There is hardly a child in Ireland that hasn’t tried his or her hand at hurling at some time or other. The Irish national sport has the country nearly at a standstill during the final of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship in Croke Park, Dublin. Those unable to travel to the capital or unlucky enough not to have secured tickets have their eyes glued to the TV or their ear to the radio. At least this is what happens in my home County of Clare! So where does that grá or love of the sport come from? Hurling is an intrinsic part of Irish culture. It is often referenced in myths and legends, the most famous being the hero Cu Cullain who is said to have killed a fierce dog by driving a sliotar down its throat.
The game itself is played between two teams of fifteen players each, with a small hard leather ball called a sliotar. The aim of the game is to hit the sliotar with an ash wood stick, the hurley, to send it into your opponent´s goal post. The GAA, the Gaelic Athletic Association has administered the game since the end of the 19th century when it created a definitive set of rules. A wooden stick and a hard ball are a sure recipe for injuries so today it is compulsory for players of all ages to wear a helmet with a faceguard but, unlike American football players, hurlers don´t wear padding.
Hurling is the oldest and fastest field game in the world and is said to have come to Ireland with the Celts about 3000 years ago. And it is popular not just in Ireland: with so many Irish immigrants all over the world, hurling is played in some European countries and in places as far away as North America, Australia and even Argentina, although Ireland remains the only country to have a national team, albeit an amateur one.
Hurling is so ingrained in Irish culture that films depicting Ireland use the game to portray “Irishness”. For instance, a Sunday hurling match is the opening scene to the 2006 Ken Loach film The Wind That Shakes the Barley with famous Irish actor Cillian Murphy. Hurling even caught the attention of American musician Bruce Springsteen who apparently supports the Limerick team.
I will leave you with a few words of wisdom from Simon Kuper, Financial Times journalist, who wrote in 2020 that hurling was “the best sport ever and if the Irish had colonised the world, nobody would ever have heard of football”.