This September, the nations of the world are assembling to play the fastest game on grass.
The first ever International Hurling Festival was launched on Wednesday the 16 of January this year by Aer Lingus, with support from the Gaelic Athletic Association of Ireland and Etihad Airways. This unique event will see sixteen teams from around the world descend on Galway between the 18 and 21 of September, where they will battle it out for the chance to be crowned champions of international hurling.
For the internationals among you who haven’t experienced hurling, or simply don’t know what it is, let me try to explain. Hurling is Ireland’s oldest indigenous pastime. It is estimated to be over 2500 years old, making it one of the oldest sports in the world. One of the first recorded appearances of hurling surfaced in the ancient mythological text, The Tain, where it was said that the legendary hero of Ulster, Cu Chulainn slaughtered a vicious guard dog with nothing more than a camann (the bat) and a sliotar (the ball).
Hurling is the second fastest sport in the world, just behind ice hockey. It is an outdoor team sport, with fifteen players on each side. From an American point of view, hurling can best be described as a sport that involves the touch speed of lacrosse, the strike of baseball and the physical checking of hockey, minus most of the protective gear. Hurlers wear a protective, albeit slim, plastic helmet, but the wearing of these helmets has only been mandatory since 2010. The pitch is roughly one and half times the size of an American Football field, with ‘H’ shaped goals at each end. The objective of the game is, funnily enough, to outscore the opposition. A point is scored by striking the ball over the cross-bar and between the posts (6.5 metres apart), while a goal (worth three points) is scored by striking the ball past the goal-keeper to the back of the net.
Hurling is a sport of untold humility. Jerseys do not bear players names and numbers are decided by a player’s position. For example if you play left half-back, you wear number seven. If you play in midfield, you wear number eight or nine. That’s it, end of discussion. No temper tantrums being thrown over who gets to wear number ten, no number sixty-nines running around the place, no nonsense. Even at the highest level, players are not paid. They often work full-time while also training three and four times a week. Yet they are far from being disillusioned or restless about the lack of payment. Most hurlers, while accepting that they lead difficult and busy lives because of the voluntary nature of hurling acknowledge the integrity it lends to the sport, something that seems to be lacking in the worldwide realm of competitive sport (I’m looking at you, Armstrong).
Lesson over. What of the festival itself? The competing teams will be divided into four groups of four, with two successful teams progressing from each group. Qualifying games will be played in local towns and villages around Galway county with the grand finale taking place in Galway’s legendary Pearse Stadium. As an accompaniment to this four day festival, Galway GAA and the Galway Hurling Supporters Club have organised a number of lively dance and traditional music events that are to be staged at various venues throughout the famously-cultured, ‘City of the Tribes’.
Fielding seven teams, North America is predictably the best represented of the five continents, with delegations from Canada, New York, San Francisco, Allentown, Indianapolis and Milwaukee set to make a trip across the water. Buenos Aires is the sole representative from South America while Mainland Europe is fielding two teams: Europe Irish and the only team comprised wholly of locals, Europe Non-Irish. Asia and Australia have just one team each in the competition while the UK are to be represented by: St Gabriel’s, Kilbrum Gaels, Robert Emmett’s (all out of London) and a ‘Rest of Britain’ team.
This ‘Hurling World Cup’, if you will, is not only a celebration of an ancient sport of intense skill, and sportsmanship, it is also a sign that sport, great sport, transcends both time and national boundaries. For local supporters like me, the International Hurling Festival grants us chance to see what the world can bring to our sport. We will see how it has travelled, if it is played differently. International players will be afforded the chance to showcase their skill. This is their opportunity to prove to Irish fans that they are every inch as good as home-grown players. There is also a symbolic aspect in playing one of the world’s oldest sports in its ancestral home that, surely, is important to these players. Whatever the case, it is going to be an exceptionally entertaining four days.