Our first full day in Ireland turned out to be the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship, between County Clare and County Cork. As we drove west from Dublin to Galway, we kept passing cars decked out in blue and yellow flags. As we got to Clare, we started seeing homes with all manner of decorations.
Since we were in Clare at the appointed time, our Vagabond guide, Wendy, asked if we’d like to stop into a pub to watch the match. This is a great example of the benefit of a small, personalized tour–they can be nimble in the way a large tour never could. Chatting with strangers in pubs while getting a glimpse of every day Ireland was really our top priority, so we were happy to go with Wendy’s improvisation.
Like everywhere in Ireland, people were friendly and welcoming, answering all our questions about the sport. Hurling is like a blend of field hockey and lacrosse. 15 players on as side try to get the ball, or sliotar, through the uprights, either above the crossbar for one point, or below it for a goal, which is three points. They whack the ball with a stick called a hurley that has a bit of a clubbed end, which is scooped on one side. It looks rather like a field hockey stick.
Wendy had gone over the basics of play and scoring, but it was interesting to learn more about hurling as a cultural institution. Played for over 3,000 years, hurling is one of the Gaelic sports, governed by the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association.) All the players are amateurs (one was in college, another an investment banker) who practice nights and weekends. Because they aren’t paid, all the money from ticket sales goes back into the sport, such as the upkeep of fields, buying supplies, and generally making the sport accessible for people of all ages throughout Ireland. Thanks to this business model, all children can play the game free of charge.
I learned that Gaelic football and hurling are held in higher regard than regular football, AKA soccer. Winning the finals is a point of pride for the team and the county. Those watching were quick to point out that stars were likely to drink for free till the end of their days in their home counties.
The amateur nature (as well as the cultural relevance and pride) of hurling strike me as the spirit that the Olympics aims for but often misses. I like that the sport is so financially accessible, and we noticed that while fans were vocal, they were appreciative of all skill, even from the opposing team.
The biggest surprise of all was that the final ended in an intense comeback by Cork, which resulted in a tie. And that was it. No shoot out, no overtime. This simply would not fly in America. It turns out they went on to have a re-match, and everyone is happy. For Cork, who was losing, they were happy to have battled back. Clare was happy not to have lost in the last minute. Fans get to watch another heated game, and the GAA gets to make more money which it can pour back into the sport.
It was great to learn more about hurling and a pocket of Irish life I had never before encountered. The GAA has a little Gaelic Games clinic for tourists, stag/hen parties, and the like where you learn the history, rules and some chants of hurling and Gaelic football. You even get to scrimmage a bit at Croke Park in Dublin, where the finals are held. We ran out of time on this trip, but I’d love to try it out the next time we’re in town.
Image by Peggy Harrington.