The ancient Irish field game of hurling has had several centuries of history in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Its first recorded mention in Newfoundland had it being played in 1788 at ‘the Barrens’, a nine-acre tract of land which was later to become the site of the St. John The Baptist Basilica Cathedral and, up on the top of the ridge, St. Bonaventure’s College, where today’s Newfoundland hurlers are known to practise on occasion. By 1731, it is said, the majority of Newfoundland’s male population were Irish Catholics, so it’s logical to assume hurling had been in existence for some time there, perhaps even as early as the late 1600s, having come across with Irish fishermen from predominantly hurling counties in South-east Ireland, from Waterford and Wexford in particular.
The Nova Scotia record is something I’m frankly less familiar with, but, around 1800, an Irishman of Ulster-Scots extraction named William Cochran became the first principal of King’s College School in Windsor, Nova Scotia and hurling was introduced there during his tenure. As in Newfoundland, the schoolboys and adult players adapted it to the frozen skating ponds in winter, using flat wooden pucks rather than the standard Irish ‘sliotar’ or ball. The Gaelic word for the shot or strike at the sliotar in Ireland loaned itself over to the object being struck and thus a ‘puc’ became a ‘puck’. The Nova Scotia game of ice hockey which resulted from this adaptation was taken to Montreal in 1872 by a James George Aylwin Creighton of Halifax. Three years later, it was to be played as an organised sport for the first time in Montreal on March 3rd, 1875.
Ice hockey took hold of the Canadian imagination thereafter, but its Irish hurling forefather found itself falling into decline. Ice hockey apparently supplanted it completely in Nova Scotia and the Maritime provinces, while in Newfoundland it fell foul of the church authorities in the 1880s and went underground as field hockey and managed to survive up until the mid-1960s around Holyrood. An abortive attempt was made to revive it again in Newfoundland in the 1980s, and then in 2009 a group of us came together in St. John’s to have another go at its revival.
Our Newfoundland hurlers launched themselves formally as a club in April 2010, calling themselves the Yellowbelly’s – St. John’s GAA Club in honour of an old St. John’s hurling team of Wexford extraction from the 1800s. Today the club is known as St. John’s Avalon Harps GAA Club and plays as much Gaelic football as it does hurling, but hurling, which had been played here long before the Gaelic Athletic Association was even formed (in 1884) has a special place in our hearts.
To nurture ourselves, given the distances to the nearest clubs in Quebec, Ontario or in Maine and New York states, we’ve set out to build a local league, dividing ourselves up into local ‘teams’ as in an Irish county model, and last year, in September 2011, we inaugurated the Dr. Ronan O’ Shea Avalon Cup Hurling Championship to give that focus. Beyond that, what are we to do with ourselves? Distance is a big disadvantage for us. A small number of us made it to Quebec City in July 2011 to take part in a tournament there with the Montreal Shamrocks and the Quebec patriots, but not enough to field a full team. Clearly, we have to look closer to home.
Since 2010, I’ve been seeking interested individuals in Halifax, to see if there was interest there in forming a club we might play against, and with whom we might spread Gaelic games in the Maritimes for a future Maritimes league. Breakthrough was finally made in March 2011 with Brian Walsh, an Irishman from Co. Waterford based in Halifax with Nova Scotian Crystal. Things looked promising, and then a long lull followed in our communication until earlier this year. This time we got serious. We drew a line in the sand for ourselves. A Facebook group was set up provisionally called the Halifax Hibernians GAA Club for the club-to-be, and we booked the Halifax Wanderer’s Rugby grounds in Sackville Street, Halifax for July 7th.
Pre-match training will begin from around 10am, with the two clubs kicking off at 1.30pm with a Gaelic football match, to be followed, after a half hour’s respite, with a hurling match. Admission is free, and a fundraising draw will be held afterwards later that night from 10pm at Durty Nelly’s Pub.
Both clubs can be found on Facebook : St. John’s Avalon Harps GAA Club & Halifax Hibernians GAA Club. Please note that the Halifax club will likely adopt a new name of their own following the July 7thouting. The key people to contact with the Halifax Hibernians are Brian Walsh and Tom O’ Mahoney, the latter a native of Co. Kerry. Come rain or shine, come and join us for what we hope will be a grand day out! ~ By Brendan Toland