Undoubtedly the fastest, roughest, most intense sport I’ve ever seen on a field, Hurling is an Irish phenomenon that instantly won my heart. Having been played for over 3,000 years, coming to Ireland with the Celts and featured prominently in Irish folklore, this native game is enjoyed and played by young and old. It can be compared to an interesting mix of field hockey, baseball, lacrosse and rugby – though it is much more compelling to watch. It is known and played internationally as “the fastest game on grass.”
With two teams of fifteen players playing 35-minute halves, the objective of the game is for players to use a “hurley,” (which is the long wooden stick seen in the corresponding photos) to hit a small ball called a “sliotar” between the opponent’s goalposts. If the sliotar makes its way over the crossbar, then its launcher earns their team one point. If it makes its way under the crossbar and past the goalkeeper, then they earn three points. The sliotar can be caught in the hand and carried for four steps, struck in the air, or struck on the ground with the hurley, or, more impressively, balanced on the hurley as the player bolts down the field. A player can also charge another if their opponent has one foot on the ground and is in possession of the ball, playing the ball, or when both players are moving in the direction of the ball to play.
The amount of skill that is founded in this sport is unimaginable: these men wear no protective padding aside from a helmet atop their heads, catching the sliotar that is catapulting from the other end of the pitch with their bare hands, all the while having other players swinging three feet of timber around them. What’s more impressive is that the highest honour, playing in the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship at Croke Park, is an amateur endeavour. No one wears their name on the back of their jersey, no one gets paid to play, and a man’s number solely reflects the position he plays, all aspects which underscore a selfless appreciation for the game.
As history has it, when the Celts came to Ireland, they brought with them a unique culture, and with it came Hurling. It is featured in Irish folklore to illustrate the deeds of heroic figures and is chronicled as a distinct Irish pastime for thousands of years. Some of the most notable stories feature Ireland’s mythological hero, Cu Chulainn. It is said that he defeated a team of 150 boys single-handedly, and killed an attacking hound by driving a sliotar down its throat. His iconic talent was flinging the sliotar long distances, and then driving it further by throwing his hurley to smack it in midair.
With many Irish traditions being suppressed under English rule, Hurling somehow managed to survive. In the Middle Ages, English law banned adoption of hurling, “from which great evils and maims have arisen.” Though some organized games were later granted, many English and Protestant tenants withdrew their support for fear of large gatherings potentially leading to political rebellion. The clergy disapproved, the Gardai disturbed large gatherings, and some areas even used matches to settle scores – and yet, the love of the game persisted.
Having had enough of this athletic oppression, Michael Cusack, an Irish school teacher who began championing Irish customs, later established the Gaelic Atheltic Association. In orchestrating his crusade, he wrote that, “a hurling match is like a city on fire, where the crackling of burning timber and the hissing of the flames swell into the roar of conflagration. We never heard sweeter music than that of the hurling field.” The GAA provided a nationwide structure for Irish sports, “based on parishes and territorial boundaries, all with an implicit rejection of English ways.” The GAA has, since then, consist of football, hurling, camogie (female equivalent of hurling), rounders (equivalent of baseball), and handball.
This year’s 2015 GAA All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship began Saturday, July 4th. Comparable to the Stanley Cup of Hurling, at the end of every summer and the beginning of every autumn, the top thirteen inter-country teams battle it out in a straight knockout competition for the McCarthy Cup. The All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final was recently listed in second place by CNN for “10 sporting events you have to see live,” just after the Olympic Games.
With Kilkenny currently holding the all-time record of championships won, winning 35 times since its establishment, they are set to compete for the title once more in next week’s final on Sunday, September 6th, going up against their worthy adversary, Galway. It is a match that is no doubt worth screening, and can even be viewed here, overseas in Canada, by clicking this link here. You can also click here to see the current fixtures that have unfolded throughout this year’s hurling championship.
Youtube vdeo provided by Daragh Kelly.
The photos and video featured in this post were taken by the author from the Leinster Hurling Championship Quarter-Finals between Dublin and Galway on May 31st, 2015. The match ended in a 0-20 to 1-17 draw (the numbers on the left representing points gained under the crossbar for 3 points each, with the numbers on the right representing points gained over the crossbar for 1 point each). The Galway team made it to the Leinster finals, losing to Kilkenny with a score of 1-25 to 2-15 on July 5th.
Reference: A Passion for Hurling, the All-Ireland Game by Dan Barry
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