FORT PIERCE — A bit of cloud cover brought relief to two teams hashing it out at Lawnwood Stadium this past Sunday afternoon.
“You’ve got time!” someone shouted, giving encouragement to their teammate in possession of a ball called a sliotar, which is slightly larger than a tennis ball and made with a cork core.
A player in a blue and white Tampa Bay GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) jersey strikes the sliotar off his hurley (an ash bat roughly shorter than a hockey stick with a curved end), and sails it between two goal posts for one point.
The game is “hurling,” and four teams from around Florida traveled to Fort Pierce over the weekend for this special day during which two cities stretched thousands of miles apart joined together for fellowship and competition.
Mick Finn, the lord mayor of Cork (an honorary title given to the chairman of the Cork City Council), flew in from Ireland for this inaugural “Fort to Fort” event, which also included Fort Piece Mayor Linda Hudson.
Fort to Fort was started when one local resident, Marian O’Leary, whose home was in Cork until she moved to Fort Piece 31 years ago, wanted to unite her two home cities together.
“I’m an American citizen and my beautiful home in Ireland is always in my heart,” Mrs. O’Leary said. “So, I’m connecting both of my homes from Fort Pierce to the forts of Cork, just having the best of both worlds and bringing everyone in together in the spirit of friendship and cultural exchange.”
The launch of Fort to Fort first began with a conversation with Lord Mayor Finn about visiting Fort Pierce for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. After a few more discussions, the idea was brought to the Cork City Council and was met with approval.
“We planted a seed with Mayor Hudson a number of years ago and she was just truly excited about that possibility of joining both of our communities,” Mrs. O’Leary explained. “She brought it to her city council and the invitation became an official document from the city of Fort Pierce, and was sent to the delegation in Ireland.”
The Fort to Fort event featured an hour-long match of hurling between the South Florida GAA (based in West Palm Beach) and the Tampa Bay GAA, and included members of the Orlando and Brevard Hurling Clubs mixed in.
Hurling is a fast-paced game on grass played typically with nine players a side in Florida, although with Sunday’s turnout, the game was played with 12 members each side.
The sliotar can be struck on the ground, held in the hand up to four steps or struck from the air (similar to striking a baseball) with the objective of getting it through a football goal post for one point or under the posts and through a soccer net for three points.
The hurling match was followed by Gaelic football, which was the between the Orlando Hurling Club and the Brevard Hurling Club (with members of South Florida GAA and Tampa Bay GAA added in the mix).
Gaelic football is similar to soccer but the ball can be held in the hands up to four steps before passing it on or “resetting” the steps with a bounce on the ground. The point system is similar to hurling.
South Florida won the hurling match with a score of 08-10 (eight goals for three points each, 10 single points) leading by eight points, and Orlando won the football match with a score of 07-05 (seven goals for three points each, five single points) leading by two points.
A special guest joined in the camaraderie, someone who hadn’t played in nearly 20 years – the Lord Mayor of Cork.
“I enjoyed it, it was great,” Lord Mayor Finn said. “I had planned to come to the U.S. [for] a long time to visit the Irish communities. I was delighted to be able to do it, and it was great to see Irish music, Irish culture and Irish sports being played here in a corner of America where it’s maybe not always played.”
John Gardiner, a member of the South Florida GAA, originally hails from Cork where he played for the Cork senior team. During his time playing hurling in Ireland, Mr. Gardiner earned two All-Ireland championship medals, which the Lord Mayor compared to winning the Superbowl.
“Going forward, we’re hoping to have more of these exchanges in terms of culture, business and tourism,” Lord Mayor Finn said.
The festivities included an opening with a bagpiper playing the Irish national anthem, followed by a young singer who sang both the Irish and American national anthems. In between half-times of the matches, two young Irish dancers entertained an audience to the tune of classical Irish music.
While each player left the field in high spirits from a day well played, one left with a heavy heart as he goes on to a new adventure in Texas.
Branden Adams, the founder of South Florida GAA, spent his last matches in Florida with a head held high and a proud team of hurling winners.
“It’s been sad to let go, but I’m moving to Texas and hopefully I can find another club again,” Mr. Adams said. “I started it when I moved here in 2013, after having run a club with another guy in Tallahassee. We had some mild success, even getting a New York team to come down to play hurling and football.”
As tents were taken down, jerseys, hurleys and gear put away, members made their way to the old city hall for an afternoon of food, music and relaxation.
For more information, visit www.forttofort.com or search for “South Florida GAA” and “Brevard Hurling Club” on Facebook.