It is March Madness time here in the US and I am writing during an unwanted lull after the first week of speed and excitement of the men’s college basketball tournament has come to a close with the original 64/68 teams being whittled down to just 16. As I anxiously await the upcoming four days of games in the second week of the tournament, my mind, in its craving for exhilaration in this downtime, keeps going back to the day when I saw the quickest, toughest, and most intricate sport being played. The sport was hurling.
As part of my study abroad program to Dublin, Ireland, I had the option of attending a hurling match. The excursion included entrance to the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) museum at Croke Park, and a ticket to a championship match between Kilkenny and Wexford. Though I had heard about hurling, seen a Guinness billboard with hurlers depicted on it, and had bought a hurley a couple weeks prior, I had little idea of the awesomeness of the sport.
Walking into the stadium I had no clue what I was in for. The museum was great for a historical perspective and had fun interactive stations, but didn’t prepare me. The field itself was enough to give me pause. It was huge. It was longer than an American football field and nearly two times as wide. I had learned that there are 30 players on the field at once, 15 to a side, but even that number couldn’t need that much room, could they?
Before heading to my seat I chose a team to root for. Though Wexford shared the same colors (purple and gold) as my high school, I had to go for Kilkenny (gold and black) for no other reason than I really liked Kilkenny beer. I bought a braided headband, though I didn’t know at the time it was for my head; I just wore it draped around my neck. The space on my head was occupied by what I had considered to be a headband – a narrow strip of cloth with Kilkenny written across the front. It was most likely an armband. Oh well.
I sat next to a guy on my program who was a sports fanatic. He decided to root for Wexford and decked himself out in purple and gold. He had a headband, armband, and a team jersey. He also waved a purple and gold flag. Having chosen our sides, all we had to do was figure out how the game was played.
The crowd was loud and pumped up for the game waving their flags of varying sizes above their heads. I was surprised to see that the two support groups were quite intermingled. There was no real sense of separate home and visitor sections in the stands. I was also surprised the seats weren’t full, this being a championship game. But I paid little attention to these details as I was riveted by what I was seeing on the pitch.
Field hockey was the first sport I thought hurling comprised elements of. Hurling has two main pieces of equipment, a hurley and a ball. The moments when the hurlers played the ball on the ground or performed small lifts or scoops of the ball with the hurley I felt I was watching hockey.
Once the ball was off the ground the sport added huge dashes of lacrosse, for when they ran with the ball they had to balance it on their hurleys if moving further than four steps, and a pinch of baseball, for when they would toss the ball in the air out in front of them to then swing at it with their hurleys. Rugby can join the mixture with the lack of protection worn for a game that allows some forms of tackling. Handball is the last to lend itself to the concoction with players being able to open-palm pass the ball to each other. Scoring, I eventually figured out, went one point for between the uprights and over the bar, and three points for a goal in the net, below the bar.
The game is fast and tough. The amount of body contact was striking due to the fact that players were wailing hurleys about. One player had to come out due to blood on his uniform and needed to change before he could return to the pitch. I was surprised there weren’t more like him. As someone with good hand-eye coordination but poor something-extended-from-hand-eye coordination, the high level of a multitude of skills involved amazed me.
I left the park that day knowing I had just witnessed something truly awesome in the world of sports. As my words cannot do hurling justice, here is a video I came across to illustrate what I saw that day. I’ve watched it a number of times to help fill the void caused by the tournament’s break. It seems to do the trick. For the rules and other background information click here.