The showcase event of the world’s most provincial sport takes place on Sunday in Dublin. A Galway squad takes on Waterford in the All-Ireland Hurling final, as Croke Park will be packed with a crowd of 80,000. In the U.S. or any nation other than Ireland, this matchup, and any hurling event, might have trouble drawing a crowd of 800.
The game’s failure to catch the world’s fancy is understandable. If you didn’t grow up playing hurling, you can’t play it. The required skill set—including the ability to catch a hard ball with one bare hand and hit it with accuracy 75 yards from the left or right side while on the run—is too difficult to really pick up after your formative years.
And, it’s not easy to grasp or explain hurling’s rules. My mother, the child of Irish immigrants, used to tell a tale from her childhood about going to the Bronx in the 1930s with her father as he went to see fellow ex-pats play. “What is hurling?” she asked her dad in the car on the ride to her first game. He responded simply, “Hurling is hurling.”
My first exposure to the sport came in watching the All-Ireland finals replays on ABC’s Wide World of Sports with my father, also a child of Irish immigrants. And though I couldn’t tell exactly what the hell was going on, it seemed a combination of lacrosse and Kill the Guy With the Ball, and I was immediately thrilled by the nonstop action and awesome violence; it’s peeved me since childhood that Americans tended to hear “curling” whenever I mentioned “hurling.” Now that I’m older and freshly back from my first live hurling experience, at Croke Park on Aug. 13 for an All-Ireland semifinal, I’ll try a less lay explanation of the sport: Hurling is a game where two teams of 15 players with helmets but no other padding and wielding short, stubby hockey sticks (hurleys) scramble around a huge rectangular field (the Croke Park pitch is 144.5m x 88m, or about 5,200 square yards bigger than an American football field) for two 35-minute running-clock halves trying to hit a leather ball a bit smaller than a baseball (sliotar) either into the opponent’s net (3 points) or between the crossbars of the opponent’s goal (1 point) while avoiding getting smashed. But getting smashed is most of hurling, in no small part because there’s only one referee in charge of the massive field and all those scrambling, stick-swinging bodies. (For a far more learned description of the game—with pictures!—go here.)
But while the rest of the world will ignore what’s taking place in Dublin, all of Ireland will shut down on game day. Irishmen and Irishwomen that aren’t in the stadium will wish they were. I learned this the hard way: The 2003 hurling final took place during my first trip to Ireland, and I went to Croke Park several hours before game time without a ticket but with a wad of Euros and a certainty that I’d be able to buy my way in. (This was before StubHub or any online sites, when street sales were still the default MO for tickets selling). I’d shown up similarly ticketless and cash-rich at what I regarded as bigger events back home before, including Texas vs. Oklahoma, the Red River Shootout, held at the Cotton Bowl at the Texas State Fairgrounds during the middle of the damn Texas State Fair and in a year when both teams came into the game undefeated. So I pooh-poohed the Irish folks who warned me in the days before the game that I’d never seen anything like what’d I see in Dublin on game day. They were right. I spent hours wandering the streets outside the stadium with what I’d guess to be about 100,000 other ticket seekers. Not only did I not get in, I never even found a single scalper before giving up and watching the game in a pub.
The natives’ love for hurling is nothing new, and it’s partially by design. Hurling historians claim the game is at least 800 years old, and they have balls that old to prove it. The sport, along with Irish football, another hyper-provincial pastime overseen by the Gaelic Athletic Association, have been part of the national identity since the late 19th century. The first All-Ireland finals took place in 1887, and at that time, the GAA decreed that members would be thrown out of the association if they were caught playing soccer, cricket, or rugby, games which folks fighting for a free Ireland regarded as tools of the occupiers from England. Michael Collins, the most famous of the Irish leaders in the War of Independence against the Brits, called those sports “Garrison games” that “only aid the peaceful penetration of Ireland by the British.”
The Brits, meanwhile, viewed the GAA as a branch of the IRA during the guerilla campaign that ended with the creation of the Republic of Ireland: On November 21, 1920, British soldiers opened fire on unarmed crowds at a GAA event at Croke Park as retaliation for the IRA killing several British intelligence officers in Dublin. Fourteen Irish citizens, including Tipperary footballer Mick Hogan, were killed in the slaughter remembered as the original “Bloody Sunday.” (The GAA only lifted its ban on non-Gael games in 1971, and no soccer or rugby was played at Croke Park, now a hallowed ground which has a whole side of the stadium named after the martyred Hogan, until 2007.)
For all the game’s blood-and-gutsiness, literates looking for an excuse to give hurling a shot can lean on its importance to James Joyce, who put references to the sport in his big works.
Take this romantic morsel from Joyce’s greatest hit, Ulysses, which he finished writing in 1922:
She swore to him as they mingled the salt streams of their tears that she would cherish his memory, that she would never forget her hero boy who went to his death with a song on his lips as if he were but going to a hurling match in Clonturk park.
Enhancing the aboriginal ardor: GAA athletes can only play for their home counties, with the association relying essentially on the boundaries of the 32 counties in Ireland in 1884. And all hurlers are now and have always been amateur, despite all the commerce the game has long produced through Croke Park sellouts, jersey sales and, as of this year, a TV deal with SkySports. Gerry McInerney, who was on Galway teams that won All-Ireland titles in 1987 and 1988, once told the New York Times that because there was no hurling salary, he was forced to live in New York in the offseason during his playing days to work construction, despite being a superstar in his native country. “You might get a couple of pints,” McInerney said of his sporting pay.
And make no mistake: The top hurlers are heroes at home: During my recent trip to Ireland, the reposal and funeral for Tony Keady, the best hurler in the universe in the 1980s, shut down half of Galway for a weekend.
There has never been any major hanky-panky regarding one county poaching another county’s athletes, or a hurler changing addresses to play for a squad with a better shot at winning the All-Ireland championship, or under-the-table payments to keep stars playing—at least according to every devout hurling fan I asked.
As I can now attest, hurling at its highest level and in a live setting has more than enough action, drama, and sticks to the face to grab any sports fan, regardless of national or county loyalties. Not wanting to repeat being shut out of Croke Park, I bought tickets for a 2017 All-Ireland semifinal online and months before the game. Watching with my family and 72,000 fans who screamed from the pre-game players parade until the final whistle, Waterford’s win over Cork thrilled me as much as any sporting event I’d ever attended.
And now, like all of Ireland, I can’t wait to see this year’s final. Galway will be seeking its first All-Ireland championship since 1988; Waterford won its last title in 1959.
I was reminded earlier this week that my enthusiasm for the big game won’t be shared by many folks on this side of the pond. I had phoned the biggest Irish bar in the D.C. area, where I now live, and asked the guy who answered if they’d be showing Sunday’s hurling match.
“What’s that?” he answered.
Good god. Hurling is hurling, I told him.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Waterford won its last All-Ireland title in 1958. Waterford’s last championship came in 1959.