Hurling is putting down roots in Czechia
By John Harrington
‘For the first time’ is always a nice collection of words to assemble in that order.
It evokes a sense of freshly inked history, an unprecedented achievement with the promise of more to come.
For the first time, a hurling championship match has been played between two GAA clubs in Czechia.
The meeting of Prague Hibernians and Píobairí Strakonice recently took place in a sylvan setting outside the Czech town of Strakonice, and surely caused more than a few rubber-necking motorists to wobble on the road as they drove by.
Patrick Ryan was playing in the match and even he couldn’t help but be struck by the strangeness of the sight of a game of hurling being played with the backdrop of a green fields and red roofs in the middle of the Czech countryside.
How did it all come about?
If you were to follow that thread it would bring you back to a lecture hall in University of Limerick many years ago that Ryan was wondering how to extricate himself from.
He thought he was applying for a teaching programme as part of his Public Administration degree but not long after he sat down realised it was an Erasmus teaching programme meant just for language students.
He was sitting in the middle of a row and didn’t want to make it obvious he’d made a mistake by getting up to leave, so he kept his head down and stayed where he was.
When the information page was passed around and he read the fine print he saw you didn’t in fact have to have a language to apply, it was just advised, so he chanced his arm and decided to apply for a country with a language that wasn’t taught in the University.
He can’t remember now why he put the Czech Republic top of the list, but that’s where he ended up as a teaching assistant in a school in Prague.
He loved it so much he completed a teaching qualification when he returned to UL and then headed back to Prague for another couple of years where he was one of the founding members of Prague Hibernians GAA club in 2009.
“I was at their first couple of training sessions and first match,” recalls Ryan. “There was maybe five or six of us in a carpark beside a park because there were people playing soccer in the park.
“I still pinch myself sometimes that we now have almost 100 members between Gaelic Football, Hurling, Camogie, and LGFA.”
Ryan also met his future wife in Prague and they moved back to Ireland for an eight-year stint before eventually returning to the Czech capital again.
After playing little hurling during his twenties he’d rediscovered his love of the sport during his thirties in Dublin with Realt Dearg, and the only cloud on his horizon regarding the move back to Prague was that he expected he’d have to hang up his hurley again.
Prague Hibernians had been a Gaelic Football only club since their foundation, and when Ryan suggested on his return that they also give hurling a go there weren’t too many volunteers putting their hands up.
Eventually he decided to do it anyway, and once he planted the seed in 2019 it sprouted more quickly than he could have hoped.
“At the first hurling training session in Prague we had two people including me,” he says. “Me and Andrej, this Slovak guy that I had met on a hike a week or two previously.
“Then the following week we had six or seven people, on the third week we had 12, and we haven't looked back since then.
“There wasn't that much interest in hurling in Prague among Ireland people at the time, the Irish there were mainly from football counties and playing one sport was enough for them.
“Because of that we got a real mixture playing hurling. Czechs, Slovaks, an Italian, a British guy, and also have some people from Northern Ireland who had never played hurling until they came here.
“I think that worked out really well because it allowed this new group to train together and build up their skills together. We had a couple of Irish who were intermittently involved but there wasn't this big skill gap.
“And now we have some new arrivals in Prague, some young Irish guys, who have raised the standard again. Had they come the first month when you had 12 people who were learning how to rise the ball they might have been this isn't for me. We were lucky how it played out.”
Many of Ryan’s new pupils showed a natural aptitude for the sport that he didn’t expect and before too long the skill level of the players quickly developed.
“Maybe we as Irish people think of hurling as this really difficult sport that only Irish people can do,” he says.
“But then you had a hurl to a Czech 10-year-old and they immediately rise the ball and you're like, right, okay.
“One of our best players was a 17-year-old Ukranian who just ran rings around everyone after just a couple of sessions.
“Most of the Czechs and Slovaks play floorball which is like unihockey. That's a big thing here, they all play that in primary school, so the idea of having a stick in their hand is not something unusual or alien to them.
“They figure out themselves fairly quickly that you can't just try to dribble the ball around somebody, but that background in floorball definitely helps.”
With every match and tournament they played, the Prague Hibernians hurlers got better and better until they eventually won their first ever hurling match in a tournament in Cologne in October of 2019.
Not only did this result give everyone involved a timely boost to redouble their efforts, it also produced a spark that ultimately lit a flame for hurling in the town of Strakonice which is around 100km from Prague.
“It was just a coincidence that after the game in Cologne we won there was a post on the Prague Hibernians Facebook page and this guy Louis Donnelly liked the post and I didn't recognise the name,” says Ryan.
“When I clicked on his profile there was a background of Prague so I sent him a message to ask him how he was doing and to see if he'd like to get involved.
“It turned out he was living two hours outside Prague with a Czech wife so was there for the long-term. He said he'd like to come for training if he could manage it or even just to play in tournaments, and then mentioned he had 10 or 12 hurls at home and had been harbouring a secret dream of getting a team up and running in his town.
“My advice was to just go for it because the first year here I was just thinking/talking about it. It was only when I said to someone else to meet me at this time and at this place and I'll bring the gear that we had somewhere to go from.
“He got six guys together and about two weeks after he liked the Facebook post eight of us went to Strakonice to meet them for a joint training session together. It kicked off for him from there and he was able to hold onto those guys and a few more then joined.”
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit travel was limited within Czechia but the Strakonice hurlers kept training away on their own and when the first lockdown ended some of them joined forces with Prague Hibernians to compete in a tournament in Dresden.
Then, literally the day the second Czechia lockdown ended in May this year, the two clubs came together to host that first ever Czechia Hurling Championship match in Strakonice.
The more established Prague hurlers won on a scoreline of 4-24 to 4-6, but the real triumph was that the game had taken place at all.
“You're pinching yourself that you're in the countryside of Czechia playing a hurling match,” says Ryan.
“In the photos that were taken you can see tractors going by and distinctive church buildings in the background. You're just like, 'How did this happen?'
“I even have that feeling whenever we have a big training session. We have one nice pitch that overlooks Prague and you're there with the sun setting and can hear sliotars whizzing around and you're looking out over Prague thinking how did this end up happening?”
The answer to that question is the old sporting truism that if you build it they will come.
Foundations have now been put in place by Prague Hibernians and Píobairí Strakonice, and the intent is to keep going upwards brick by brick in the coming years, and further develop camogie as well as hurling in Czechia.
“That's our long-term goal,” says Ryan. “We'd love to have an actual Czech Championship. I think it could happen, if it can happen in Strakonice it can happen anywhere. So we're just trying to make ourselves as visible as possible so that someone can approach us and say they're interested in setting up a club of their own.
“We'd be happy to help out in any way with joint sessions or equipment.
“A big thing would be if we could get hurling into Charles University and become some sort of social club or something there, much like what Darmstadt did and they're obviously still reaping the benefits of it.
“When all this started I thought that if we had just three or four Irish guys in Prague who were into hurling we could just go behind the goals at football training for a puck-around and then go to Dresden to train with them and play in tournaments.
“But then very quickly we found that non-Irish players could very quickly become good hurlers.
“As a teacher you always enjoy when you see that light-bulb moment in someone's eyes. Learning a new sport is much like learning a language and gets more satisfying the better you get at it.
“It’s great to see the enjoyment that people are getting from learning a new sport, and just to see the huge mix of people that we have, a guy from Australia, a guy from India, Italy, Ukraine, Czechs and Slovaks is fantastic too.
“It’s just a great melting pot of people who are all enjoying themselves so much and it warms your heart, I guess.”