Saturday, September 10, 2005

the clash of the ash

Given Ireland’s reputation as a nation of seasoned drinkers, I reckon there are few in America who would be surprised that “hurling” was one of our national pastimes over here.

To the unititiated, however, it may be important to point out that the hurling to which I refer has a lot less to do with this…

And a lot more to do with this…

Tomorrow, on the second Sunday in September as is the tradition, teams representing the counties of Galway and Cork will battle it out for the biggest prize in the game of Hurling, The All-Ireland Senior Championship. They will play at this country’s most impressive sporting facility, Croke Park, which is where I saw U2 play a few months back.

Here’s a brief history of the sport :


Hurling is one of the fastest and most skilful field games in the world. It is an ancient Gaelic sport, played long before the coming of Christianity. The earliest written record of the game is contained in the Brehon Laws of the fifth century. The first great hurling hero was Setanta whose legendary adventures are known to most Irish children. The game was banned by the Statutes of Kilkenny because of its popularity with the Normans.

The 18th century was known as the 'golden age' of hurling. Landlords promoted the game; inter-barony and inter-county games were played. These matches were very well organised; teams lined out in set positions (21 a-side) and the behaviour of each player was controlled by a strict code of honour. Events from 1790 to 1800 caused the gentry to withdraw their support for the game of hurling. This, together with the effects of the Great Famine, severely damaged the development of the game.

A successful revival of hurling commenced in 1884 with the founding of the G.A.A. The Gaelic games are organised on a local level - the parish being the basic unit of organisation. Hence, the national games have become interwined with community spirit and local pride.

I really cannot stress the amount of skill that is required to play this game. Here’s a comparison for those who may be more used to American sports –

Image a man, standing in a field, catching a ball coming down from the sky, aided by a massive hunk of leather on his hand, and totally uncontested.

The average salary for a Major League Baseball player = just under $2million/year (courtesy of usatoday)

Now imagine another man, catching a ball coming down from the sky, barehanded, holding a stick in his other hand, with four or five other sticks flailing wildly around him.

The average salary for a player in Sunday’s All Ireland Hurling Final = €0/year (for those not up with exchange rates, that’s $0/year)

Yes, even in 2005, while although there may be many perks for the top players, they officially have amateur status, and must work full time jobs on top of their training regimens.

Before you think I’m totally behind this policy, think again. I have many qualms about the sport’s governing body, the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), and one of them is about paying the players. Their sports generate a lot of revenue, just as much as our other professional team sports in this country, and serious questions have to be asked about where exactly the bucks tend to stop.

But none of that will worry the 15 men from each team that will take the field on Sunday, for it will no doubt be the greatest moment of their sporting lives.

Unfortunately, the game known as “Gaelic Football” is much more popular throughout the island, most likely because it involves skills more closely related to soccer, which would also attract sport-hungry youngsters, and would thus at least guarantee they would retain an interest in an “Irish” game, even though it may be a contrived one.

Yet I will always have much more respect for the hurlers. You can't help but find breathtaking the way they effortlessly lift the ball (sliothar in Irish) off the ground and strike it with one swing of their stick (cumann) in such a way that it sails over the goalpost and between the uprights to register a score for their team.

Here’s to all that will be travelling to Dublin today and tomorrow from Cork and Galway respectively; may they have an amazing weekend.

Being a soccer fan myself, however, I can’t help but wonder what quality of national team Ireland would have competing in the World Cup if these Gaelic sports were not in the picture. Oh, well.


Alan said...

As a Brit who moved to Ireland five years ago I got hooked on the hurling when I got taken to Croke Park for one of the semi's that first year (Cork vs Offaly it was, with Offaly unexpectedly winning). One of the most exciting team sports in the world. Shame that most of the Irish seem to consider it as a kind of poor cousin to the Gaelic Football (which by comparison is just a bit dull really).

His Girl Friday said...

My friend from Galway was explaining the game to me which got my curiousity up. I'm in the US, so I had to special order Setanta for the rugby, but at least finally I was able to see Hurling being played. Fantastic!! It actually reminded me some of the way Lacrosse is played.