Germans fall in love with 'chaotic dance' of hurling
By John Harrington
Darmstadt GAA in Germany have one of the more unusual origin stories of the many new clubs that have sprung up across the world in recent years.
Founded in 2014 by Jakob Feldmann in the town of Darmstadt which is south of Frankfurt, all of its players are students or graduates of the local University.
So how exactly does a native German develop such a serious passion for hurling that he feels compelled to set up a GAA club that pretty much becomes an overnight success story?
The less than obvious answer is a transition year school placement in Ireland brought him to Carlow at the age of 16.
“I was with a host family and the father of that family is from Kilkenny and he's mad into hurling,” Feldmann told GAA.ie
“The kids of that family were aged 8, 10, and 12 at the time and also big into hurling so this is how I got in touch with it.
“Shortly after I arrived there they just said you have to try this out and put a hurl in my hands. I'm thinking what the hell is this, is it a musical instrument or what is it?
“So, I was taught the basics of hurling by a 10 year old boy and after a while I got more and more interested and I got my own hurl while I was there and a couple of sliotars.
“After eight nine or nine months I came back to Germany and I told all my friends that this is an amazing sport and I have to find a club somewhere.”
He quickly discovered that none of the handful of existing GAA clubs in Germany were in his geographic proximity, but that didn’t dim Feldmann’s fire.
He convinced some of his friends to purchase hurleys too, and so after their bi-weekly track and field sessions they’d have a puck-around on the playing pitch circled by the track.
“We were all 16 of 17 and there was a group of six or seven of us in my hometown where I grew up around 50 kilometres from Darmstadt," says Feldmann.
“It was basically just one lucky summer of having fun with hurls and discovering the game, but then everyone finished school and moved somewhere else so we were all split up.”
Feldmann moved to Darmstadt to study mechanical engineering but wasn’t ready to give up on the sport that by now had really captivated him.
He brought some hurleys with him and made some new friends he persuaded to join him for puck-arounds in the local park.
Then things suddenly accelerated when he managed to get hurling onto the University’s sporting curriculum.
“The University’s sports program is really open to exotic sports,” says Feldmann. “For example, they have a lacrosse team which is super exotic sport in Germany as well.
“There is even a Quidditch team, there's all kinds of crazy, crazy stuff going on.
“And I thought, yeah, this might be an idea to approach them with, maybe we can get something going. From that point on they allowed us to use the pitch once a week.
“The biggest impact was that hurling appeared on the list of available sports in the University and people at the beginning of every semester checking to see is there something new or interesting they might do would see hurling wonder what it might be.
“Suddenly, from four or five people that we met in the park for our first training session we then had12 people.
“So that’s how it really started off and then I contacted the hurling officer in Europe at the time and he got me in touch with someone in Ireland who sent me some hurls just because they liked the idea.
“Pretty quickly from our first training session in the summer/autumn of 2014 the group grew to about 18/20 people so we approached the GAA and became an official club in the Spring of 2015.”
Feldmann was doing his best to coach his team-mates using a mixture of what he had picked up from a 10-year old in Carlow and what he could glean from coaching videos and literature.
This is why he believes their hurling education only truly began when they played their first competitive match in the summer of 2015.
“We were super-nervous before our first game and everyone told us after we were exactly playing by the rules but what we were playing wasn't hurling,” says Feldmann with a smile.
“Because, as German as we are, we were sticking to the rules very exactly as they were written. For example, we were stopping after four steps and not just going on with the play.
“We really learned how it's done from the first real match in that first tournament. From there it really developed that into something else.”
Darmstadt GAA club also starting playing Gaelic Football two years ago, but so far at least it hasn’t proven quite as big a hit as hurling.
That seems to be the case across Germany where the numbers playing hurling are growing more rapidly than those playing Gaelic football.
Gaelic Football is usually an easier sell to non-Irish because many of the skills from other ball-sports are transferable, so this affinity for hurling is definitely a German quirk.
“I think it's a bit because hurling is so exotic to Germans that it's just interesting because of the look of it and Gaelic football at the first and second glance just looks like weird soccer to native Germans,” says Feldmann.
"Especially in University, you want to try out new, exotic, exciting stuff and hurling is exactly that.
“If you just walk around with the hurl somewhere in town people would start asking you, "what is this, I want to try this out." And if you walk around with a football, it just looks like a soccer ball.”
Feldmann likes to describe hurling as a ‘chaotic dance’, and it’s this unique mixture of speed, skill, and physicality that has him hooked.
He has no doubts whatsoever that hurling will continue to grow in Germany because it immediately appeals to most people he introduces to it.
“I always say that the Germans don't know yet that they will love this sport,” he says.
“Every year we have a Sports Festival in University where people can just come and try out new sports. It's a big pitch and I'm standing around there with a couple of hurls and just explaining what it is and getting people to try it out.
And this is really a thing, once you get a hurl into the hand of a person and they manage to hit their first sliotar, they are usually hooked. They definitely show up to the first training session and at least 50% of them stay, this is really a thing. I guess because it's that exotic.
“Because of that I really think it should be possible to make this game grow in Germany and another factor in that is there's a group of Germans that are fed up with soccer.
“Not just the style of play, but the fact that if you have money or if you are wealthy club you can buy the best players and you always win.
“This is probably true in every league but in Germany it's a very big issue.
“The GAA, in contrast, is about playing for pride, not money. You even see that for our own club, people are really proud of what they represent.
“I mean, we're not very successful as a club especially if we play completely Irish teams, they're still much better than we are.
“But it's the little things that make us really proud that we that we were able to go or field a full team at the beginning and just wear that jersey and just play for the fun of it.
“Many Irish would say it's amazing what you do, you should keep it up. Even if you're not that successful yet it will pay off in the future. And when it does slowly start to pay off and you being to win some matches, it's really satisfying."
Not content with simply learning a new sport like hurling, Feldmann also went and invented a new one – Hurlacrosse – which is a mixture of Hurling and Lacrosse.
It came about because the University’s lacrosse team train just after the Darmstadt hurlers on the same pitch so they struck up a friendship and decided to try playing a compromise rules game combining the skills of both sports which ultimately worked really well.
Coincidentally, around the same time an Irish man living in Los Angeles by the time of David Wogan was also keen to combine both hurling and lacrosse.
After finding photos online of the Darmstadt Hurlacrosse experiment he made contact with Feldmann and the two of them collaborated with Tony Devine from the Irish Lacrosse foundation to come up with a codified set of rules for the hybrid sport.
“The GAA heard about that so for the World Games in 2019 we were actually able to play in Croke Park against an Irish lacrosse team,” says Feldmann.
“It was really amazing to have the opportunity to play with a completely random and exotic sport. To touch the holy grass in Croke Park was an incredible experience.”
Feldmann also helped to establish a German Federation of GAA clubs in 2015 which now numbers 11 clubs.
They’ve translated GAA texts into German and support one another in whatever way they can.
The next big dream he hopes to see realised will be for the GAA clubs of each country in Europe to form national teams which would play one another in a European Championships he believes would really raise the profile of Gaelic Games on the continent.
“I think that could have a huge impact,” he says. “It would make it very interesting for people that have never get got in touch with it, you could show it on television and so on.
“I think this would be an amazing development and I think it's possible within the next 10 years or maybe 15 years to have something like that.”
Considering what Jakob Feldmann and the Darmstadt hurler have already achieved in a short period of time, you wouldn’t doubt him.