Learning to play hurling can be humbling, but then Ireland’s national passion has no place for big egos, writes Patrick McPartlin
STANDING on the Nowlan Park pitch, home of Kilkenny GAA, I’m watching the ball, or sliotar, as it drops. I bring my hurley forward and make a fairly clean connection, sending the sliotar sailing over the bar and between the posts for one point, following in the footsteps of local hurling heroes such as DJ Carey and Henry Shefflin.
Considered the oldest team sport in the world, not to mention the fastest on grass, hurling is the second most popular sport in Ireland, with over 2,300 clubs spread across the 32 counties. Worldwide, that number is more than 2,600, with clubs in Argentina, Canada, the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. For an indication of just how old hurling is, the legend of Cú Chulainn, the “Hound of Ulster” makes reference to hurling as early as 1,200BC.
I’m in Ireland to learn about the sport. Despite its close links with shinty in Scotland, few people I spoke to here before the trip knew much about the game. Some offered up Croke Park, the national stadium and home of the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA). A couple even mentioned Kilkenny, in the same way that people mention the New York Yankees for baseball, or Manchester United for football.
Like a lot of Scots, I can trace my roots back to Ireland; in my case to Co Leitrim. The smallest by population, the county has never been a powerhouse when it comes to Gaelic games, except for limited success in Gaelic football.
Contrast this with the Kilkenny hurlers, who have racked up 35 All-Ireland hurling titles and 70 Leinster provincial titles.
Noting my Scots accent, the others on the trip are eager to ask about shinty. Unfortunately, I can tell them precious little besides the basics. While there are similarities between hurling and shinty, there are fewer players (12 not 15) on a shinty team, and the sticks, although sharing a similar name (the Gaelic caman in shinty and the Irish camán in hurling) are different.
But the two sports share a great sense of camaraderie. Just as whole Highland towns and villages turn out to watch shinty matches in the Camanachd Cup, Irish communities and parishes follow their county hurling team.
My own introduction to hurling is with members of Mount Leinster Rangers hurling team in Co Carlow, in the shadow of the Blackstairs mountains one Friday afternoon. Praying I don’t make a fool of myself, I take a hurley and a sliotar, and make my way to the side of the field furthest from the nearby house and parked cars. I try to remember the hurling matches I’ve seen on TV – throw the sliotar in the air, take a step forward, keep your eye on the sliotar and then whack it as far as you can. It seems straightforward enough, and as the sliotar drops, I connect with it. Not bad for a first effort, I think, as it sails straight to one of the Mount Leinster players.
On my second go, I hit it harder, and further. On my third attempt, I fail to make contact entirely, and my fourth is a muffed shot. But on my fifth go, I get the sliotar to the far end of the field and allow myself a little fist pump.
The following morning we step out on to the hallowed turf of Kilkenny GAA’s 20,000-capacity Nowlan Park. The pitch is pristine, the sun beating down, and PJ Lanigan and Aidan Gleeson of the Kilkenny Way Hurling Experience are about to put us through our paces. This is where we’ll learn the basic skills – how to pick the sliotar up off the ground with our hurley, run with the sliotar, pass, take “frees” and tackle opponents.
Thankfully my Irish roots don’t let me down and I’m able to grasp the basics, even scoring a handful of goals – worth three points each. I’m brought back down to earth, however, when PJ and Aidan casually tell us that Irish children start hurling at four or five years old.
As if to prove their point, later on in the trip, at Na Fianna GAA club on Dublin’s Northside, a boy of no more than 11 or 12 throws a sliotar in the air and hits it with a ferocity built up from six or seven years of hard training and nonchalantly sends it spinning through the posts 75 metres away.
At Na Fianna, we get the chance to hone our skills in a six-a-side match. I’m handed the role of left-corner forward, which I’m told involves standing still a lot and waiting for the sliotar to come my way so I can ping it over the bar and through the posts for a vital point.
It’s late in the game when the sliotar spirals my way. Rolling it up on to my hurley, I lob it in the air and hit it with every last bit of strength I can muster. It’s the first time on the trip that I’ve connected cleanly with the sliotar, and I can tell it’s a decent shot. Somehow I manage to send it over the bar and between the posts. It feels like I’ve scored the winning point in the All-Ireland final.
As we troop off the field, on the next pitch over, a few youngsters are honing their skills, and suddenly I understand why hurling grips the nation – why children start off so young, why teens carry hurleys in the street instead of footballs and why entire communities will down tools to watch the local club or county matches, or journey to Dublin to back their county at Croke Park.
The 11-year-olds on the next pitch could eventually make it to the Dublin county side if they have the skills and dedication, and be playing in front of 80,000 at Croke Park in ten years’ time, combining training with a job, or their studies.
It’s impossible not to get caught up in the emotion and the sense of community pride ingrained in the sport.
Still a strictly amateur set-up, there are no huge salaries, or big money transfers in hurling. Yet only exceptional circumstances will prevent players turning out for the county of their birth. A quick glance down the Kilkenny hurling team that lined up against Waterford in the All-Ireland Senior Hurling semi-final earlier this month shows an interesting selection of occupations: student, soldier, sales rep, biomedical engineer, teacher, plumber. Barely 48 hours after playing in front of 82,000 fans at the national stadium, the man-of-the-match could be fixing a sink or teaching a maths class.
And that’s the beauty of it. Even chatting with the recently retired Kilkenny hurler and medical rep Brian Hogan (seven All-Ireland medals, eight Leinster provincial titles, six National Hurling League titles and two All-Star awards) at Nowlan Park, it’s clear that there are no big egos in this sport. He still plays for local Kilkenny side O’Loughlin Gaels, but says he can walk down the street without getting bothered by autograph hunters or awestruck fans.
For some athletes, sport is a profession. With hurling, it’s very much a way of community life and, despite being an outsider, I feel like I’ve had enough of an introduction to the sport from former players, current players and fans to understand why.
• The GAA Hurling All Ireland Championship 2015 Final, Kilkenny v Galway, will be held at Croke Park, Dublin, next Sunday