A weekend of sports in Dublin has fans and visitors alike riveted by fast-paced matches. Ireland is home to sports that are completely unknown on the continent.
All of Dublin has come out for today’s hurling game. At least, that is what it looks like from the stands of Croke Park. Europe’s third largest stadium is in a residential area. Two-story red or yellow houses with narrow yards line three of its sides. The fourth borders on a canal. 82 000 spectators dressed in white and blue or crimson and white arrive on foot at the stadium in Drumcondra district for the giant family festival.
On foot? “You can’t drive your car to the stadium,” says J.J. Daly, “because we don’t have any parking.” American visitors are particularly surprised to see a major sports event like this taking place without lots of available parking. J.J. Daly works for the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). He is used to seeing visitors stand open-mouthed when they see how approachable, raw and authentic the big Gaelic games have remained for the past 130-odd years: Hurling, a hard, fast-paced combination of rugby and handball, and Gaelic football, a mix of rugby and soccer. There’s no celebrity posturing, no bonuses (at least not officially), no dramatic diving. “All the players are amateurs, they’re students or have day jobs,” Daly explains. Leaving their team to play for another county would never occur to anyone here.
Hurling has a massive cultural significance in Ireland, and is far more than just a sport. There are 15 players on a side. The playing time is 70 minutes and the pitch is roughly one-and-a-half times the size of a soccer pitch. Points are made by hitting the ball (the sliotar) with a bat (a hurley) into or over the opposing team’s goal. Players are allowed to take four steps carrying the sliotar but then they have to pass it or hit it. Brave players run with it lying on the bat’s rounded edge while the craziest and most talented juggle the ball as they run. Every few seconds, one sturdy 100-kilo man crashes into another. Even the qualification matches between counties are a traditional spectacle full of circus-worthy acrobatics. At the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final, twelve minutes before the whistle, Galway’s Conor Cooney, a 24-year-old elementary school teacher, is beset by two Waterford players at the center of the pitch. He staggers, swings and while falling, hits the ball over his shoulder. It whizzes between the goal posts behind him, 70 meters away. The fans go wild. What an incredible feat! It’s one of the decisive points on the way to a 26:23 win.
Two hours later, Drumcondra is a bright happy place with multitudes of people descending on the pubs around Croke Park. They congregate in and in front of Quinn’s, Big Tree and James Gill’s Corner House, whose outer walls are painted with hurling and Gaelic football motifs. The beer fetchers wait patiently inside. There are 150 happy fans outside on this late- summer day, drinking Guinness from plastic cups at 5.40 euros per pint. Nobody here looks like they would break anything out of joy or frustration, but just to be sure, breakable glasses are prohibited outdoors. A few SUVs and many compact cars crawl down the North Circular Road. At the red light outside James Gill’s Corner House, they roll down their windows and wave or call out. Irish folk music drifts over. Then a van appears around the corner carrying the victorious Galway team. No tinted windows, no police escort. The sparkling Liam-MacCarthy trophy can be seen beside the driver. The Galway fans hold their smartphones in the air.
Ireland’s cultural heritage lives in sports that are unknown on the continent, but which everyone here grows up playing
A trip to Dublin can be healing for anyone in search of a remedy against over-exposure to commercial sports. Hurling and Gaelic football matches take place every weekend. And it’s not the tattoos, fast cars or crazy hairdos that give players their charisma, but passion and skill. Delve into the country’s local sports and you will find in a strange world. Ireland’s cultural heritage lives in sports that are largely unknown on the continent, but that nearly every Irish child grows up playing. Dublin alone has about 100 GAA clubs.
“Hurling has been around forever,” says Aron Shanagher, 21, a student from Stillorgan district who plays a small-side variation with seven players. “I’ve been playing with my friends from the county since I was five years old.” It’s a sunny morning. The clubhouse is selling coffee, waffles and jerseys for babies in the colors of the best hurling teams. Elderly Irishmen in windbreakers study the program: a whole morning of great sporting entertainment for just 10 euros.
Ireland has also imported sports, like rugby and football (aka soccer) from England, but they are no match for their Gaelic competitors when it comes to popularity. It’s easy to get tickets to first-division League of Ireland games. There are gems like the Bohemians Dublin, one of the world’s oldest soccer clubs owned by its members, which plays at Dalymount Park. But open The Irish Times or The Irish Independent a day after a game and you’ll only find a short soccer report – and eight pages on the hurling final.“
The Irish like rugby but they carry the Gaelic games in their hearts,” says Cormac O’Donnchú, putting on our helmets with wire face guards and pressing a hurley and a bucket of sliotar into our hands. Here on the GAA premises in northern Dublin, Cormac and his wife Georgina arrange excursions into the world of Gaelic sports. He’s an inspiring instructor. A group of young Austrian women is taking turns trying to hit the sliotar (pronounced shlittar). It’s a lot more difficult than it looks from the stands. The best hurlers can hit it a distance of more than 70 meters. We pass the Gaelic football back and forth and take turns shooting. Then it’s handball time with Liam. This sport is a bit like squash but you hit the ball with the palm of your hand rather than a racket. Nobody here has ever heard of European handball.
This evening, it’s only a 20-minute drive from the Gaelic games to a top amateur rugby game. Lansdowne is playing a derby against Dublin at University College in the south of the city: free admission, floodlights, Astroturf, 100 spectators. “What’s the score?” we ask, arriving 10 minutes late. “10:3?” “No, 10:6,” says a woman in a down coat. “Good tackle, lad,” she shouts at the Lansdowne captain Ian Prendiville, 27, and the star of the team. He learned to play at Clongowes Wood College, a famous rugby school in Leinster Province, but never made the pros and now works in accounting. Prendiville is short and sturdy. The steam rises from his jersey and he apologizes for having to catch his breath. “Rugby is a contact sport and a team sport. Everything you do, you do for your teammates. There’s a place for everyone, that’s what I like about rugby.” Like all of the athletes we meet, Prendiville’s roots lie in the Gaelic games. He has played Gaelic football and he loves hurling. “I don’t have the right body for it, but I like hurling because it comes from the competition between rival clans – nobody wants to give up the ball.” Hurling was mentioned as a “prelude” to the Battle of Moytura, which according to ancient Irish mythology took place around 3500 years ago and in which the Túatha Dé Danann are said to have defeated the Fir Bolg in both the game and the battle. The occupying English, who did everything they could to ban the game, likely only increased its popularity.
Hurling is a national game. The future is playing out on a field near the highway leading to Belfast. The sliotar plops against the hurley as Ellie, Lizzie, Eva and Natasha hit the ball. It’s St. Jude’s against Na Fianna, a youth derby played by young girls 12 and under. They’re playing camogie, the women’s version of hurling. There aren’t so many goals but plenty of tears due to sprained thumbs and broken fingernails. Ellie has been playing camogie since she was three, usually on Saturdays. Sundays was Gaelic football day. She has also played hockey and soccer. Irish children evidently never just play just one sport. Ellie is looking forward to next week’s camogie final between Cork and Kilkenny in Croke Park: “I want to play there too one day.”
Two teams of seniors one field over are knocking themselves out: running, gasping, swearing as they play Gaelic football. The force and precision with which one man slams the ball between the goalposts clearly shows that he’s a veteran of the game. His teammates raise their arms in jubilation. They’ll have a drink to celebrate, perhaps even two… but later.
Tips for Dublin before and after the game
The Dublin Pizza Company (Aungier Street) serves pizza until late at night.
Want to meet the locals? Head to Sheehan’s (Chatham Street), a traditional pub.
Colorful socks from Avoca Handweavers in Suffolk Street make great gifts.
Sleep it off
The O’Callaghan Mont Clare Hotel has a superb location and good service.
Getting there from Germany
In September, Lufthansa flies to Dublin (DUB) four times daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and twice daily from Munich (MUC). Use the app to calculate your miles. Download here: