for National Geographic News
Come March 17, many Americans and other people around the world will don
green clothes, dine on corned beef and cabbage, and quench their thirst
with a pint of Guinness Stout. Such rituals are part of the annual St.
Patrick's Day celebration of all things Irish.
But how many of us will thrill to the grace of an athlete as he hurls the sliothar into the net for the winning goal? Or cheer battling footballers as they hand-pass and kick their way up the pitch?
The Gaelic sports of hurling and Gaelic football, whose seasons are now under way, are authentic Ireland. Fast, rough, and exciting, they're great sportbut also something more. Gaelic athletics are a heartfelt Irish passion, and a physical celebration of ancient traditions and culture.
"It's ingrained in my nature as an Irishman," said John Keane of the Gaelic Athletic Association's North American Board. "It's a tremendously important part of my heritage. (As a child) you spoke Gaelic, enjoyed the Irish music and dancing, and you played the games."
While the sports are an integral part of Ireland's national heritage, he noted, their organization also makes them sources of intense local pride. Teams represent Ireland's counties, and players must have family connections to, or live and work in, the counties they represent (most players have second jobs). The free-agency system familiar to North American sports fans does not exist.
"This really makes you passionate about your team, because they really do represent you," Keane said.
Gaelic football and hurling have been arousing Irish passions for a long, long time. Football became popular as early as the 16th century, when teams might have consisted of all the able-bodied men of a town or parish. In those earliest days, the rather unorganized game would begin between the two towns and end when one side had managed to force the ball across a line into the other's territory.
The modern game plays like a mix of soccer and rugby. Fifteen-player teams battle across a pitch using a round ball slightly smaller than its soccer counterpart. The ball is carried for short distances, and passing is done with a kick or a "hand-pass," the ball struck with a hand or fist. The action is fast and furious, and play is rough. Protective equipment is nonexistent.
Hurling is similar to lacrosse or hockey. It's played on a large pitch with a curved wooden stick (or "hurley") and a small ball (or "sliothar"). It's one of the fastest games afield, and it's not for the faint of heart. Bodies bang, the ball is as hard as a baseball, and the sticks are made of solid ash.
While Gaelic football is an old sport, hurling is ancient. Irish mythology is replete with tales of heroes, such as the legendary warrior Cú Chulainn, who were expert hurlers. Such myths point to a hurling history some 2,000 years old and the sport's prominent place in Irish tradition.
Revival of Irish Heritage
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