Sports In Ireland
Ireland offers an array of sports broad enough to suit the taste and purse of nearly any participant or spectator. Some of these sports are Irish in origin, others are imports. For many Irish people, this distinction is more than a casual one.
The last decades of the 19th century saw a great revival of interest in traditional, "authentic" Irish culture -- including language, literature, art, music and other pursuits that tend to go hand-in-hand with the independent nationhood toward which the Irish were working.
The year 1884 saw the founding at Thurles, Country Tipperary, of the Gaelic Athletic Association, an organization whose future influence could scarcely have been predicted by the seven men who met to establish it. Its founders, who secured the patronage of Dr. Thomas Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, aimed to preserve and to popularize native Irish pastimes and thereby to reawaken national pride and self-reliance."
Though its aims were broader, the GAA was interested, first and foremost, in sports. Looking around them, its founders saw thousands of their fellow Irish playing rugby, cricket and soccer, among other games. These sports, if not all English in origin, had been introduced to Ireland by the English.
In any event, as popular as they were, the GAA and many Irish people saw these sports as alien, irrelevant to traditional Irish culture, and too closely associated with the British garrison in Ireland. They also seemed to be gaining in popularity, while the old Irish sports seemed endangered.
The reason for the popularity of English sport was not just pressure to conform to English ways. The 1798 Rebellion and the deaths and emigration following the Great Famine of the mid-1840s had depleted Irish-games playership in Wexford, Limerick, Cork, Kilkenny, Galway and Waterford, some of the strongest hurling counties.
Today, more than 100,000 people participate in hurling. Gaelic football, and camogie (the women's version of hurling) under the auspices of the GAA. All players, at whatever level, are amateurs.
Experts have estimated that about one-third of Ireland's population attends and follows some of the hundreds of games played each summer, the championship season. Outside Ireland -- in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Africa -- many thousands more play these ages-old Irish games.
Hurling, picturesquely described as "the clash of the ash," is a thrilling spectacle to watch. It is generally considered the fasted field sport anywhere. Under today's rules, two teams of 15 players each (formerly 17, and before that, 21) vie with each other to drive a fist-sized leather ball, the sliothar, through their opponent's H-shaped goalposts using their hurleys, or camans. These are ashwood sticks that resemble hockey sticks. (In North American GAA games, each team fields only 13 players.)
Points in hurling may be scored in two ways. A full goal, worth three points, is scored when the ball is driven UNDER the crossbar of the goalpost and past the defending goalkeeper into the net. Getting the ball OVER the post is good for one point.
Games are played non-stop to their conclusion, except for a break between the two halves, which run 30 minutes each in normal play but are extended to 35 in Finals matches. Up to three substitutions are permitted for injured player -- it can be a rough game. Deft stickwork combines with virtuoso footwork to make hurling a sport requiring brains as well as brawn.
Hurling is the object of fierce rivalry among Irish counties. A dozen counties have compiled records that place them in the first echelon. Until about 1890, competition normally pitted neighboring parishes or baronies against one another, with no limit on the number of player per team.
Gaelic football seems, at first glance, to be a combination of soccer and rugby. In fact, football "under Irish rules" was popular in Dublin, Louth, Meath and Cork for more than a century before these English variants made their Irish debuts. Some scholars believe, however, that Gaelic football, and today's English football variants had a common ancestor between 800 and 900 years ago.
Like hurling, Gaelic football was once played with enormous numbers of men on each side. Town would play town, or parish play parish, with anywhere from 25 to 100 players per side. There were attempts to keep the numbers even, but in practice one side might easily have 5 to 30 more players than its opponent.
The rules in those earlier centuries did not provide for a fixed playing field with measured boundaries. Quite the contrary. If two parishes were competing, for example, the game would normally start at a point about halfway between the two. The boundary line of each parish might be as little as two miles away, or as many as ten. Whichever team managed to get the ball over the parish boundary line of its rival was the winner. Time-outs were not permitted.
In today's game, each side fields 15 players -- 13 in North American games. They compete on a flat, rectangular field 140 to 160 yards long and 84 to 100 yards wide. At each end of the field sits a goal net framed by an H-shaped goalpost. The vertical posts sit 21 feet apart and rise 16 feet into the air, with a horizontal par eight feet above the ground that forms the upper limit of the goal-scoring zone.
Gaelic football features exceptional long, kicking, grueling body contact and players jumping high into the air to catch the ball. A player may not advance the ball by throwing it, but dribbling, kicking it along the ground, punting it and punching it are all allowed.
Scoring is similar to that in hurling. Getting the ball past the goalkeeper and into the goal net earns a three-point goal. Getting it over the horizontal bar earns a single point. A game is normally divided into two 30-minute halves -- extended to 35 minutes in Finals matches. There aare no time-outs, and whoever is ahead when the clock runs out is the winner. Ties are not resolved with further play.
The climax of the football year comes in September, when the counties with the best season records send their teams to compete in the All-Ireland Finals. These championship matches, held in Dublin's famous Croke Park, are Ireland's biggest sporting event. The park is almost invariably filled to its capacity of 65,000 spectators.
Handball, the third partner in the GAA trinity, is a sport whose "Irishness" may some as a surprise to some. In fact, it was once much more popular than it is today.
In handball's earlier form, the ball was hit against a single wall. By about 1800, today's more elaborate alleys (courts, in American parlance), with three walls, had become fairly common. The ball is hit with bare hands. In the bard-ball variety, played only in Ireland, an "aley-cracker," traveling at lightning speeds, is used.
A handball game has traditionally consisted of 21 "aces," with the best of three or five games needed to win a match. In recent years, "time-based" matches have increased in popularity for nonchampionship play. The player who is leading at the end of a prescribed period, normally 30 minutes, is the winner.
Handball is played today around the world -- though not with the hard ball sometimes used in Ireland. An Irish-born American, Phil Casey, brought the world championship title briefly to the United States when he emigrated to Brooklyn in 1889.
Soon after the Irish Free State was established in 1921, however, handball seemed to be dying as hurling and Gaelic football increased their followings. Valuing it for its traditional importance, the GAA took control of the sport. It substituted a type of amateur title for the semi-professional title for which players had formerly competed. With GAA sponsorship and more limited following, chances are that this sport will survive, but without the mass support its Irish rivals enjoy.
Another ancient Irish sport, road bowling (it is sometimes pronounced to rhyme with growling), is played almost exclusively in the northern county of Armagh and in the southernmost, Cork. Even in these counties, the game is confined to rural areas, for it must be played on quiet country roads that are relative free of traffic. (It is not illegal, as some people suppose, but you can be ticketed if you obstruct traffic in the course of play.) Games normally pit two two-man teams against each other.
As in golf, to which it may be distantly related, the object in bowling is to move a ball along a fixed course several miles long using as few throws as possible. In this case, the "ball" is a 28-ounce iron sphere. Like golf, road bowling presents the player with a series of obstacles. The road itself will generally run up and down slopes and around bends. Sometimes there are streams and rail bridges to contend with. Players use a good deal of body English to give the "bullet" the spin it needs to follow the course and keep clear of obstacles.
POPULAR SPORTS OF FOREIGN ORIGIN
Other sports, foreign in origin, remain popular, the GAA notwithstanding. In addition to soccer, rugby and cricket, these include golf. Ireland boasts several world-class golf courses, and has, in fact, more golf courses per square mile than any other nation.
Among the sports closest to Irish hearts are those involving horses. Ireland's lush greenlands make the island an ideal venue for horse-related activities. Irish equestrian sports, and racing in particular, are among the most classless in the world. Spectators and participants are drawn from every social and economic level.
Irish equestrian activities start with the breeding and training of some of the finest horses in the world. At the National Stud in the Curragh of County Kildare, and the stables of such renowned trainers as Dermot Weld, Vincent O'Brian and Paddy Prendergast, thoroughbreeds are prepared to compete one day in the world's classic racing events. In fact, the breeding, training, racing and export of horses constitute one of Ireland's most important industries.
Ireland has nearly 30 race courses -- including two in the North -- and a schedule that offers races on 250 days throughout the year. The best-known flat races are the Irish Derby, held at the Curragh in late June or early July, the Irish Oaks and the Irish St. Leger. For steeplechase enthusiasts, who outnumber flat-racing fans, the Irish Grand National, run at Fairyhouse near Dublin during Easter week, is a must. Betting is a major feature of both the flat-racing and steeplechase scenes.
The famous Royal Dublin Society Horse Show, held in Dublin in August, marks the height of the Dublin social season. It draws spectators and constestants from around the world.
Throughout Ireland, thousands of people enjoy riding to the hounds in search of foxes, a sport the Irish wit Oscar Wilde once dubbed:
"....the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible."
An estimated 85 packs of hounds are scattered throughout the island, used by such well-known groups as the Galway Blazers and the Limerick County Hunt. Hunting draws people from a broader spectrum of the population than it does in England. A given hunting even may include farmers, professional men, jet-setters and even priests.
In County Cork, the Dulhallow Hunt still hunts regularly as it has done since 1745, when it is said to have inaugurated modern fox hunting on a regular basis. Visitors to Ireland will normally have no problem joining a local hunt, though only experienced riders should seek out this potentially dangerous sport.
No story of Irish horses would be complete without mention of the island's Connemara ponies. These are native to Ireland and most closely associated with County Galway. They no longer run wild, but are kept and systematically bred under the auspices of the Connemara Pony Breeders Society. They are particularly popular for use with children, and can often be seen in jumping competitions at local agricultural fairs.
OTHER POPULAR SPORTS
For those whose interests are not satisfied by the sports we have discussed, there are many more to choose among. Coarse and game fishing are popular throughout the island. Salmon and trout are taken in fresh water, and a variety of saltwater fish are caught off the east and south coasts, in particular. Cricket, hockey, soccer (also called association football in Ireland) and rugby are still tremendously popular, and rowing and canoeing, long-distance running and cycling, track and field sports, tennis, greyhound racing, yachting, wind-surfing, and boxing are just a few examples from the remaining repertoire.
In the past, as previously noted, many of Ireland's people have been concerned by the growth of "English" sports at the expense of native Gaelic competitions. Soon, however, the threat may come from a different quarter. Over the last decade or two, American sports have come to many European countries, and Ireland seems to be following the trend, however belatedly. Semi-professional basketball has been played in Europe for years, with teams often enjoying corporate sponsorship. More recently, a basketball program for young people has been started in Ireland.
Baseball, that most American of sports, is now played not only Japan and Latin America but also in several European countries, including France, a nation generally guarded against foreign cultural influence. Now, in the wake of exhibition games in Britain by American professional football teams -- and a game in Dublin between two American college football teams, Army and Boston College -- it doesn't seem farfetched to ask how soon, not whether, America's major team sports will come to Ireland in a big way. International telecasting of American games via satellite to Europe only hastens the day.
Ironically, the Irish government itself encouraged the Army versus Boston College event -- dubbed The Emerald Isle Classic -- as a way of attracting Irish-American tourists. In this they were successful, but many Irish citizens also attended and came away with enthusiastic comments about the American institution.
You may be able to take the "Irishness" out of Irish sports, but you're not likely to take sports out of the Irish. When and if American sports come to Ireland in a meaningful way, the Irish are likely to play them with all the skill, vigor and enthusiasm they now put into their own games -- and to add some special touches of their own.