Monday 24 October 2016

Irish-Argentinians blazed a trail for rugby - when they ran out of hurleys

Ita O'Donnell

Published 17/10/2015 | 02:30

Ita O'Donnell
Ita O'Donnell

Travel, as they say, broadens the mind. All the same, you can understand my surprise when I visited a hurling club in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and came across a group of men locked together in what I was told was a "Bajada".

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I would later learn that this was Argentinian for "scrum", a part of the game of rugby they had elevated to the level of an art form.

This was 1988, as I mentioned in a hurling club a long way from home on a foreign field that should have been forever Ireland; it was an odd place to learn about rugby.

In 2015, the game is now firmly a national sport but I can remember being amazed to discover a passion for it amongst the Buenos Aires hurlers.

Growing up in Ireland, there always appeared to be a divide on rugby; apart from a few pockets of leafy Dublin, Cork and Limerick, it was regarded as a foreign, somewhat sniffy, imported English game.

In those pre-O'Driscoll, unpaid, far-off days, rugby was a game we didn't want, didn't 'get', and didn't follow. It has since dug its heels deep into the Irish heart. At its essence, rugby is sport, craic, temporary rivalry with a seeping unity made up in handshakes and awkward bear hugs after games.

For long we played hard to get, Ireland had this sticky stumbling ground with a sport that came with different gear, colours, pitches, clubs, club houses and it appeared the preserve of the middle classes.

Besides, we had the hallowed GAA grounds for Gaelic football, hurling and camogie in one location and were happy to keep the rugby grounds in another.

Rugby was also seen as a ladder for the aspiring upwardly mobile family on the touch line. The idea that one could have the best of both worlds almost seemed heretical.

By degrees though, Irish parents began developing a feel for it, and so sacreligiously a bridge forged the divide between the grounds and the pitches of Irish sport. The GAA even let it be played at the Croke Park cathedral.

Just as Ireland has evolved as a nation with emigration, migration, crowned with a steep learning curve in the fast birth of multiculturalism, so rugby has been smuggled in and landed plonk in the middle of mainstream Irish sport.

It has made it, big time, into the Irish pub and onto the kitchen telly. Yes, Michael O'Leary, it appears, has also bridged the class gap in his open neck, tie-free attitude in the boardroom providing affordable air travel to the once-deprived lower classes, inviting them to sup at higher tables in Paris or follow the lads to Rome.

But back to Argentina! In 1988, I found myself being invited by default to join the sister of a nursing friend who was touring.

Irish visitors were a rarity and we beheld some fine men appointed to chaperone us! In their Irish English accents, we could trace which country their grandparents hailed from and with Ronnie Delaney, Rudolfo O'Reilly and Fernando McLoughlin, a good few nights were had by all.

Louise Donlon, of Moydow, Longford (and Limerick's Lime Tree Theatre) was in arrivals in Buenos Aires with her vast Irish Argentine family. I thought this is going to be 'the craic' and I was right! Louise, on keyboards, invited me, an adopted cousin with my guitar and poems, to perform with her at many shindigs.

As part of our visit, we went for 'lunch' to their local hurling club, that in those days was way ahead of the curve in Ireland: mixing pitches and making love to the nation playing an unheard-of rugby game.

It was explained that during and after the Second World War, it was impossible to get hurls out to Argentina and thus rugby took off on the same ground, providentially some decades ahead of the home country.

With the Irish Argentines normally rooting for Ireland, it'll be a shout for Argentina despite their 100 years of settlement. The Irish-blooded captain, Agustín Creevy, is their bush in the gap face of disloyalty.

We visualise success for Ireland on Cardiff's Celtic pitch.

Even if Argentina is as big as Europe, we can sling them one in the eye of sport, just as David slew Goliath!

Irish Independent

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