Hurling, Argentina and the Irish
When we think of sport in Argentina the names that immediately spring to mind are those of Messi, Maradona, Kempes and other greats of South American football. However, thanks to the efforts of thousands of Irish immigrants to Argentina in the late 19th century, our own treasured sport of hurling managed to gain an unlikely foothold in the country, and incredibly is still thriving to this day. The story of hurling’s establishment and survival in Argentina is testament to the national pride and hard work of these pioneers, many of them from Counties Longford, Westmeath and, predominantly, Wexford. Their determination to preserve their national identity and cultural characteristics while integrating themselves into this very different new world is a prime example of the remarkable ability of our native culture to survive such major upheavals as massemigration.
Only three or four years after the establishment of the modern day GAA in Thurles, Co Tipperary in 1884, hurling made its first appearance in Buenos Aires, capital city of Argentina and main destination for thousands of Irish emigrants to South America in the late 19th century. These initial forays were likely to have been informal and un-codified in nature, as games sprang up around areas such as Mercedes and in the Passionist monastery of Saint Paul in Capitan Sarmiento. The first record of an organised hurling match dates back to May of 1900 when an exhibition game was played on the land of the Irish Catholic Association in the district of Caballito, now a public square known as Plaza Irlanda.
This match was organised by William Bulfin, (1864-1910) of Birr, County Offaly, a prominent member of the Irish diaspora in Argentina and editor of the weekly newspaper for the Irish Catholic community, The Southern Cross. This newspaper, which still survives today, quickly became an important organ for promoting hurling and other aspects of Irish culture, and over the course of the early 1900’s there were many articles explaining the rules and nuances of hurling. In July of that year, the first “official”(i.e. non-exhibition) hurling match that exists on record took place between teams from two seperate districts of Buenos Aires, Palermo and Almagro. Due to the shortage of adequate equipment at the time, the game was limited to two teams of nine players each, rather than the customary seventeen.
The Buenos Aires Hurling Club was officially established in the wake of this match, with James Patrick Harte of County Cork elected as its first president. The club immediately became a legitimate member of the GAA, making history as the first club of its kind in South America. Games soon began to be played regularly at weekends, and were even reported on in the Argentine daily newspaper, La Nacion. Some of the clubs that played hurling during the early days of the new Argentine Federation of Hurling were: Buenos Aires Hurling Club, Mercedes, Wanderers, Bearna Baoghail, La Plata Gaels, Almirante Brown Capilla Boys, Saint Patrick’s Alumni, Saint Patrick’s Mercedes, Fahy Boys, St. Pauls, Irish Argentines, Juniors, New Lads, Santos Lugares, Club Nacional and Belgrano.
There was a strong influence from the Catholic Church and many teams had in their ranks priests or students of the Pallotine or Passionist religious orders, who had either come from Ireland or were of Irish- Argentine descent. In the early part of the 20th century, the predominant religion in Buenos Aires among the business classes was Protestantism. Irish immigrants and those involved in the establishment of Irish sporting and social clubs subsequently used organisations such as hurling clubs as a way of preserving their Catholic identity in a social and commercial milieu which was dominated by Protestantism.
As such, hurling primarily appealed to middle and working-class Irish immigrants rather than the landed Irish-Argentines who owned large tracts of land in the pampas regions of the country. The flourishing popularity of the sport was temporarily halted by the first World War – which put a stop to the importation of hurleys – but this soon resumed in earnest after the war and hurling began to experience a revival. In August 1920, Miguel Ballesty (1876-1950) of Salto, the son of County Westmeath immigrants, called together a meeting of delegates from the four most prominent hurling clubs in the country: Buenos Aires Hurling Club, Mercedes, Bearna Baoghail and Wanderers.
As a result of this meeting, a commission was set up (which subsequently became the Argentine Federation of Hurling) whose responsibility was to research the availability of a playing space dedicated to the sport of hurling, thereby guaranteeing the long-term future of the sport. The first committee was formed by Miguel Ballesty (president); S. Farrell (secretary); Jack Dowling (treasurer); J. Clinton, P. Murtagh, P.J. O’Reilly, E. Ennis and M. Kennedy (committee members). The journey towards securing a long-term home for the sport was to prove a tortuous one. Finances were limited and it proved extremely difficult to find a location that was easily accessible to all by public transport. At first, the committee rented out existing sports grounds such as the one at Alberdi in the district of Boedo, the grounds of Club Singer.
One match played at this venue was to live long in the memory of those present : a game contested between a team of Irish-born players and another composed of native Irish-Argentines. The Irish-Argentine team were to run out emphatic winners in a game which was comprehensively covered by the Southern Cross newspaper. A later move to the sports grounds of Banco Nacion in the barrio of Floresta was initially successful and it was here, on August 22 1922, that the Argentine Federation of Hurling was officially founded. However, just twenty months after moving to this new site the committee was again forced to move due to a new road-building scheme.
Eventually, Miguel Ballesty managed to convince the other members of the committee to move to new, partially-rented quarters at Villa Devoto on the outskirts of the city. In front of a large audience in Villa Devoto on 13 July 1924 the grounds were opened and blessed by Monsignor Santiago Ussher. The inaugural match was between Capilla Boys and Saint Patrick’s Alumni. However, due to the continuing expansion of Buenos Aires’ street planning programme, it would not be long before the hurling club would once again be forced to uproot and move to new territory. With the outbreak of World War II, hurling in Argentina faced its most challenging crisis yet.
For years attempts had been made to find an adequate indigenous alternative to ash as a material for making hurls, but nothing could equal the original source wood for its resilience and suitability for hurling. With the clampdown on importation enforced by war conditions, hurling all but died out in Argentina as club numbers dwindled. Social unrest and regional tribalism resulted in the fomenting of inter-club rivalries which led to violent confrontations that began to threaten the reputation of the sport. It was felt by the community leaders and the clergy that the only way to deal with the issue was to put an end to the playing of hurling. From that point on, hurling would only be played as an exhibition game once a year on 25 May, known locally as Revolution of May Day and a public holiday.
Once the war had ended, the remaining members of the hurling committee decided to launch a concerted fund-raising campaign in an effort to find a permanent home for hurling and launch a definitive revival of the sport. It was also essential to unite the disparate factions that sprang up in the pre-war years and form a single unified hurling institution. After their fund-raising efforts proved successful, the committee arranged the purchase of seven and a half hectares of land in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
This land could now be exclusively used for hurling and other Gaelic games, representing a huge breakthrough for the committee.After years of bitter rivalry the seperate Buenos Aires clubs now joined together under the banner of Hurling Club, and began to participate not only in hurling, but also field hockey and rugby. The first official game to be played at the new grounds was a men’s hockey match against the Chilean-German team, Club Deportivo Manquehue from Santiago in Chile.
There was also a rugby game against the Pacific Railway & Athletic Club de Saénz Peña, now Club Atlético Ferrocarril General San Martín, which Hurling won by 8-6. Club memberships soon began to grow in numbers and the organisation flourished in the 1950’s, even surviving a near-catastrophic fire in 1955 which caused considerable damage to the clubhouse and locker rooms.
The club’s embracing of alternative sports alongside Gaelic games allowed it to integrate more fully into the wider Argentinian society of the time, which would prove essential to the club’s survival right up to the present day. An important element of this was the club’s early admission of female members in the 1930’s, giving women full and equal rights as members. The women’s field hockey team would go on to become one of the club’s most successful sides in competition.
Inevitably, over the decades the club’s “Irishness” has eroded somewhat, but it has still retained its strong Irish identity. When Foreign Minister Dick Spring paid an official visit to the Hurling Club in 1996 he praised the club for its preservation of native Irish culture, recalling later “it was a memorable experience to see the green jersey, complete with shamrock, worn with distinction by the players of the Hurling Club with such names as Scully, Rush and McAllister – in a match against the Rugby Club of Buenos Aires”. In recognition of its strong Irish-Argentine ethos and its capacity to continue the Irish-Argentine sense of identity and links with Ireland, in 2007 the Club was given a grant by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs as part of their annual grants programme to Irish community organisations in the Southern Hemisphere.
Today the club exists as a proud monument to the pride and resilience of those pioneering early emigrants to Argentina from Ireland, who were determined not to allow their national characteristics to fade away in their new homeland.