COLUMN: Hurling Has A Place In My Heart

One of the true joys in life is being presently surprised by something you love, which happened to me a lot on my recent honeymoon to Ireland. My wife, Vanessa, surprised and impressed me throughout our whirlwind backpacking adventure all over the Emerald Isle. It was like falling in love all over again.

With raw emotions on my sleeve for almost two weeks, it’s easy to imagine how I was also surprised and impressed by a sport called hurling, and how it changed my relationship with sports.

Ireland is a charming and welcoming place steeped in tradition and historic revolutionary violence. The same can be said for hurling. A version of the ancient Gaelic game has been played for 3,000 years, and it is unlike any athletic activity I’ve seen before.

In terms of American sports, hurling is like a combination of lacrosse, basketball, field hockey and both types of football. Two teams of 15 “hurlers” play on a field bigger and wider than a soccer pitch, and each hurler is equipped with a hurley. This bat made of ash wood has a wide curve at the end like a stubby hockey stick, and the ball or “sliotar” is a lot like a baseball.

At each end of the huge playing surface are two soccer goals with football uprights extending up off of each post, and the teams score by hitting the sliotar towards goal with their hurley. A shot through the uprights is worth one point, and if it beats the goaltender and goes into the goal, it is worth three points.

Hurling starts and stops like soccer with “goal kicks” and “free kicks” but the open play is unlike anything in the world. Hectic is an understatement. Hurlers leap into the air to catch the sliotar with their bare hand, but they can’t just run with it like rugby. A hurler only gets four to six steps, any more is penalized like traveling in basketball, but they can advance up the field by balancing the sliotar at the end of their hurley. It’s like watching someone in an “egg-on-spoon” relay while other people hit them with spoons.

Then with the power of a great Major League Baseball player, hurlers can hit the sliotar almost 400 feet at better than 90 MPH to score. But they don’t do it unmolested. Almost all of the rules of hurling are made for the defenders, and they sure do take license with using their hurley as a weapon.

Needless to say, I was hooked the first time I watched hurling on the television in a Kilkenny pub. It is viciously violent with a completely foreign skill set on display. Then I found out that the leagues are governed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and none of the players are paid. It is a completely amateur sport. The best players in the country are also P.E. teachers and sales reps. That’s when I fell in love.

Each hurling club is based on county, and you can’t play for a county unless you were born there. It would be like if the MLB was split into states, and you couldn’t play for the California team unless you were born here. There are no contracts. There are no trades. There is just pride.

One of the best players in the history of hurling, Henry Shefflin, moved back to Kilkenny to make sure his kids will play for his home country. Shefflin is still part of the GAA television broadcast, and he was on hand at Croke Park in Dublin last weekend for the annual All-Ireland Hurling Championship Final between Kilkenny and Galway.

I woke up early to make sure I could tune in via live stream on the internet. It was easier than I thought, and found out quickly on Twitter that I wasn’t the only American watching the best and only hurlers in the world. I could give you a play-by-play of the final, but you should just go on YouTube right now and watch some hurling highlights to experience its uniqueness and tradition.

Croke Park in Dublin is the third largest stadium in Europe, and every summer the top teams play the finals there. Both teams parade around the grounds before the match, led by a full marching band. They then stand for the Irish National Anthem, and get things started with a type of face-off at midfield.

Like I said, the rules are there for the defenders, but the referee orchestrates the game with a sort of calming presence. He doesn’t yell at players, and they usually don’t yell at him. If they do, he politely tells them to stop, and writes their name and number in his book. Any pushing and shoving during or after a play doesn’t turn into players puffing their chest out and threatening each other. They just shove, then separate and keep playing. It’s refreshing to watch — especially in a World Cup year.

As if I couldn’t find hurling more fascinating, the All-Ireland Final ended in a low-scoring 18-18 draw after Kilkenny finished the match with three straight scores. So, they’re just going to play it again this weekend. And when one of the teams do win, more than 40,000 supporters and neighbors will be allowed to go out onto the field to shake hands and take pictures with their heroes.

You might be wondering where all of that money is going if the athletes are amateur, and you’d get your answer by seeing the GAA facilities all over Ireland. Hurling revenue is put right back into the future of hurling, and young players are spoiled with state-of-the-art facilities.

I’ve spent my whole life watching sports, and I thought I knew everything it had to offer me. However, learning about and watching hurling has been like a sports appreciation reboot, and it’s helped me fall in love with athletics all over again.

JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.