On Feb. 24, 2007, two teams lined up on the turf of the 84,000-capacity Croke Park stadium in Dublin. It was an emotionally charged moment. Anthems were sung, tears were shed. The teams represented Ireland and England; the sport was rugby. Just a few years before, such a face-off would have been unthinkable. Croke Park, home of the Gaelic Athletic Association, for more than 100 years has in essence been the inner sanctum of Irish nationalism.
Should sports and politics mix? In this Olympic year, the debate has once again resurfaced. Yet in Ireland there has never been any ambiguity. Sports is politics.
Founded in 1884, the GAA (http://www.gaa.ie) set out to promote the Irish national identity by reigniting an interest in local sports — Gaelic football, handball and hurling — and organizing nationwide competitions. The ruling British viewed the endeavor as harmless: Quirky sports played in picturesque settings. But there was an underlying motive. In addition to engendering a strong sense of Gaelic pride, the vigorous contests also served to prepare the young men of Ireland for the independence struggle that lay ahead.
Of the indigenous Gaelic sports, hurling ranks as the oldest, with roots that go back at least 2,000 years. In its modern form it appears at first glance to be a cross between hockey, soccer and rugby. The players — 15 on each side — wield curved sticks known as hurleys to carry and whack a hard white ball toward the goal at each end of the playing field. Games are frenetic and bruising.
In recent years non-Gaelic sports such as rugby and soccer have threatened hurling’s popularity. Irish boys are more likely to dream of playing in the English soccer league than committing themselves to local sports. But the GAA, picking up a few lessons from soccer, has cultivated hurling as a lucrative television spectacle. In addition, the sport is played in summer, the off season for winter sports rugby and soccer.
Throughout the summer months, county hurling teams participate in a series of qualifying matches and championships that culminate in the All-Ireland Hurling Final at Croke Park each September. The two most successful teams in hurling history, Kilkenny and Cork, have each won the All-Ireland Hurling Championship 30 times.
The final competition generally fills Croke Park to capacity, and the event is beamed live to Irish bars around the world. Between matches throughout the day, hour-long guided stadium tours provide a vivid insight into just why Croke Park occupies such an important place in Irish hearts. Here in 1920, British soldiers shot 14 people during a Gaelic football match, bitterly cementing the link between sports and politics. Last year’s rugby match, therefore, represented a significant milestone in the peace process.
Just as hurling is a tangible expression of national identity within Ireland, overseas it has been played wherever Irish immigrants have settled. In the United States it is administered by the North American GAA (http://www.nagaa.org), excluding metropolitan New York, which has its own organization for Gaelic sports, the GAA of Greater New York (http://www.ny-gaa.org). Curiously, one of the most successful American hurling clubs, based in Milwaukee, consists primarily of non-Irish members.
But wherever it is played and whoever plays it, hurling remains suffused with Irishness. Omitting the post-game ritual of a pint or two of Guinness could almost be considered a sacrilege. For all its political undertones, hurling retains that most essential element of any sport: pure enjoyment.
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