I went to Boston for a hurling tournament with plans to poke fun at the city’s heavy-handed claim to Irish heritage. Real Irishmen—tall ones, who are good at sports—would show up at the municipal manifestation of a St. Patrick’s Day parade and surely put to shame some drunken Massholes.
Then we had an Irish cab driver. We asked him if he was excited for the hurling tournament that would be held at Fenway the following day. Not really, he said quickly, he’s not a fan of the sport. In an accent that added a non-existent “t” to the end of the word, the cabbie said he was from “Sligo,” a county in western Ireland. Then, without taking his eyes off the steady drizzle on the road, he pulled an oversized piece of paper from the passenger-side glove compartment and handed it back to us. “Here,” he said, “a map of Irish countries. It’s a placemat from some restaurant I went to once.” There was Sligo, towards the top left corner, but before we could learn anymore about the tiny, coastal county, he was talking about hurling. Look just south of Sligo, there’s Galway, winners of the most recent All-Ireland Hurling Championship, and in town for the tournament. South from there is two historic hurling powerhouses that have also come to Boston, Clare and Tipperary.
He talked about hurling all the way to the hotel. Excluding planning for this piece, it was the first conversation I’d ever had about the sport. The presumed provinciality had been part of the appeal. But just a few hours into the trip we’d stumbled upon a Bostonian who was both Irish and, apparently, well-versed in a sport he didn’t even care that much about.
The day of the tournament was first rainy and then frigid, somehow growing colder as the sun came out and the day wore on. And yet the turnout for three artificially abridged games—the hurling played at Fenway, on a smaller field with fewer men and a major scoring component fully eliminated, is practically blasphemy according to staff Ireland expert Dave McKenna—was nearly 28,000 strong. In the stands was the highest density of red hair and newsboy caps that I had ever seen. It seemed like a large portion was there because it was something to do on a Sunday that involved going to the stadium (and taking in the available concessions), but among this self-selecting crowd there were also plenty of real hurling fans with rooting interests and stories about traveling to their ancestral home to see the sport as it was intended. I’m not sure any of these people could actually play hurling, and I’m loath to lend credence to stereotypes, but for one day at Fenway with bagpipe bands circling the concourse, Boston was just about as Irish as it claims to be.