Athletes from around the country are in Philadelphia this weekend for the national championships of a little known sport in America — hurling.

The sport traces its roots back to the early middle ages in Ireland.

"We have early Irish lore from the 7th and 8th century, which describe various injuries to people that occurred in stick and ball games," says Aidan O'Sullivan, senior lecturer in archaeology at University College, Dublin.

Hurling is woven through the country's legends ... such as the hero Cuchulain.

"One day, he goes, with his mother's permission, to play on the playing field at Navan Fort, at the residence of the king of Ireland," O'Sullivan relates.

And he's running across the field with his hurling stick, or hurley, and comes across 150 older boys playing a match.

"He goes out into the middle of them and he grabs the ball, and he runs off with it, and he scores a goal," O'Sullivan says. "And the young fellas aren't particularly impressed with this because it is taboo for a youth to join their game without their permission, them being under the protection of the King of Ulster. So they sack him, and he defends himself with his hurling stick, and he basically chases them off."

Legends describe the sport as a sort of field battle. And when you watch the sport today, you can see its violent roots.

It's complicated

It's full contact. Players do wear helmets, but they check each other a lot. They even fight. But the modern game takes a lot of skill. The hurley stick is about the size of a baseball bat. The flat, roughly circular end is used for striking the ball, a bit smaller than a baseball.

You can scoop it up and strike it out of the air. Or you can bat it with your non-stick hand ... though you can't throw it. The goal of the game is to hit the ball between uprights for one point, or into a soccer-type goal below the uprights for three points. And then there's running with the ball, which is complicated.

"You're only allowed to catch it twice," says Frank O'Meara, who started a hurling club in Philadelphia eight years ago.

"So what that means is that you must play it to your hurl, and then if you catch it again you must hit it again without catching it. That's supposing it doesn't hit the ground or go to a member of the opposition," he says. "Then you're back with your recount of two. You can take four steps with the ball in your hand."

Got that? Basically, its tough to keep possession of the ball. But that's part of what makes the sport so exciting to watch -- lots of passing, lots of turnovers.

O'Meara started the club after immigrating from County Tipperary. The club is now called Na Toraidhe — that's old Irish for 'the pursued' or "the outlaws."

"We basically recruited Irish guys, Irish players and those things. We had a few American guys at the time with us that were obviously new to the game," O'Meara said. "And we went on, progressed for three or four years. We won two North American championships, which was a big honor, big deal."

An accidental convert

A recent practice featured a rag tag mix of Irishmen and Americans.

Alex Stephen started playing just a few months ago.

"The bar that sponsors our team is actually right across the street from my apartment. And I went in there for a couple of beers to watch a Phillies game. And the man sitting next to me is Jason, one of our teammates here.

"And after a couple of glasses of beer, he starts talking to me about how he's on the Philadelphia hurling team, and I mishear him as 'curling team,' with a C. And so I go on this, like, two-minute rant about how much I love curling and Americans don't appreciate it," Stephen says. "And after my rant, he goes, 'No, no, no. Hurling, with an H.'"

Stephen joined anyway, and loves it.

Still, the majority of the team are guys from Ireland who have been playing the game all their lives. Now, this is strictly an amateur sport, both there and here, played for hometown pride. That's what makes it special to players such as Michael O'Halloran from County Waterford.

"You're playing for your family and your friends and people you've known all your life, everyone," O'Halloran says. "We socialize together, we go to church together, you do everything together, so it's quite unique in that way."

Recently, Na Toraidhe won the Philadelphia area championship, handily beating a team from Allentown.

The team is competing in this weekend's national championship, trying to bring yet another national title to Philadelphia — their community.


Video by Kimberly Paynter