Hurling in Ireland
There is nothing quite like the Irish game of hurling, which is both a sport and, to its fans, pure swordplay.
Combining elements of lacrosse and hockey, the game of hurling is unique to Ireland. Each county in Ireland fields an official hurling team, and each season the leading 12 teams contest for the McCarthy Cup in the All-Ireland hurling final.
Hurling traces its origins back into pre-history and the warrior-hero Cúchulainn and its modern incarnation to the 19th-century nationalist revival. Out of that came the Gaelic Athletic Association and a network of hurling and Gaelic football clubs that reaches into almost every village in Ireland.
If there’s one place where the sport of hurling truly dominates, it’s in Kilkenny, Ireland, where hurling matters perhaps as nowhere else. The county has won the McCarthy Cup, awarded to the champions of Ireland, 30 times. As the veteran sports reporter John Knox tells it: “Hurling is how we express ourselves. It is what we do in terms of sport. And it is what we do particularly well.”
A Game of Stamina and Speed
A game of astonishing speed, hurling is played by teams of 15 players across a huge field—some are as large as 145 metres by 88 metres. Each player is armed with a wooden stick called a hurley (caman in Irish) and chases a baseball-size ball with raised seams called a sliotar.
Players score by firing the ball through a pair of upright posts and over the bar between them for a point, or by striking it under the bar and into the soccer-style net for a goal of three points. They pass the ball with hand or hurley, generally with pinpoint accuracy, always at top speed.
Such dry descriptions do the sport no justice at all, however, for hurling is also swordplay. Players attack with that hurley, capturing the sliotar and lashing it downfield into a silence that breaks in a clatter of blades as the ball descends. Players defend themselves with it in clashes that are rapier-fast.
Starting Them Young
In Kilkenny, they get hurleys into the kids’ hands almost before they are out of the cot, impart the basic skills of the game through village and school teams where coaches are often yesterday’s heroes, and funnel budding talents toward the county teams.
They win often and with style, and yet complacency is rare in Kilkenny hurling. As Knox says, “There are too many stars before you. Sure, you can walk down the street and pass fellas with three or four All-Ireland medals. And there are too many talented young lads coming behind.”
There are also too many neighbours with a passionate interest in their fate. Kilkenny is small enough—less than 90,000 souls—that just about everyone can claim some kind of kinship with the senior team. Kilkenny hurling is about sporting excellence, but even more than that it is about sport as community.
Winning the All-Ireland Final
If you had been at the GAA All-Ireland Hurling Senior Championship in September 2008, where Kilkenny and Waterford battled it out, you would have seen Henry Shefflin of Kilkenny racing into opponent territory, the ball balanced on the flat blade of his hurley. Panic-stricken defenders moved to block his path. But as they closed in around him, he calmly palmed the ball to teammate Derek Lyng. A flick of the wrist, a connection, and the ball sailed between the posts and over the bar for a point.
That was Kilkenny’s ninth point in the first 15 minutes of the hurling final, and already the Waterford fans, up to Dublin in vast numbers for the county’s first final in 45 years, were beginning to fear for their boys. The Kilkenny fans in the crowd of 82,000 had no such concerns. In fact, as score followed score, they had the look of gamblers who knew the winning horse even before the race started.
Hurling at this level combines speed, technique and bone-shuddering physicality, and Kilkenny plays it with a verve that stirs the blood, as the ball fizzes with bewildering speed and the challenges come in hard and fast.
And the final went exactly as they intended: That early shower of points became a deluge that quite swamped poor Waterford, putting the McCarthy Cup back in Kilkenny hands for another year.