Irish raiders on song in battle of ancient sports

IT’S a sad fact that there were as many Irish spectators as there were local fans at Levenhall Links on Saturday to see Edinburgh East Lothian Shinty Club take on a visiting Irish hurling side.

In a rare opportunity to see a combined-rules game in the Capital, EEL hosted Mellowes Hurling Club from Galway.

Shinty is a fringe sport in Scotland, with a mere 34 clubs - and only seven in the central belt - while in Ireland hurling is the nation’s passion and the number of clubs runs into thousands.

Most Irish clubs have second, third and fourth sides, while EEL is only now on the verge of being able to create a second competitive side.

The two games share the same ancient origins, but in the intervening centuries fortune has favoured the Irish game - and that luck held for the visitors, who came away with a 6-1 victory.

Before the match EEL were anticipating a tough task, even though they didn’t know what to expect from their opponents - a little like a Scottish junior football side about to face a touring Brazilian outfit.

"I really don’t know anything about them," EEL captain Kim McGillivray said before the touring side arrived. "We’re just hoping that they don’t show up in the same coloured kit."

Those fears were allayed a few minutes later when a horde of men in green shirts were spotted coming across the links, but the size and battle scars of Liam Mellowes captain Niall Elwood soon prompted a fresh set of concerns.

Then it was time to discuss the combined rules of the game. The principal difference is in the sticks - shinty players use camans, while hurlers use hurleys.

The caman is a great deal longer, with a wedge-shaped business end, while the flat-ended hurleys are much better for catching and juggling the ball in the air.

While there were a few former hurlers in the EEL side, most of the Irishmen had never even seen a caman - a fact EEL were unable to exploit when the teams switched sticks for the final ten minutes of the game.

The hurling system of putting the ball back into play from the halfway line rather than the corner was employed, and shinty goals were used - higher and narrower than a hurling goal, and without the rugby-style posts through which points can be scored in hurling.

EEL’s regular keeper was off with flu, and it was with a sacrificial air that Euan Boag-Thomson was chosen to face the music. He made some fine saves earlier on, but was unable to prevent Liam Mellowes from leading 4-0 at the break. The Irish side’s dominance was almost complete in the first period, as they exploited their aerial skill to the full, and EEL were hard pressed to even break into the Liam Mellowes half. That changed on the resumption of play, and the home side came close to scoring in a frantic goalmouth scramble that left four players muddied and bruised. There was a fine sequence of play following the ensuing free hit, and EEL forward Graeme Ritchie struck a composed goal from the right flank with the Irish keeper stranded.

Despite a much more balanced second period, EEL were unable to add to their tally - and when the sticks were switched for the final ten minutes the shorter hurleys meant many of the home players were frequently swiping at thin air.

When time was called, EEL’s goalscorer Ritchie hot-footed it back to get showered and behind the bar at the nearby Levenhall Arms - unfortunately he was a bit busier there than he was in his forward role on the pitch.

The Irish side issued an invitation for a return match in Galway - which, if EEL can keep their place at the top of Division 2 South and earn promotion, will make for a grand end-of-season celebration.

Meantime EEL will keep trying to promote shinty in the Capital. With more than 30 pupils at the Gaelic-Medium Tollcross Primary playing the game and a second EEL side on the way, there's plenty of room for new players.

Anyone interested can visit edinburghshinty.com or contact secretary Fraser Gordon on 0131-538 1737.