Gaelic football, hurling gain foothold in Tacoma

Some are Irish. Some have Irish ancestry. And others just like the sports.

“When people see these games, they just fall in love with them,” Rory O’Flaherty said.

O’Flaherty — wearing a jersey and shorts — was waiting for the start of a scrimmage Saturday between the Tacoma Rangers Hurling & Gaelic Football Club and the Seattle Gaels at Tacoma’s Jane Clark Park.

He’s one of the couple of dozen players who make up the club, which plays the traditionally Irish sports of Gaelic football and hurling against other Pacific Northwest teams.

O’Flaherty, the chief financial officer for an IT consulting company, moved to the United States from Dublin when he was 8.

In 2013, the now 49-year-old was at his son’s lacrosse game when he turned around and saw a hurling match behind him. He picked up a stick, started playing and ended up joining the club, which started in 2012.

“Think of a baseball getting hit at you,” he said of hurling. “You’re also swinging on the run.”

Gaelic football involves kicking or carrying something that resembles a volleyball but is heavier. It sort of combines soccer, rugby and volleyball.

Hurling is similar, but uses something like a baseball, which players hit with a stick that’s a mix between a bat and a hockey stick.

In Ireland, teams play 15 to a side, but the Tacoma club usually plays 13 at the most. Sometimes it’s 11, nine or, on a slow day, seven players.

Both sports require hand-eye coordination and are fast-paced — and higher-scoring than soccer, club members said.

Hud Wilkins, who founded the Tacoma group, said he didn’t start getting a consistent number of players until January 2013.

The youngest is about 20, the oldest maybe 50, he said. More than half are in the military, including Wilkins, a soldier at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Though the games can be rough, players don’t need to know a lot about the sports to join. Pretty much anyone is welcome.

The team practices twice a week, about 11 months a year, and plays in tournaments approximately once a month. They go up against about a half-dozen other Northwest teams.

“We’ve been starting out as a young team,” Wilkins said. “We haven’t had a whole lot of wins.”

The next big local tournament will begin at 10 a.m. March 28 at the soccer fields at Fort Steilicoom Park, 8714 87th Ave. SW in Lakewood.

Tom Lagan, a Boeing engineer who moved to Seattle from Belfast, Northern Ireland, 20 years ago, coaches the Tacoma club in Gaelic football.

“There’s quite a mixture of lads,” he said of the team.

Sharing Irish history and culture is also part of the game. Logan said he’s helped a couple of players research their Irish genealogy and to learn bits of the Gaelic language.

Even in Ireland, hurling and Gaelic football are amateur sports, which he likes.

“We’re not professionals at all,” Logan said, adding that it would be fun to take the Tacoma club to play in Ireland some day.

“That’d be good, because we get invites quite a lot,” he said.

Liam Boyle, a member of the Seattle club, said he’s been playing Gaelic football for about 60 years. He said he was impressed by the young Tacoma team.

“It’s always good to meet someone from back home,” he said.

After the match, Boyle planned to join the team at Doyle’s Public House, a sponsor of the Tacoma club and a sort of unofficial clubhouse for the group.

“If you can drink, you can play; If you can play, you can drink,” Boyle said.