Hurling, Whirling, and Twirling: An Irish Love Affair with Sports

Hurling, Whirling, and Twirling: An Irish Love Affair with Sports

There’s an old Irish proverb that begins “May the road rise up to meet you.” On my recent vacation in Ireland, I began to believe that whoever wrote those words may have had psychic powers. Not only were locals interested in learning that an American sports journalist was interested in a doing story about their love of sports, but in some cases, they even went out of their way to accommodate me. Take for instance the generosity of my tour guide, Anthony Kelly. On our last day of touring, he selflessly arranged for a friend of his to meet me in front of our tour bus so I could interview him. I hope this column will serve as a token of my appreciation for their generosity and approachability.

When I initially set out to write this column, I had some premonitions about the Irish sports fan. Some of those premonitions proved true. As I suspected, the Irish love rugby and soccer, and the NFL has built quite a following over the last 40 years. One of my interviewees even lamented the fact that he could not watch the NFC Championship game to cheer on his beloved Detroit Lions nor watch the Super Bowl because in Ireland the games are on Pay Per View. There is even a popular podcast known as The Irish NFL Show.

I asked all my interviewees two basic questions: did they follow any American sports and what did they want us to know about their sports. As it turned out, some Irish people want us to know about a sport that I had never heard of. I quickly surmised that this sport was the Irish national pastime by the passionate ways they spoke of it. It is clearly a sport on the rise in America. The City of Providence already has a youth club dedicated to it. Most importantly, its name should no longer be associated with vomiting in our vernacular. I’m talking about the sport of hurling.

Hurler and coach James Kavanaugh described the over 3000-year-old sport to me as a cross between basketball, hockey, and baseball. The game’s object is to use a stick called a hurley to hit a ball known as a sliotar (pronounced slither), between the opposing goalposts. Points are scored by hitting the sliotar over the crossbar or directly under it into a net guarded by a goalkeeper. The draw of hurling lies within its physical nature. Players are allowed to charge each other at shoulder level, and no protective padding is worn other than a helmet.

“Americans like fast-paced games,” Kavanaugh says. “Why not try hurling?”

When I interviewed Anthony, he briefly mentioned his American sports interests. He followed the Miami Dolphins as a boy because he admired Dan Marino, but later switch his allegiances to the Patriots because “I thought the nickname sounded cool and I was interested in the Salem Witch Trials.” When the subject turned to hurling, I sensed an immense pride in him when he mentioned that fact that most hurlers in Ireland are amateurs and have noble day jobs like teachers and firefighters. Mr. Kavanaugh later underscored this point by noting that the players are not paid, and that 90%t of the gate receipts go back into the game itself to fund the development of tournaments and player welfare.

Perhaps no Irish city has a love affair quite like Kilkenny.

“Hurling is like a religion to the people of Kilkenny because they have won the All Ireland Championship so many times,” Anthony said. Indeed, hurling is such a part of the charming, idyllic city that in 2016 the city commissioned a limestone statue by the banks of Nore river. A major hurling club known as the Kilkenny Kats regularly play in front of. sellout crowds at the county’s major sports facility, Nolan Park.

I think the Irish sports fan is a noble person who likes their sports and takes a keen interest in professing their love of sports and their country to a curious and inquisitive outsider.

If you ever find yourself in Ireland, do not pass up an opportunity to hear a native Irelander talk about their culture. I assure you the discussion will be engaging, insightful, and a memorable experience.

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