All photos courtesy of the Savannah GAA
STARTING A LOCAL sports league with ties to an ancient game may sound like a longshot of an idea during a pandemic, but don’t tell Caleb Harkleroad, or he’ll proudly point out the trophy his Savannah Gaelic Athletic Association teams have won after only a few months in existence.
“I’ve had the idea to start a local league for quite some time,” says Harkleroad, local ambassador for all things Emerald Isle, and vice president of Harkleroad Diamonds & Fine Jewelry on Abercorn Street. “I’m a big follower of GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) sports, and I dabbled in hurling when I was studying in Augusta.”
But Savannah, with all its Gaelic heritage and tradition, didn’t have a league. So this year, just after the Savannah Irish Festival wrapped up, Harkleroad gauged interest and built a small following, then set out to get one started.
“I would not have played a lot of team sports as a kid, and I’ve been following GAA for around ten years, and it’s a game that I love and understand and connect with,” he pauses. “There’s almost like an emotional attachment to it for those of us that love it. Hurling is the oldest game in the world; the Irish say they have been playing it for around 3,000 years.”
The spark to bring about a local club ignited in a place that won’t come as a surprise: with pints raised at downtown Savannah’s O’Connell’s Irish Pub.
“After a meeting of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Daragh Blennerhassett (a native of Ireland now living in Savannah) and I were talking about my wanting to start a hurling league,” recalls Harkleroad. “He played football and suggested we start the two sports together. After meeting a lot of other interested folks at this year’s Savannah Irish Festival, the ball got rolling, and things took off from there. About 6 of our current members got together at O’Connell’s on February 20, and the rest is pretty much history.”
The plans were laid to field two co-ed teams: hurling and Gaelic football.
“We decided to go the official route, so we got in touch with the USGAA (U.S. Gaelic Athletic Association) on a conference call, we got our official recognition as a new club, then COVID happened. So we just sat on the idea for a little while, hitting the ball around as a group in Forsyth Park. People came up to ask what we were doing, and it started some interest in the general community.”
But he admits the pandemic definitely put a damper on the organization’s growth.
“We had to figure out a way to meet and practice safely,” says Harkleroad. “We started getting together as a small group, inviting people to watch while wearing masks and social distancing. At one of the practices, Mayor Van Johnson showed up for a masked photo-op with local media and promoted our safety measures. Things just grew from that point.”
So what is hurling and Gaelic football anyway? Think lacrosse (which has its roots in hurling), maybe a mixture of soccer and rugby. The idea here is similar: get an object in a goal to score points.
“There are 15 people on each team, so 30 players on the field at one time,” explains Harkleroad. “There’s a goalie, two in the backline, a midfield line and two forward lines.”
Then, using a wooden stick called a hurley, USGAA.org says the object is “to hit a small ball called a sliotar between the opponent’s goalposts either over the crossbar for one point, or under the crossbar into a net guarded by a goalkeeper for one goal, which is equivalent to three points.”
The rules are similar in Gaelic football, except the players use a larger, spherical ball—similar to a soccer ball—to advance and score.
“There is contact involved in both sports—same setup for both, as far as the field goes. They’re both extremely physical sports,” says Harkleroad.
After a few months of practice every Thursday evening in the park, and enough participants to make up the teams (there are currently 19 members), the group was ready to hit the road for competition with other regional squads.
“I reached out to a couple different clubs about getting a match on the books, because we had been practicing just the sake of it,” says Harkleroad. “And Orlando and their club’s chair Jimmy Darba was ready to go. They rolled out the red carpet for us down there.”
They traveled to Orlando in early November. Everyone chipped in for an Air B&B, then set out for an amazing day, showing off their newly-acquired skills. They brought home a trophy.
“We had two matches at Barnett Park in Orlando,” beams Harkleroad. “One in hurling and one in football. I felt like we were actually stronger in football, but we brought home the trophy in hurling!”
The trophy is currently—and very proudly—on display at O’Connell’s Pub for all to see.
One current member, Damien Shields—a native Irishman himself, and one of the original founders of the club—reflects on what being a part of a group like this means to him, to cherish a game he loves in a place so far away from his homeland.
“Win or lose, it was always a magnificent experience to meet up with fellow countrymen on a Sunday morning. Post-game there was always a sing-song and regaling of old stories,” says Shields. “Then I moved to Savannah, where for the first 12 months I never heard an accent from home. Then one fateful day I met the current committee and shortly after, we set up Savannah GAA. Months later we have assembled one of the finest bunch of strangers who have become close friends and teammates. We ventured on the road to Orlando, and behold! We beat a strong hurling team in our inaugural game to win our first ever trophy for the club. It was a moment we will all remember forever. Our first team. Our first game. Our first taste of victory. It cemented our friendships and grouted the walls of our new club.”
“The Savannah GAA is all about community,” Harkleroad adds. “We are like a second family. We always meet for drinks and dinner and have become close very quickly, which was only augmented by our win on the road. Our local motto is ‘Culture. Community. Craic.’” Craic being the Irish word for “Fun”.
The future looks bright for Savannah GAA, even through a trying 2020. There are around 16 regional clubs from Georgia, North and South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee. And the club has plans to host a few tournaments of their own, maybe surrounding some of the big Irish celebrations here in Savannah.
“We are co-ed right now,” says Harkleroad. “Ideally, we’d like there to be four full teams, but we would need 100 people to do that.”
So they are always looking for more talent, or in this case, family members.
“The motto of the Gaelic Athletic Association is ‘where we all belong’,” says Harkleroad. “It’s not just for Irish; it’s for anyone and everyone who wants to learn together and have a great time together. I hear people say they haven’t joined a lot of leagues here in Savannah because they can seem a little cliquish. But we’re not about that. I think about being in Savannah: a city with great Irish heritage, to know there wasn’t a GAA here, and to see we are playing and growing this ancient sport of our ancestors. Our club is very proud of that.”
The objective of the game is for players to use a wooden stick called a hurley to hit a small ball called a sliotar between the opponent’s goalposts either over the crossbar for one point, or under the crossbar into a net guarded by a goalkeeper for one goal, which is equivalent to three points. The sliotar can be caught in the hand and carried for not more than four steps, struck in the air, or struck on the ground with the hurley. It can be kicked, or slapped with an open hand (the hand pass) for short-range passing. A player who wants to carry the ball for more than four steps has to bounce or balance the sliotar on the end of the stick, and the ball can only be handled twice while in his possession.
The objective of the sport is to score by kicking or punching the ball into the other team’s goals (3 points) or between two upright posts above the goals and over a crossbar 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) above the ground (1 point).
Players advance the football, a spherical leather ball, up the field with a combination of carrying, bouncing, kicking, hand-passing, and soloing (dropping the ball and then toe-kicking the ball upward into the hands). In the game, two types of scores are possible: points and goals. A point is awarded for kicking or hand-passing the ball over the crossbar, signalled by the umpire raising a white flag. A goal is awarded for kicking the ball under the crossbar into the net, signalled by the umpire raising a green flag.