Irish Sport

There are few civic and cultural institutions that bring Americans of different stripes together anymore. Places of worship, schools and neighborhoods are largely divided along lines of race and class and there are, unfortunately, very few public spaces where Americans gather to share a collective experience that isn’t inscribed by partisan politics, narrowly-defined notions of culture and sectarian belief.

If there are any such places left in America where people of different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs come together to share common experiences, it’s on the playing fields. Swivel your head at any professional sporting event and you’ll see a wide range of races, ethnicities, classes and political persuasions. In fact, American sporting arenas are the few public spaces left where a supporter of #45 and might sit shoulder to shoulder with, well, someone like me.

As a lucrative business, American sport is, of course, deeply influenced by politics and economics–think of the millions of taxpayer dollars the U.S. military pays the NFL, NASCAR and the NBA to put on the surprise homecomings and the military tributes at the beginning of any given professional sporting event. You didn’t really think those military homecomings and tributes were free public service subsidized by the professional teams, did you?

Given its 800-year conflict with the British Empire, Ireland is infused with political and cultural tensions on a level that most Americans (Native Americans and blacks, aside) simply can’t understand. An example: last week in my American literature class, I was writing the names of some of the students on the board. There’s a young man in the class whose name is Eoin, a common Irish name that’s pronounced, to an American ear, “Owen.” I have spent enough time in this country that I should have known this, but I started writing “Owen” on the board and before I had gotten to the N, Eoin sang out, “Oh, that’s not my name. You spell it E-O-I-N. You’re spelling it like the English made us spell it after they came over here and screwed everything up.”

Fair enough.

That brings me the topic of this post, namely, politics, identity and Irish sport. In the United States, sport is mostly connected to memory and place; that is, the professional athletic team you follow and whose jerseys you purchase is probably a team that you loved when you were a kid or your local team. For instance, I followed the Philadelphia 76ers when I was a kid because I grew up outside of Philly but now, I follow the Denver Nuggets because I live in Denver. Additionally, American professional sports leagues, especially the NFL, have undergone successful long-term marketing campaigns that have cast pro sports as family-oriented, family-friendly activities. That’s to say that if you go to a professional sports match you are very likely to see entire families sitting together or sitting in the “Family Night” discounted seats. You are also likely to see just about as many women as men in attendance.

This wouldn’t be the case in Ireland where attending sporting events and talking about and playing sports are (for the most part) dominated by men. One of the best ways to strike up a conversation with someone at an Irish pub is to nod up to the television screen and ask the bloke you’re sitting next to how the hurling (or soccer, rugby or Gaelic football) lads are doing. You wouldn’t ask that of an Irish woman for two reasons: one, it would be rather uncommon for an Irishwoman to sidle up to the bar in any given pub and two, Irish women, for the most part, are not interested in sport.

There’s also a political complexity to Irish sport and it has everything to do with Britain’s colonization of this island. In other words, sport in Ireland falls out according to the political fault lines of the nation and since the end of the nineteenth century, sport in Ireland has been attached to and used as a way to emphasize national identity.

Hurling, a sport played on a pitch with wooden sticks, is probably the Irish sport that is mostly closely connected to Irish national identity. To the uninitiated, hurling looks like a mash up of field hockey, lacrosse and golf.

Watching the Dublin v Mayo hurling Match in Croke Park, the major GAA field in Ireland.


The Irish claim that they invented hurling, but I think the historical record on that question is unresolved. Nevertheless, the Irish claim as the progenitors of hurling is sound: in the Ulster Cycle stories the great warrior of ancient Irish mythology Cu Cuhulainn is known for his proficiency on the hurling fields and even uses his hurly in one of the stories to kill a fierce dog who attempts to bite his head off. As the dog approaches, Cu Cuhalainn, tosses the hurly ball in the air and bashes the ball right down the gullet of the animal, killing it instantly. Cu Cuhulainn is only seven years old when he accomplishes this feat and when the high king discovers what Cu Cuhulainn has done, he immediately brings the young boy into his service.

Mosaic of Cu Cuhlainn inside Croke Park, Dublin. 

We know that hurling was played in some form or another throughout Ireland for centuries. But following the Tudor conquest of the seventeenth century, the English embarked on a process of systematically dismantling just about every bit of ancient Irish culture, including Irish sport. By the middle of the nineteenth century, then, hurling was a dying sport that was enthusiastically played in Wexford and Cork but not many other counties on the island.

It makes sense then that Irish sport, especially hurling, is closely associated with national identity. This is evident in The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), an Irish film about the Irish War for Independence (1919-20) and the consequent Irish Civil War (1922-23). The film begins with a local hurling match in County Cork just before the Irish Civil War. After the match, British Black and Tan troops descend into the community and execute one of the players who refuses to comply. In the violence that leads up the execution, one of the British soldiers is seen pummeling one of the local players with a hurly and the message and iconography here is unmistakable: the hurlers, many of whom will end up joining the IRA in the film, are associated with Ireland and Irish national identity and the British soldiers’ brutality against the hurlers is there to remind us of the colonial efforts to eradicate Irish culture.

The hurling scene at the opening of The Wind that Shakes the Barley

It was at the end of the nineteenth century, though, that Irish sport became highly politicized. In 1884, a gentleman by the name of Michael Cusak formed the Gaelic Athletic Association or, the GAA. For readers of Joyce’s, Cusak is The Citizen from the Cyclopes episode of Ulysses. The GAA is still very much alive in modern Ireland–just about every town and village in the Republic (and many in Northern Ireland, too) has a GAA club that teaches Irish sport to young people and organizes Irish sport leagues for all ages. If you go into the local sport stores you will find county-specific GAA gear. For instance, we live in Kildare County so Everly’s, the local sports store, carries all kinds of Kildare GAA hoodies, sweatpants, beanies and t shirts.

At the Michael Cusak statue, Croke Park.
The GAA Club in Maynooth

At the end of the nineteenth century, though, The GAA pretty much single-handedly saved hurling from evaporating into the historical ether and it was also responsible for creating a nearly new sport, Gaelic football.

I think Gaelic football is one of the most exciting sports I’ve ever seen. To me, it looks like a cross between soccer, basketball and rugby. It’s a super fast game–the players, dribble, run with, kick and pass the ball and they fly up and down the pitch like sprinters. There is some contact, but it’s not nearly as violent as American football or even rugby. I was chatting with a guy in a pub a few weeks ago and he noted that the Gaelic games (hurling and Gaelic football) are by and large aerial games, meaning that they are focused on the ball being kicked, tossed or thrown through the air and the play is primarily focused on moving the ball through the air as opposed to pushing it down the field on the ground.

That’s not to imply that the GAA is a pure and entirely wholesome idea. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a precursor to the IRA) infiltrated the GAA and began using it as a way to connect sport to its nationalist goals. This blending of sport and politics had some very nasty consequences. The Brits, understanding that the IRB was using sport to recruit members to forward its mission of an Ireland liberated from British rule, targeted the GAA and even mounted a violent attack at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park on 21 November 1920.

So what you have here in Ireland is an athletic culture that is divided according to “native” and “foreign” sports. Soccer and rugby, sports imported from Britain are played here in Ireland but they are, generally speaking, still associated with Ireland’s colonial past. In fact, there was a time when the GAA banned its members from playing ‘foreign’ sports (read: rugby and soccer) and it wasn’t until 2000 that members of the British security forces were allowed to join GAA clubs.

That’s not to say the Irish don’t love their rugby and soccer. The Six Nations Rugby tournament has been going on for the past month and on any given rugby Saturday, the pubs are full of lads (and some lassies) cheering on the Irish national team. This would be true in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland as the Ireland Rugby team is and All-Ireland team, meaning the club is made up of players from the North and from the South so on rugby match days, you’ll find people in Belfast, Derry, Dublin and Galway packed in pubs and cheering on the Ireland team.

From Guinness to Yeats and Joyce and to the Book of Kells and even St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish have given us so much, but I think it is a great shame and loss that hurling and Gaelic football, two excellent and incredibly skill-based and interesting games, have never made it across the pond.

I love going to the pub or propping my feet in front of our television on a weekend afternoon and watching a hurling or Gaelic football match.



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