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Rallying 'Round an Irish Sport
At 50, Major Jim Pappaioanou is quick to acknowledge that he’s a little long in the tooth for the Irish sport of hurling. Often cited as the fastest field sport in the world—it features elements of soccer, field hockey and lacrosse—the ancient Gaelic game combines bursts of speed and deft hand-eye coordination with occasional brute physicality. Not for nothing is it known as the Warrior Game.
“Knock wood, I’ve only had a couple of broken fingers,” says Pappaioanou (pronounced PAP-ee-AH-no). “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
But he has loved the sport since he first signed on with the Barley House Wolves, an American hurling club based in Concord, NH, in 2009. “In my opinion, it’s the best sport in the world,” says Pappaioanou, who calls himself “semi-retired” from the game but is unwilling to give it up entirely. “I’m a freak about it. I’ve got an Irish flag hanging at my house.”
The Barley House Wolves were formed in 2006, a few years before Pappaioanou joined, when the New Hampshire National Guard’s Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry Regiment, finished its tour of duty in Iraq. On their deployment, and again on their return, the Soldiers had brief layovers at Ireland’s Shannon Airport. On their trip home, they caught glimpses of this unfamiliar, intriguing sport on television screens in the airport. By the time they got home, they were talking about trying the sport as a way to retain the camaraderie of serving together.
“The idea was to have a rallying point,” explains Sergeant First Class Eddie Clements, one of the original Soldiers who helped establish the club. After combat, the Soldiers wanted a way to keep tabs on one another, to meet regularly with a band of brothers who understood the potential challenges of transitioning back into civilian life.
Hurling, says Clements, seemed like a great way to make that happen, since everyone was approaching the sport on a level playing field: No one knew how to play it. Had they formed a hockey team, for instance, the best skaters might have discouraged the lesser athletes or the Soldiers who’d never skated from signing on.
Today, that camaraderie lives on in the club, with five Soldiers and an Airman of the New Hampshire Guard— Pappaioanou, Clements, Captain Scott Bacon, Staff Sergeant Jason Burpee, Airman First Class Matt Barricklow and Colonel (Ret.) Warren Perry (who was recently appointed deputy adjutant general)—forming a bond through a punishing sport that seems to have been invented just for them.
“What keeps me coming back,” says Burpee, currently on deployment to the Middle East, “is the brotherhood of the team.”
Hurling is played with a slightly curved stick, called a hurley, that ends in a flat paddle, and a leather ball known as a sliotar (pronounced slitter). Players carry the ball on the hurley, and they can advance it by striking it, kicking it, or slapping it to a teammate with an open hand. The object is to score points by hitting the ball between the opponents’ goalposts.
The traditional hurling season runs through the spring and summer. Over the winter, the Wolves train on an indoor field at a sports facility on the outskirts of Concord. On one Wednesday evening in March, about 20 of the club’s players, including several New Hampshire Guard Soldiers, arrived after dinner to stretch, lined up in rows to warm up with a “puckabout”—the equivalent of playing catch in baseball—and then played an hourlong scrimmage.
After starting out with Guard Soldiers, the club has welcomed young men and 30- and 40-something fathers, several of them from other military organizations and local police and fire departments, who were attracted to the game in various ways. John Mullen, a sales rep for an insurance company who grew up in Connecticut, says he first saw the game played during a trip to Ireland while he was still in college. A few years ago, he drove by the field where the Barley House Wolves practice.
“I did a double-take and threw the car in reverse,” he says. “I’d never had the nerve to try the game in Ireland.” He joined the club, and this year he was elected chairman of the board. Team representatives estimate that they have between 40 and 50 total members, with about 25 currently active.
In the beginning, when the team was composed solely of Guard Soldiers, “our first couple of practices didn’t really look like practices,” says Clements, who cofounded the club. At that practice in March, Clements had recently returned from his third deployment. Some of the men hadn’t seen him since he had gotten back, and he paused to bear hug a fellow Soldier.
In the early stages of the team, there were plenty of obstacles. One of the original players fashioned a hurley that looked like “a big wooden spoon,” Clements recalls with a laugh. Not knowing where to get real equipment, they took the stick to a local craftsman and asked him to make two dozen more. They broke more sticks in their first practice than they have in the years since combined, Clements says.
By 2009, the club was respectable enough to be invited to the Junior Men’s North American championship tournament in Boston. Playing against a far superior, well-established club, the Barley House Wolves didn’t score a single point.
“The significant achievement that day was just getting the ball past midfield,” recalls Matt Wilson, a sales engineer who serves on the club’s board. A son of Irish immigrants, he stumbled upon a team meeting at the Barley House, the Concord pub that sponsors the club, when he walked in for a pint. The next week, he was on the field.
In 2010, the club traveled to Ireland, where it trained with and played against an Irish military team, which challenged the Americans to get serious about the sport. Two years later, the New Hampshire players had improved so much that they won the national championship at the Men’s Junior C level.
Today, the Wolves compete as part of the Boston chapter of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which oversees Irish games, including Gaelic football and camogie, the female version of hurling. The players pride themselves on their respect for the game and its origins. They ask each prospective teammate whether he considers himself a warrior, says Clements, who helped start an overseas version of the Wolves in 2010, during his second deployment, to Kuwait.
“I’ve said that stepping off the pitch [the term for field] is something like stepping off the field of battle or coming off a mission,” Captain Rob Burnham told NPR a few years ago.
For some, the team building has been critical, just as the club’s founders anticipated. “Some part of me really needed that small-team environment,” Sergeant First Class Roy Lowes told NPR. “That player who has the same jersey as I have, I know he’s there, I know he has my back. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to second-guess anything.”
The original unit came back from Iraq in 2006 with 14 Purple Heart recipients. But they all came back alive, a fact about which they were and remain rightly proud.
In 2012, the club did lose a member when Private First Class Kevin Castelot of the 237th Military Police died after a sudden illness. A native of Manchester, NH, he was just 22. In his honor, the Wolves established an annual event, the Kevin Castelot Memorial Cup.
“As time has grown, we’ve been able to apply some very important Guard principles to anybody who wants to come out and join,” says Colonel (Ret.) Warren Perry, who was recently appointed the New Hampshire National Guard’s deputy adjutant general. “This is our way of getting Guard culture across multicultural lines—everything that’s good about the Guard and what we do in the military.
“Every time we put on the blue and gray jerseys of the Barley House Wolves,” he adds, “we remember that it’s about being a part of something bigger than oneself. Every time we suit up, we remember that we are representing those who have paved the way for us to represent the best traditions of warriors and athletes.”
Perry got hooked on the game after watching a hurling demonstration at a Wellness Day event in 2012. After joining, he helped organize the team’s training sessions. At 51, he’s still eager to get to practice each week. “It’s not just some game we play,” Perry says. “It’s an important part of belonging. We’re taking care of each other. It really is about coming together and doing something for somebody else on the field, something that has real meaning.”
Last season brought another milestone for the Wolves: They beat a Junior Irish team. (Many Irish hurlers come to America to play during the summer, after their “official” home teams have been eliminated from contention.) Although the Irish club won the rematch, the earlier win was a significant achievement for a group of guys who did not grow up playing the sport.
For those members who were raised on traditional American games, some skills from those sports naturally translate to hurling, while others can be a hindrance to crossing over. Though a hurling match looks a bit like lacrosse, Perry says, the latter game forbids touching the ball with your hands and so lacrosse players can have trouble with hand-passing. Baseball players, he adds, are typically more adept at combining stick skills with hand passes. Hockey players make the transition quickest of all, Perry says. Hurling “is played at the same pace as hockey, with a stick,” he says. “They know how to get to the ball first, how to see the field and make passes. And they have what it takes to battle for the ball when it’s on the ground.”
During the offseason, the team mostly scrimmages to keep from getting rusty and to keep the commitment fun. When the outdoor season begins, the club holds twice-weekly training sessions that incorporate a wide variety of speed and agility drills.
At the indoor practice in March, after some stretching and a puckabout, each player took his hurley and tossed it in a center pile. One player pulled out the sticks one by one, alternately chucking them into smaller piles to his left and right. This was how they formed two unbiased practice squads.
The players strapped on their helmets—the only piece of protective equipment they wear—and quickly decided which players would take the field first. On an artificial playing surface that’s only about one-fifth the size of a regulation hurling pitch, they’ll play five-a-side, with fluid substitutions coming from the sidelines. (A true hurling match features 15 on each team; the American game reduces that number to 13.)
The ball was thrown in, and the match began. Grunts, gasps, the clatter of stick on stick, and the occasional cry of frustration resounded through the gym. The din was occasionally pierced by the sharp sound of an errant shot on goal banging off the boards.
The backs of the Wolves’ blue and gray jerseys featured the legend “Bona na Croin.” It’s a Gaelic phrase that means “neither your collar nor crown.” The motto originated with the 19th century Irish revolutionary movement known as the Fenians. In a popular English-language poem by that name, the narrator declares both his independence from authority and his fealty to brotherhood:
The old packs come together,
Ties that fear cannot sever,
Endeavour in pride to stand
In the Wolf Land, forever
SOLDIERS ON THE WOLVES
SFC Eddie Clements
MOS: 91X maintenance supervisor
Years in Guard: 15
Groundbreaking event: In 2010, he and 12 other members of the Barley House Wolves deployed to Kuwait with the New Hampshire Guard’s 197th Fires Brigade. To maintain their hurling skills, some of the Soldiers used their own money to secure equipment and a training facility, and they played what they believe was the first-ever hurling match on Kuwaiti soil in July 2011.
CPT Scott Bacon
MOS: 31A military police officer
Years in Guard: 8
Unique bonds: “One of the things that I like about hurling is that every person has started, and every new person starts, from the same level of experience,” he says. Also, he says, “it creates an atmosphere of camaraderie and respect for the sport that you don’t see in other sports.”
MAJ Jim Pappaioanou
MOS: 27A, brigade judge advocate, 197th Field Artillery Brigade
Years in Guard: 10
Pure passion: His surname “is a common name in Galway, actually,” he jokes. Since taking up the sport, Pappaioanou has become a diehard fan. One thing he appreciates in particular is the fact that the game retains its amateur status. Even at the highest level in Ireland, hurlers play strictly for the love of the game.
SSG Jason Burpee
MOS: 35F intelligence analyst
Years in Guard: 10
Spreading the word: Burpee says in an email that it’s the camaraderie that first attracted him to the game. And while deployed to the Middle East, he’ll brush on his recruitment skills, he says, teaching the sport to interested fellow Soldiers who might come out for the club upon their return.
COL (RET.) Warren M. Perry
Deputy adjutant general, New Hampshire National Guard
On the breadth of skills: “An important point to make is that Americans don’t grow up playing hurling, so we’re not good at it, at least initially,” he says. “Catching, passing, hitting the ball—there are 13 to 14 very specific skills that all have to be learned.”
PREP FOR THE PITCH
Hurling, a game of both speed and power, requires extreme agility, endurance and abdominal strength.
Here are three ways the Barley House Wolves prepare for the sport’s demands.
“There are certain stretches that keep hip flexors, hamstrings and the core flexible to execute the moves you need” in hurling, says Colonel (Ret.) Warren Perry, the team’s training coordinator. “For starters, there’s a lot of bending down. To be good at it, you have to have some core strength and stamina.”
Hip flexors are especially helpful. Perry says they perform one such stretch in a modified lunge position, with front knee on the ground and hands out front holding a hurley; The Soldier pushes his pelvis down and holds the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, then repeats. In the same lunge position, the Soldier moves the hurley outside the forward foot and inside the knee, extending the arms and again pushing the pelvis down.
“The second thing is you have to have some ability to move a little faster laterally,” Perry says, “so we do hops and jumps over a cross on the ground.” In this quick drill, the cross makes up four numbered quadrants, beginning with the upper left and going clockwise. Someone will call out a sequence—for example 1-3-2-4—and the players will do “bunny hops,” jumping in each quadrant with both feet for 30 seconds. Then they’ll repeat the sequence for each foot, then do it all over again with another sequence. During the exercise, the players train their gaze forward, not down. They’ll continue this with other sequences for about five minutes.
“The next piece is that you need some anaerobic ability to accelerate,” Perry says. “It’s not necessarily about being able to run 100 yards in nine seconds, but zero to whatever as fast as possible. You need to be the first guy to the ball, all the time. We do 15 minutes of 20-yard sprints, with different takes on each one—some with high knees, as many steps as possible, and some with scissor kicks, with as few steps as possible—to get that explosive piece going.”