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Rugby, GAA and REAL Irish Culture

Our last two weekends have been our real introduction to Irish Culture….Irish Sport….and the GAA. In the US we must have inherited our love and intensity for sport from the Irish but the Irish are way better at creating reasons to hang out at a pub. Every evening of the week there is a sporting match on the Televisions in a pub and sometimes two different sports at the same time…..There are the “Gaelic sports”, Gaelic football and Hurling, Soccer (yes, it is soccer here…not to confuse it with Gaelic football), Rugby, and many more, but these are the primary television sports. In the pubs there are very few who ignore the game.

The last few weeks has been the “Six Nation” Rugby tournament (that would be Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, France, Italy….yes Scotland and Wales are countries in the United Kingdom…at least if you ask a Scotsman or a Welshman). Last Saturday night there was practically a riot in Paris because the Ireland vs. France Rugby match was canceled because the “pitch” had frozen patches. Probably a bigger deal that it was canceled 15 minutes before the match. The cancellation was a good thing, but remember, Rugby players play without padding and limited head gear and have the motto “donate blood, play Rugby”. I still haven’t figured out all the rules for Rugby ….a few dozen more trips to the pub and I should get it down….

Two weeks ago we had the pleasure of being invited by a co-worker to watch a Hurling match. I’ll eventually explain the rules (or my take on the rules) but Hurling (and Gaelic Football) are much more than a sporting event, they are a cultural fixture. Experiencing both was a lot of fun.

There is a common saying in Ireland (OK…two people have said this to me): “People think the most powerful institution in Ireland is the Catholic Church, but it is really the GAA”….GAA is the Gaelic Athletic Association, an all volunteer organization, that promotes the Gaelic sports. The Gaelic sports are all amateur and are played through the adult level. The match we saw this weekend was the senior match of Gort vs. Coolderry. Seniors implies older than 18 years and some of the players were well into their 20’s (and 30’s?). The match was the semi-finals before the “All Ireland” game on … guessed it, Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin.

Gort is a town that is smaller than Oranmore (~8000 people) and has several teams of all ages. This includes several grade school teams, high school level teams…and the senior team that we watched. All the coaches and administrators are volunteers. If you were to drive through Gort you would know that the senior team was in the All Ireland sem-finals from all the signs in town and along the motorway to Limerick (where the game was played). This was a big deal! I would estimate that 4-6 thousand people attended this match. Of course almost everyone from Gort knew almost everyone else from Gort.

BTW, there is a big controversy throughout all of Ireland because some of the coaches have been getting very large “travel reimbursement” checks, etc. and the common belief is that the games need to stay completely amateur to survive…..this discussion makes the Irish papers almost every day.

Last weekend we had the privilege of attending a GAA fundraiser for the Clarinbridge Seniors Hurling team. I believe the event was held in Oranmore because Clarinbridge village lacked the facility to host the event… this is not surprising since they are a town of 2200 people. The event we attended was a “battle of the bands”….probably more accurately a “battle of the acts”. The Kudos nightclub was packed, approximately 400 people (not including the performers). The acts included several members of the team, former team members, friends of the team and the local parish priest. Each of the acts was sponsored (all 12). The audience got to pick two finalist, and the panel of judges picked a third finalist. The audience voted with euros….my guess is that approximately 20K euros was collected between the admission and the “votes”.

Now that the facts are recorded I can say that the event had some “really good crack” (I think that means it was a lot of fun). The acts were quite good and quite humorous…especially when you figure that it was 12 acts mostly from Clarinbridge ….remember this is a town of 2200. The finalist was a team member singing “Lady in Red” to a fellow team member dressed in “drag”. Remember this is the Seniors team and the bar was open and taking money…lots of money. The singing was quite good and he sounded quite similar to Chris De Burgh

Now for a brief description of Hurling rules(and some pictures thanks to my lovely wife Carol). First, the game is played on a pitch (not a field). Each player has a Hurley that is a cross between a golf club and a baseball bat… 31 to 41 inches long and made of wood…maybe similar to La Crosse stick but without the “pocket” to hold the “ball”. The Hurley is used to hit a sliotar that is a cork ball wrapped in leather….similar to a baseball. The pitch is 137 to 145 meters long and at each end is a combination of a American football goal posts with a soccer goal beneath. A ball hit through the goal posts (but above the net) is 1 point and a ball hit into the net beneath the goal posts is 3 points. The scores for goals and points are kept separately. So one goal and 5 points would be 1-5 (for a score of 8).

Some Hurling action shots

There are 15 players, with one being the goalie. Players can hold the sliotar but one can not pick up or grab the sliotar from the ground with the hand….I think this is to keep players from doing something stupid…like putting their head and their bare hands near an object that can be potentially whacked with a Hurley from the other team. It is much smarter to pick up the sliotar with the Hurley.

The sliotar travels at a very high velocity….at times over 100 mph. Players can catch the sliotar ..with their bare hands or tip/block it in the air with their Hurley. The player can not advance the sliotar while holding the sliotar but can balance it on the head of the Hurley….it ends up being tapped/balanced on the head of the Hurley as the player runs down the field. The sliotar can also be hit down the field similar to a hitting a baseball.

There are very few rules. Helmets were made mandatory a few years ago….remember there are very few rules and two opposing teams swinging Hurleys at a sliotar….no matter whose head or other body part is in the way.

It looks like Hurling is a lot of fun to watch and I’ll be looking for it on a TV the next time I’m in a pub.

See You at the Pub!

Jet Lag Jack

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