A match made in Ireland

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.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

Workers’ R60m ‘lost’ in banks scam

An asset manager, VBS Mutual Bank and a Namibian bank have put the retirement funds of 26 000 municipal workers in South Africa at risk

‘Judge President Hlophe tried to influence allocation of judges to...

Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath accuses Hlophe of attempting to influence her to allocate the case to judges he perceived as ‘favourably disposed’ to former president Jacob Zuma

SAA grounds flights due to low demand

SAA is working to accommodate customers on its sister airlines after it cancelled flights due to low demand

Lekwa municipality won’t answer questions about why children died in...

Three children are dead. More than a dozen homes have been gutted by fires in the past six months. And, as...

Press Releases

MTN unveils TikTok bundles

Customised MTN TikTok data bundles are available to all prepaid customers on *136*2#.

Marketers need to reinvent themselves

Marketing is an exciting discipline, offering the perfect fit for individuals who are equally interested in business, human dynamics and strategic thinking. But the...

Upskill yourself to land your dream job in 2020

If you received admission to an IIE Higher Certificate qualification, once you have graduated, you can articulate to an IIE Diploma and then IIE Bachelor's degree at IIE Rosebank College.

South Africans unsure of what to expect in 2020

Almost half (49%) of South Africans, 15 years and older, agree or strongly agree that they view 2020 with optimism.

KZN teacher educators jet off to Columbia University

A group of academics were selected as participants of the programme focused on PhD completion, mobility, supervision capacity development and the generation of high-impact research.

New-style star accretion bursts dazzle astronomers

Associate Professor James O Chibueze and Dr SP van den Heever are part of an international team of astronomers studying the G358-MM1 high-mass protostar.

2020 risk outlook: Use GRC to build resilience

GRC activities can be used profitably to develop an integrated risk picture and response, says ContinuitySA.

MTN voted best mobile network

An independent report found MTN to be the best mobile network in SA in the fourth quarter of 2019.