They were tired, thirsty, all of them soldiers happy to be headed home to New Hampshire. The troop carrier out of Iraq stopped briefly in Shannon to refuel, and Ireland being what Ireland is, even in the wee hours the airport bar was open — and this curious game of hurling was playing on the TV.
“We had no idea what we were looking at,’’ recalled Eddie Clements, one of the National Guard soldiers whose life in that moment some nine years ago veered sharply to a whole new world of sports. “It was kind of like, ‘Hey, hurling, OK, what’s that? That looks pretty cool.’
“We were at the bar for an hour, maybe a little more, but that’s what sort of planted the seed.’’
It’s because of that brief stop — a serendipitous meeting between a group of US soldiers and an ancient Gaelic field sport dating back some 3,000 years — that come Sunday, the Boston Northeast Gaelic Athletic Association will be paying tribute to the Barley House Wolves, the New Hampshire-based hurling team founded by those soldiers soon after they returned home from their 11 months in Iraq in 2005.
This is a big weekend for the GAA, the start of its football and eventually its hurling seasons at its expansive Irish Cultural Center in Canton. It will be all football, Gaelic style, all the time on Sunday, beginning at 10:30 a.m. with the Connemara Gaels facing the Shannon Blues.
But many Wolves players will take the field for a ceremony at 1:30 p.m., the GAA eager this Memorial Day weekend to salute both their dedication to hurling and their military service.
“Our organization loves these guys,’’ said John Cunningham, chairman of the Boston GAA, his Irish brogue as thick as the lush green grass on the ICC’s main pitch. “We love everything about them.
“It’s their whole story, not just how they found the game, but their whole attitude toward hurling. They march on the field together. They warm up together. They never abuse the officials. They just play. They play it the right way, just the way you’d expect Army guys to play.’’
Clements, 34, was among the Wolves’ founding members. The National Guard unit (the 172d Mountain Infantry of New Hampshire) was led in Iraq by Lieutenant Colonel Ray Valas, who grew up in Canton and envisioned the game as an essential way to keep the unit connected upon its return home.
According to Clements, it was Valas, along with Sergeant First Class Ken Kinsella, who felt it was imperative for the soldiers to maintain their bond, not solely for the fun of playing a new and curious sport they discovered over a beer or two in Ireland, but also to make certain everyone coped effectively after serving nearly a year in a combat zone.
Each and every day for those 11 months in Iraq, Valas noted to his troops, they were in “warrior mode,’’ and history has it that hurling was a training tool of Gaelic warriors. Each of Valas’s 182 warriors returned from Iraq, 14 of them with Purple Hearts.
“All of us came home alive, that’s the important thing,’’ said Clements, still a National Guard member, as well as an assistant brewer with Border Brewery in Salem, N.H.
“A few of us were hurt, seriously hurt, but all of us came home alive.’’
Bits of soccer, baseball
The Wolves, sponsored by the Barley House Tavern in Concord, N.H., number upward of 45 players, many of them with military backgrounds, according to Mike Reynolds, who is both a player and a member of the club’s board of directors.
Of the founding members, only Valas and Clements remain as players. But there is a steady stream of recruits, not only from the local National Guard ranks but from the civilian side, too. A number of police and fire department employees belong to the squad. All males, they range in age from 18 to over 50.
Reynolds, 31 an ex-Army, grew up in Salem, N.H., and knew nothing about the sport until 3-4 years ago. Now, he says, hurling is his passion.
“The fastest-paced field game I’d ever seen, on a par with hockey,’’ said Reynolds. “It combines the skills from a number of games more familiar to us here and puts them together.’’
The slightly modified version of American hurling is played with 13 aside instead of the game’s traditional 15. The ball (sliotar) is roughly the size and weight of a baseball. Each player carries a hardwood stick (hurley) of 30-40 inches, and it is used on offense like a baseball bat, on defense like a lacrosse stick.
“Any play on a ball that is in the air is valid,’’ said Reynolds, noting the game’s inherent opportunity for bumps and bruises. “So if you swing at the ball and it breaks my wrist, well, that’s my fault for being there.’’
Games, fast and physical, are divided into 35-minute halves. The two goals, one at each end of the field, are akin in size and shape to football goalposts, albeit with the portion below the crossbar backed by a net, similar to soccer. A ball batted through the uprights tallies a single point, while a ball smacked into the net (guarded by a goalkeeper) is worth 3 points.
By a North American’s eye, the sport is a mongrel combination of baseball, football, lacrosse, soccer, even field hockey. The smilin’ Irish eye might contend that hurling is the father of all those.
Irish football, noted Cunningham, is more popular in the United States with adult players, typically Irish immigrants and Americans of Irish heritage. But hurling, he said, is experiencing substantial growth in the youth ranks, which the Boston GAA is eager to promote and foster. If kids want to learn hurling, the GAA wants to teach them, and it will make equipment and coaching available (visit bostongaa.com).
“We’re surprised how much the American kids love it,’’ said Cunningham, 34, who came here 16 years ago to launch his career as an electrician. “Not just Irish kids, but all kids.
“It’s a sport played ’round the world
According to Cunningham, the Northeast GAA has nine adult hurling teams and 23 football teams, reaching from the Boston area out to Worcester, Portland, Maine, and Hartford. Stop by the Irish Cultural Center in Canton any weekend, now through Labor Day, and it’s virtually guaranteed one of the two sports will be in action on one of the many fields. Admission for this Sunday is $10, with ample free parking throughout the facility’s 20-plus acres.
The Barley House Wolves captured a national amateur title in 2012, and it’s the constant striving for hurling excellence, noted Clements, that has become the club’s mantra. The Wolves were formed first and foremost as a means for soldiers to look after soldiers, and while that ethos remains today, the focus has shifted more to sport than salve.
It’s a game. It’s sport. The Wolves want to win.
“We’ve got Guard guys, police officers, firefighters . . . and I’d say the majority of us still today have a current or prior military affiliation,’’ said Clements, a halfback when he’s on the field. “So there’s always that feeling out there, that military guys understand military guys. And we absolutely love to play.’’Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.