A match made in Ireland

On the ball: Shane O’Donnell of Clare passes Galway’s Pádraig Brehony in the Irish festival in Fenway, US. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/AFP)

On the ball: Shane O’Donnell of Clare passes Galway’s Pádraig Brehony in the Irish festival in Fenway, US. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/AFP)

The world’s fastest field sport is played in Ireland. It’s a sport at the core of the nation’s identity, having played a part in unifying a subjugated people during British domination. It has also helped to build a new country in the century since it gained independence from that empire.

Hurling — iománaíocht in Irish — was a game played by the gods, the legend goes. When a game dates back 4 000 years, it’s hard to unwind the fantastical strands woven around slivers of truth. So, perhaps it was. Recorded history, in the form of epic tales, talks of the great warrior Cú Chulainn using his hurling stick and ball to kill a vicious hound. This solidified his status and led to many years of violent conquest.

His game is now a defining feature of what it is to be Irish. The stick has to be cut from the base of an ash tree, at the point where the trunk curves out to fat roots. That makes for a long handle (a hurly is nearly 1m long) with a wedge the size and width of a paperback book at the end. In the middle of that is the sweet spot, where, with the right flick of the wrists, a ball can get hammered across a field twice the size of a football pitch.

That stick is yours until it cracks under the force of a violent collision. Which is inevitable when physical contact is celebrated. Until that point, the goal is to turn each blemish on that light wood, be it from mud or blood, into a great tale.

The ball — a sliothar — is the size of a clenched fist and a bit softer than a cricket ball. The objective of each 15-person team is to get the sliothar into the rival’s goal at the other side of the 145m-long pitch. Points can be scored in two ways: past the keeper and through the football-style goalposts for a goal and three points or over the rugby posts above the goal for one point.

Getting the ball there is a fast and physical process. Players pass the ball by hitting it with their stick — it can travel at 160km an hour — or by slapping it with their hands or kicking it on the ground.

The crudest analogy would be to compare hurling with airborne hockey. This would have been unconscionable a few decades ago; hockey was a British game. Hurling is Irish and never the twain shall meet.

After a pass, players grab the ball — often plucking it out of the air with their hands, while sticks flash about around them — or pick it up off the ground with their stick. They can then run only a few steps, before passing the ball or balancing it on the hurling stick. The best players can do this while running at full tilt, tapping a ball on their stick while dancing around shoulder barges and tackles.

The players are all amateurs. County Cork native Christy Ring, the greatest hurler of all time, won eight national titles and played in 1 200 games, all while driving an oil delivery truck during the week. That doesn’t mean the players play like amateurs. Sports science, psychology and all sorts of conditioning are the name of the modern game.

For a hurler, the goal is to play for your county. Players go from school to their town team, before trying to get into the county team.

County teams compete for their provincial title, starting in June every year. Ireland is divided into four provinces, along the lines of its original four kingdoms. This engenders a fierce level of patriotism. The provincial winners then face off in the All-Ireland final in August.

That match is played in Croke Park in Dublin, the site of Bloody Sunday in 1920, when, in a revenge attack, British forces went on to the pitch and gunned down 14 people. One of the stands has been left in its original state to commemorate this. Until recently, the British sports of rugby and football were not played on the pitch.

On Sunday, the All-Ireland final saw Galway (my family town) square off against Limerick. The Tribesmen versus the Bannermen. Queues of cars with the maroon flags of Galway came from the west, and cars decked in green came from the south. Both teams are underdogs. Galway lost.

St Patrick’s Day is not the most Irish day of the year. That title goes to the third Sunday of August, when two teams line up in the world’s greatest sport.

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