Immigration from Ireland to the rest of the world is one of the phenomenons of modernity. And with immigration has come cultural enrichment. Ireland is known for its prizefighters, golfers and horse jockeys, but the real Irish sport—one with adherents in North and South America, Europe, southern Africa and in Asia-Pacific—is hurling.
The sport, according to historians, even predates the existence of the nation itself. The product of Celtic culture, hurling is a game where athletes use a wooden stick called a hurley to hit a small ball, dubbed a “sliotar” either between the opponents goalposts or under a crossbar into a net guarded by a goalkeeper. For the first score, the reward is one point. For the latter, the offense gets three points. The sliotar can be caught in the hand and carried for up to four steps, struck in the air, or struck on the ground. For passing, it can be kicked, or slapped with an open hand. A player who wants to carry the ball for more than four steps has to bounce or balance the sliotar on the end of the stick.
Hurling, like rugby, another product of the British Isles, is a contact sport. And not just any contact sport. Players wear no protective padding as they race downfield in a contest where another player, providing he has one foot on the ground, can shoulder-to-shoulder attack his opponent. Tackling and blocking is allowed, but as in ice hockey, striking a player with the stick is forbidden. Umpires will issue a yellow card to the offending player and if the in-fracture is repeated, a red card throws the player out of the game. Also as in ice hockey, helmets are now mandatory, even though it wasn’t until 2010 that this rule came into being.
Hurling is a team sport. Teams consist of 15 players, including a goalkeeper, plus fullbacks, halfbacks, midfielders and forwards. Senior inter-county matches last 70 minutes. All other matches last 60 minutes. For teams under 13 and lower, games may be shortened to 50 minutes. Timekeeping is at the discretion of the referee who adds on stoppage time at the end of each half. As in other team sports, matches go into overtime if the contest ends in a draw.
Being a contact sport, there is a great emphasis on humility and sportsmanship. Players, for instance, do not have their names stenciled into their jerseys. Furthermore, a player’s number is not an exercise in vanity, but one decided by their position on the field.
In 2007, Ben Cramer covered a tournament for Fortune magazine. The biographer of Joe DiMaggio was highly impressed with the game.
“The field, or pitch, is enormous, almost 60 percent bigger than an American football field,” Cramer wrote. “Fifteen players on a side. Checking as in ice hockey. No pads. Balancing the ball on the ends of their hockey-like sticks, players break loose, seize the ball in hand and then, from up to 100 yards out—that’s home-run distance at Fenway—hit it through the air with a full, roundhouse Barry Bonds swing. Through goalposts. While running. With stick-wielding men whacking at them. Hurling is the fastest field sport on earth, a thrilling, lightning-quick, stunningly high-skill rough-and-tumble game.”
Here in the states, hurling has been played since the late 19th century. The sport continues to grow in popularity with teams in, among other cities, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Orlando, FL, Tampa, FL, Indianapolis, IN, Providence, RI, Washington, DC, Nashville, TN and Hartford, CT.