MISSOULA – Eilís O'Herlihy came to the University of Montana last year on a Fulbright scholarship to work as a teaching assistant for the Irish Studies program and promote her culture. What she didn’t expect was to connect more deeply with her own Irish heritage while in Montana.

At Missoula’s St. Patrick’s Day parade last Saturday, O’Herlihy was reminded of similar parades in her hometown of Ballyvourney, a village in County Cork, Ireland. She walked in the parade with fellow members of UM’s hurling club team, who play the traditional Irish sport that has been around for more than 2,000 years. O’Herlihy joined the Montana hurling team having never before played her country’s sport.

“I hadn’t a clue. I’m Irish and didn’t know how to play,” O’Herlihy said. “I’ve learned everything since coming here. It’s adding to my own experience. It’s making me more Irish in a way.”

UM’s hurling team was founded in 2013 by another Irish Fulbright student, Naoise Waldron, with the help of an Irish exchange student, Brian Barry. The two saw Montana had strong Irish roots and a popular Irish Studies program at UM, yet nobody was hurling.

The first year they formed the team, the Griz club qualified for the national tournament and shocked the competition by winning the national title. Grizzly hurling went on to win three more national titles in 2015, 2017 and 2018, making it one of the most successful sports programs at the University.

The past few seasons were disrupted by COVID-19, but now the hurling team is back and will compete at the national tournament March 25-26 in Louisville, Kentucky. The competition is hosted by the National Collegiate Gaelic Athletic Association.

“The Griz team has won four of the national titles,” O’Herlihy said. “We are hoping to make it number five.”

Myles Maloney, who coaches and coordinates the Griz hurling team, said UM’s team has helped grow the sport in Montana and led to the creation of Missoula’s Thomas Meagher Hurling Club, which consists of several former UM players. Maloney, who grew up in Butte and graduated from UM in 2002, helped form the city club in 2015.

After the St. Patrick’s Day parade Saturday, Maloney played on the Thomas Meagher team in an exhibition match against UM. The match was in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, where mostly friends, family and curious spectators filled the westside of the stadium to watch the friendly game.

A football field is perfect for hurling since the sport requires a goal post at each end. The object of the game is to use wood sticks to shoot a small leather ball above the goal post for one point or in a net under the goal post for three points. The sport reminds people of a mix of soccer, lacrosse and ruby.

The exhibition game on Saturday prepared the Grizzly team for the national tournament later this month. But it also was a warm up for a St. Patrick’s Day match at 2 p.m. Friday in Butte against Montana’s third hurling team, the Butte Wolfe Tones. Before the match, UM’s team will be in Butte’s St. Patrick’s Day parade at noon.

In addition, UM’s team is preparing for a 10-year-anniversary tournament in Missoula April 8, with games starting at 10 a.m. in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

Maloney expects former players from across the country and possibly Ireland to return for the 10th anniversary celebration.

“To make it 10 years is one thing but to have it as important and as big for people that they want to put this on and get back together, that’s huge,” Maloney said.

Colton Tinnin, president of UM’s hurling club and a senior studying elementary education, said a major part of the hurling team’s success is its welcoming attitude toward new players. Tinnin, who grew up in Kennewick, Washington and played football in high school, didn’t know what hurling was when he stopped by a practice his freshman year.

“There’s not much of a barrier for entry,” Tinnin said. “I went to a practice and everyone was really friendly and I had a really good time.”

Tinnin’s teammate, Caitlyn Sena agrees. Sena transferred from Grand Canyon University last year to study environmental science at UM. She met a member of the hurling team in a calculus class last fall and decided to try it out.

“I went to my first practice and they showed me what the sport was and a week later I was flying with them to Denver to go to our regional tournament,” Sena said. “I got thrown in the deep end, but it was great. I never had so much fun.”

Sena also felt welcomed since UM’s hurling team is co-ed and six of the 14 players are women. Most of the teams UM will play at nationals are co-ed, but few have as many women on their teams. Hurling is traditionally a male sport and women play a similar sport call Camogie. But having a co-ed hurling team is common.

“The team as a whole is so welcoming of every person,” Sena said “There has not been a moment after stepping foot on the field for the first time that I felt like there wasn’t a place for me there.”

Sena’s time on the hurling team has made her more interested in Irish language and culture. She recently discovered her great-grandmother immigrated from Ireland, and this summer she will study abroad for 12 days, visiting Dublin, Cork and Galway.

“Being on the team was definitely the catalyst,” Sena said.

This year, UM’s hurling team has four players from Ireland. There are two traditional exchange students and two Fulbright students, including O’Herlihy, who study abroad for one year to teach, conduct research and promote their cultures.

John Dineen, an Irish exchange student from the village of Glanworth in County Cork, came to the United States for the first time this year to study within the judicial clinic at UM’s Alexander Blewett III School of Law. He was familiar with the Irish exchange program with UM and thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this part of the world.

While growing up, Dineen played hurling with other children in his village until about 12. The sport becomes incredibly competitive as you get older, he said.

Dineen was surprised to see his home’s sport being played in Montana, and even more shocked to see so much talent on the field.

“I couldn’t believe it to be honest when I came over,” Dineen said. “I thought that’s so odd they are playing hurling.”

Since joining the team this year, Dineen has enjoyed playing his childhood sport on another continent.

“It’s great to be able to play it for fun,” Dineen said. “The skills are coming back to me.”

- by Kyle Spurr, UM News Service -

More From KSEN AM 1150