was the callsign of our Infantry company in Iraq. Each leader had a callsign that started with "Wolf", so your name might be "Wolf Six" or "Wolf Two-Seven" for a year. Since the team was founded by the guys that deployed to Iraq with us, we named it so. Our crest has a Wolf with a broken collar and broken crown under him, from the saying "no collar, no crown" since we are all from the birthplace of the American revolution. The nine stars are for New Hampshire, the ninth state to join the Union, and the one that made the ratification of the US Constitution official.”

For this season the club will be without 3 players who volunteered for another tour of duty in Afghanistan. The lads brought their sticks with them, and the jerseys. “We will not have them this season, but they will be back for next year. In fact, they might have the first hurling practice ever held in Afghanistan!” said Ray jokingly.

Contact information for the club can be found on their Web site at www.barleyhousewolves.bravehost.com. The Web site for the Boston North East Board of the GAA is located at http://www.bostongaa.org/.

By Rory O'Donnell

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