'Quidditch is just as real a sport as rugby is' - Irish Harry Potter fans on how their sport is misunderstood
From Star Wars' lightsaber battles to post-apocalyptic 'jugger' rampages and Harry Potter's quidditch (without the flying), Lauren Murphy meets the Irish people turning fantasy games into a sporting reality
'When you first hear about it, you think 'Oh, that's just a bunch of nerds casting spells in cloaks and running around with sticks between their legs'," says Eamonn O'Keeffe, explaining exactly why the sport of his choice is misunderstood by the majority of the general population. "And I mean, to be honest, most people who play quidditch are Harry Potter nerds - I won't deny it. But truth be told, it's really very athletic."
Yes, you read that correctly; quidditch, the sport played on broomsticks by Harry Potter and his Hogwarts chums, is a real sport and not just a figment of JK Rowling's imagination. What's more, it's finding a growing audience in Ireland as more and more people are turning away from traditional sports like GAA, soccer and rugby in order to get fit, have fun and build some team spirit in a different kind of way.
Quidditch has been around for seven or eight years in Europe but O'Keeffe, a first-year student at UCD, first began playing it a year ago when the Dublin Draíochta Dragons team was formed at the university. Around the same time, another team called the Northern Wyverns was forming at Queens University, Belfast.
"We've played against each other a few times," he explains. "We've played on the same team a couple of times, and in the past year we've gone all over the place, really; we've gone to Belgium, Denmark, Oslo and the UK a couple of times to represent either our own team, or Ireland, in international competitions."
The sport, says O'Keeffe, may look like a bit of a laugh but it's just as physical as any other - and you don't have to be a Harry Potter fan to get involved, either.
As most fans of the Boy Wizard will know, the fantasy version of quidditch involves two teams on flying broomsticks, with various players - chasers, beaters, keepers and seekers - all attempting to score points, defend their goal, knock each other off their broomsticks and catch the evasive flying 'golden snitch' to end the game.
In the real world version, the rules are similar with some adjustments; there is no flying (unfortunately), the 'brooms' wouldn't be much use for sweeping, and the 'snitch' is attached to a speedy member of the refereeing team who has a ball attached to the back of their shorts - akin to a flag in tag rugby.
"I love Harry Potter, don't get me wrong - but I never considered it to be a 'real' sport," O'Keeffe admits. "But having played it for a year, it's just as real a sport as rugby is; you're running around a pitch getting tackled, trying to get a ball into a goal.
"Unfortunately, because of the 'nerdy' basis that it originated from, there's a lot of stigma around it - but I think the quidditch community in general is actually very divorced from Harry Potter in general, even though we all love it."
With opportunities to travel to international tournaments, make new friends and get fit(ter), all members of the Irish quidditch community have different reasons for taking part, he says - but it has taught him a lot about himself over the past year, too.
"When I was in school, I just didn't like sport," he nods. "It wasn't that I hated sports on principle, but I was always very nerdy and into video games and stuff, so I self-identified as someone who's just not a 'sporty person'. But quidditch has very much tricked me into becoming very athletic.
"I started going to practices and I started enjoying myself, and I kind of figured out that practice was gonna be a lot more fun if I'm not dying at the end of every session - so I started going to the gym.
"A lot of people on our team have had the same thing; out of nowhere, we've become very fit from doing this over the past year. So if there's anyone who's never played sports before but would like to do something fun with their friends that will get them really fit, quidditch is literally perfect.
"It's a huge amount of fun, but it's also very physically demanding. Since I've taken up quidditch, I've also taken up fencing and that's not something I'd ever have done before I joined the Dragons."
If you're thinking of getting involved, there's only one requirement: "You just need to have enthusiasm - that's literally it," he smiles. "If you wanted to get involved and you're around the Dublin area, contact the Dublin team. If you're in UCD, we're looking to set up some training in UCD and if you're in Northern Ireland, the Wyverns are where you want to go. I'd love if there was a team in every county, but at the moment there are just two. Hopefully that will change in the future."
Sarah Bevan struggles with many of the same issues with her own sport of choice, jugger. Like quidditch, jugger is a team sport that also has its origins in a movie - namely Salute of the Jugger (also known as The Blood of Heroes), the 1989 post-apocalyptic film starring Rutger Hauer and written and directed by David Webb Peoples, writer of the original Blade Runner film.
It follows the fortunes of a wandering band of jugger players that roams the desolate landscape from settlement to settlement looking for local teams to challenge.
With various weapons like the longstaff, chain and staff involved - not to mention a 'dog skull' taking the place of a ball - the real-life version isn't as violent as it may sound (although some of the Irish team names, like Rampage, Legion and Setanta may suggest otherwise).
"It's not a prerequisite that people have seen the film to play, but it's nice when people go 'Oh! Is that that film with yer man?' and know what you're talking about," laughs Bevan, a social media manager and graphic designer from Dublin.
"But we're advertising it more as a sport that happens to have come from a movie, rather than something like quidditch, which everyone knows is Harry Potter-related. The difference is, nobody knows this movie - so jugger doesn't have quite the same level of exposure."
Jugger has been around as a sport since the mid-1990s, although it has significantly gained in popularity over the last decade. There are variations in the rules depending on what part of the world you're playing in, but the basic premise is to get the 'dog skull' (ie, ball) into the opposing team's net, dodging opponents and padded weapons as you go.
"There are five people to a team and you might think 'Grand: get the ball over there and into the goal' is easy," explains Bevan. "But it's not so easy when the other team is trying to do the exact same thing, and hit you with stuff at the same time. So in that stop-start sense, it plays more like American football; you're all trying to run towards this one part of the pitch and the other team's trying to stop you and run you back."
Bevan was attracted to jugger after searching for a sport that was a little less traditional than most.
"I'd done badminton, I'd done basketball, I'd done a bit of martial arts - so evidently, I had the energy to do something," she says. "But when a friend of mine who was in college at the time started playing jugger, he said 'You're gonna want to join me' and I was all 'No, no, no - that sounds too crazy.' But he convinced me to try it once, and nine years later, I'm still playing. I think I owe him a pint."
There are four clubs in Ireland - not including the Wild Geese combined team, which has represented Ireland in international tournaments - and the sport is growing all the time, says Bevan.
Every team trains weekly (in either Dublin's Iveagh Gardens or Fairview Park) and play against each other once a month and while she admits that jugger may have a 'nerdy' reputation, just like quidditch, it is a challenging sport. However, you don't necessarily have to be super-fit to start playing.
"Jugger is actually a really good game to get into, because it has a low fitness bar for entry level," she nods. "If you wanna get good at it you obviously have to work on your fitness - but you could come and play a game tomorrow and have a great time with people who'll teach you the rules. It can feel like you're in the middle of a battlefield, in a stupid and wonderful way."
With the Irish team regularly placing highly in tournaments despite it not being hugely popular here, Bevan thinks that there is scope for jugger to grow among the non-traditional sporting community, particularly given the standard of players already active. Those who are interested can get in touch via the official website, or if you want to see how jugger is played for yourself, the first international tournament to be held in Ireland is on the horizon this summer. "We're going to have 35 teams from 10 different countries coming over to play on our little island," she says. "So if people want to see how international jugger is played, come on down to the Wanderer's Rugby Club in Bray on August 4 and 5."
Accessibility and openness plays a big part too in LudoSport, also known as lightsaber combat. If you hadn't already guessed, the combat sport is derived from Star Wars and is fast growing in stature internationally, perhaps partly down to the recent revival of the iconic film series.
"I think it's something different, something fun, and you can take anything you want from it," says Diego Malatesta, who runs Ireland's only LudoSport Academy, based in Dublin. "I mean, it is a sport and we require you to learn the techniques as best you can - but everybody can do LudoSport, whether you're fit or not - as long as you can walk, basically. Some people like to come in and practise the techniques and they're happy to do that; some people like the fighting and the competition bit; other people like being with friends and like-minded people. Although it requires discipline, of course, it's less than what you might expect from a martial art. It's more like we are all friends, and we've basically become a big family."
Web developer Malatesta, who has been a LudoSport practitioner for the last seven years, inadvertently inherited the Irish academy when he moved here from his native Italy three years ago. The sport actually began in Italy around 10 years ago and there are now academies around the world, as more and more people are eager to learn to duel like Luke Skywalker et al and regularly compete in both national and international tournaments.
The sport's founders wanted it to be a mix of entertainment and athleticism and so the name 'Ludo' comes from the Latin 'ludus' meaning to play. However, Malatesta is eager to stress that it's not just people jumping around swooshing lightsabers and trying to look cool.
"It's a combat sport, so it's real; it's not choreographed," he explains. "We have seven styles and some of them are still being developed - but every style stems from a different martial art. Then we adapted it for the instrument, because it's really different from anything that came before - so all the techniques and the style of how you fight need to adapt to the lightsaber, or it won't work physically."
Like the quidditch and jugger players, he says that his chosen sport has impacted his life in a majorly positive way.
"It feeds into a lot of things in my life, and I see this from many students and friends who are involved," he agrees, nodding. "For me, there was a period where I was suffering from anxiety and going to LudoSport training helped me with that.
"I consider myself a generally shy person, but I found that I'm really okay with teaching, for example - so that was interesting. And it's both a physically and mentally stimulating sport, because you need to be quick and also think about your next move and your opponent's next move. So for me, it has everything."
The Irish academy remains small, for now, but with the still relatively new sport on the rise, he is confident that this will change in the coming years.
"We're taking steps to form our own identity that is separate from Star Wars, and this will help it grow," he says. "For example, now there's a comic book project happening in the international LudoSport network called A Story of Light: Polaris, and it's getting a lot of attention. It's a great way for people who are outside LudoSport to get to know us - even if they're not joining the academy themselves.
"The characters are real LudoSport members in a science fiction world - so if you join any LudoSport academy, you could actually end up in the comic book at some point."
Perhaps of all the sports mentioned in this piece, LudoSport may have more of a geeky reputation than most; after all, generations of Star Wars fans have been using only their imaginations to fight until now.
However, Malatesta has some sage advice for the sceptical that could easily apply to quidditch and jugger, too.
"I agree; if you look at it from the outside, you'll think 'Ha! Those guys are playing with lightsabers'," he grins. "But there's much more behind the flashy bits. If someone comes along and tries it for themselves, they'll see that we're actually a serious sport; there is dedication and skill required.
"You need to learn the techniques, how to control your body, how to care for your fellow classmates and how to respect people. I suggest everyone should come and watch, and try-out classes are free, you just need to contact me on Facebook. So come and try it for yourself - and then you can decide afterwards whether it's silly or not."
Find out more about quidditch via Facebook.com/quidditchireland; jugger via juggerireland.com and LudoSport via Facebook.com/ludosportireland