World's Fastest Field Sport
It’s a big game at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium and thousands of rabid fans are cheering as if their lives depend on it. There’s end-to-end action from 30 burly players, goalposts that look like a rugby and soccer mash-up and a small ball being thwacked around with what seem to be squashed-flat hockey sticks.
Welcome to hurling – Ireland’s oldest and most beloved sport – where the feverish pace makes instant fans of first-time spectators, whether or not you know the rules.
“There really is something special about this game,” says Dublin team forward Ryan O’Dwyer, who recalls a 2011 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final as his biggest match. “It was the first time we’d qualified for that stage in 50-something years and I felt lucky to be on the pitch. But I was so focused on the game, I didn't really notice the 70,000 spectators.”
Even larger crowds are not uncommon for a game that courses through the veins of many locals. Administered throughout Ireland by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) – the volunteer-driven sporting and cultural organization that also runs handball, rounders and Gaelic football – hurling’s folkloric roots stretch back at least 2,000 years.
Players use a hurley (the stick that’s also called a camán in Gaelic) to hit the hard, leather-seamed sliotar around a pitch that’s typically a third longer than CFL fields. Points are scored between the H-shaped posts over the crossbar (one point) or under the crossbar and into the goal (three points). And while shoulder charging is allowed, mandatory helmets are the players’ only protection.
But there’s an even bigger difference between hurling and the major sports of other countries: Ireland’s hurlers are all unpaid amateurs with regular jobs outside the game.
“I know it seems strange to a professional sports person and at times I do think I'm a little mad,” says O’Dwyer, who devotes around 20 hours a week to the game beyond his 40-hour schoolteacher commitments. “But there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. The honour of playing far outweighs the workload.”
It’s this kind of humble passion that underpins participation in the thousands of GAA club and county teams that operate in Irish communities of all sizes. Based in Kildare – 55km southwest of Dublin – Aoife O’Brien plays and watches both Gaelic football and hurling but she prefers the latter for its heightened pace and skill.
“Whole towns revolve around the club. It’s where all your family and friends are. And if you’re not playing, you’re volunteering to help. As for the players: they do it for the love of the game – I think that’s an important part of why the fans are also so committed.”
Back at Croke Park – where the year’s hottest ticket is early-September’s All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final – the stadium’s popular GAA Museum and behind-the-scenes guided tours provide illuminating introductions to the game for newbies.
Museum visitors learn that early sliotars were made from cow hair and spittle and that ash is the best wood for hurleys. And alongside the museum’s Gaelic football exhibits – the sport is even more popular in some parts of Ireland – a glittering trophy cabinet houses the Liam MacCarthy Cup, hurling’s holy grail equivalent of the Stanley Cup.
After the history lesson, the stadium tour shows just how popular Irish sports are today. The GAA’s giant national venue, 82,300-capacity Croke Park is reputedly Europe’s third-largest stadium – behind London’s Wembley and Barcelona’s Nou Camp. Rebuilt in recent years, even its high-tech TV screen is larger than a tennis court.
It’s an indication that there’s big money in hurling. But rather than lining the pockets of players, coaches or owners, it’s plowed right back into the grassroots.
“GAA clubs are the symbol of being Irish,” says Tadhg Cowhig who began helping with match-day programs “by accident” 20 years ago and now runs a company that publishes them. “So many people give their time and these teams really do their communities proud – the craic and the camaraderie is palpable.”
Adding that hurling’s 70-minute matches are often edge-of-your seat exciting, he says fans connect more with the game because they know it isn’t about money or fame.
It’s an approach exemplified by top hurlers like O’Dwyer. “We all strive to play at the highest level. I try to live as professional a lifestyle as possible: I eat properly, stay away from drink and get my fitness work done. It’s a challenge while I’m also working and raising a family but I absolutely love it!”
He’s also convinced that visiting Canadian sports fans will love watching a game that’s often regarded as the world’s quickest grass sport. “If I had to give one bit of advice for first-time spectators, I would suggest going in summer. It’s when the ground is hard – and the game is at it’s fastest.”
If you go:
To catch a game at Dublin’s Croke Park, check the schedule and book tickets via www.crokepark.ie. You can also book behind-the-scenes tours and visit the stadium’s popular on-site museum.