Irish Sport   


Sport in Ireland isn’t just a game – it’s a crazed passion that starts at a young age and only gets more popular as you get older. Most Irishmen, and some women, play either one of two games during their youth, hurling or football. To be specific, Gaelic hurling and football. Depending on what part of the country you live in really tends to dictate which sport is the most popular. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is the heart and soul of sport in Ireland with a GAA club present in most every parish. The concept of the parish was established a long way back and is how school and religious systems are generally organized in Ireland. For example, I grew up in St Cajetan’s Parish on the Southside of Chicago and my roots in Ireland are from the parish of Forkhill in County Armagh. As the Southside of Chicago had a very large Irish population, it was no wonder we lived in a parish, although I’m sure the Catholic church had a lot to do with that as well.

But back to sport. Turns out this past weekend was a very big one for Gaelic senior hurling in the province of Munster, and in particular, the county of Waterford. As a refresher, Ireland is divided into 4 provinces: Munster, Leinster, Connacht and Ulster. Munster and Leinster are the two big provinces when it comes to hurling and hold the majority of All-Ireland hurling titles (more on that in a minute). So the weekend’s events, one of which we watched on Saturday night at a GAA watch party in a local hotel ballroom, was all the rage in Waterford. The Saturday night game was the 2nd round of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship (SHC) that actually started back in April and culminates this September. County Waterford, or “The Déise” (pronounced day-sha) was playing the strong favorite, Kilkenny, in a win or go home game. The winner continues on to the quarter final stage of the All-Ireland final. “Up the Déise” is a common phrase used to cheer the team on in Waterford. The GAA watch party we went to was a packed house and doubled not only as an event to cheer on the team but also as a fundraiser for an Irish boy who had died in Thailand to help pay to bring him back home (the Irish are always giving back). The good news for the home team was they beat Kilkenny in extra time and get to move on to the next round. I actually lost my voice after the game because I was screaming so much – lots of fun!

The other game over the weekend, also part of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship series, was the All Munster final. Here is where it gets a little confusing because the Munster series of games are what drives the placement in the All-Ireland series for the Munster teams (the same goes for the other provinces). Bottom line, the winner of the Munster final gets a higher placement in the All-Ireland series and the title of Munster champion. Since Waterford had lost earlier on in the Munster series, they were placed in a lower bracket in the All-Ireland series and are forced to play more games to get to the final All-Ireland championship played in Dublin in September in the most hallow of fields, Croke Park. What makes all this much more impressive is the fact that all these teams are considered amateurs and the players don’t get a dime for playing. They do it for the fun and the competition. One last note on the competing teams, they are each drawn from the best players in each respective counties GAA clubs making it a truly local county team.

A little about the game of hurling before we continue, hurling can best be described as a cross between Lacrosse and field hockey. They play with a hurley (basically a bat) and a sliotar (the ball which is about the size of a baseball). The game of hurling has been described as the fastest field game in the world. It is also professed to be one of the most skillful games in the world. One thing I can say about the game is it moves much faster than any other sport I’ve seen and these guys beat the hell out of each other as they whack the sliotar around a huge field, pitch as it is called locally. There are 15 players to a side and the object is to either get the ball in the goal (good for 3 points) or through the uprights (one point). Each half is a grueling 35 minutes long and there are really no timeouts during the game. Even if someone gets injured, which is not very often, the game continues and they just add time on at the end of the half to make up for it. The only mandatory protection is helmets although I hope to god they wear a cup. What I like about GAA hurling and football, similar to soccer, is there are no timeouts every 2 minutes for commercials. It is an action packed game that keeps your interest unlike baseball which a lot of the time is like watching paint dry. It can be exciting but it can be a long time before you get any action. American football is definitely better but once again, commercial interruptions are a killer.

My biggest beef with American sports, as opposed to most Irish sports, is the athlete’s allegiance to a particular team. In America, where all national sports are professional, the players go to the highest bidder thereby giving the local fan nothing local to cheer about. College sports is a little better for the local fan but unfortunately it too is going the way of professional sports as the big colleges lure the best from across the country giving the local fan, once again, nobody local to cheer for. That’s the big difference in Irish sports. Since most all the athletes stay local having played in the local GAA clubs from when they were young lads, the level of local support for these guys is incredible. And when I mention support, the average stadium size for these GAA hurling and football championships is 50,000+. Croke Park, where they hold the finals for both the GAA hurling and football championships, holds 82,000 fans and they’re always a sellout.

GAA football is another one of those action packed games that reminds me a bit like rugby in how the game is played. In football, players advance the football, a spherical leather ball, up the field with a combination of carrying, bouncing, kicking, hand-passing, and soloing (dropping the ball and then toe-kicking the ball upward into the hands). The big difference between rugby and football, other than the shape of the ball, is the scoring. GAA football, like hurling, has a netted goal good for 3 points, and an upright, which gets the team 1 point when the ball is kicked through it. Rugby doesn’t have 3 point scores under the crossbars and has a variety of ways to score including the try and drop goal. The scoring for both football and hurling, a little hard to get used to, goes like this. For each goal you get 3 points so the first number in a score accounts for the number of goals. The second number is the amount of times a team kicks the ball through the uprights. So a score of 3-5 would give a team a total of 14 points, 3×3=9 for the actual goals into the net, plus 5 for the number of times the team kicked the ball through the uprights, 14. Got that?

GAA hurling and football have the same setup for the All province (like Munster or Leinster) and All- Ireland competitions with the championship series both starting each year in April and ending in Sept. As mentioned earlier, women (actually it’s Ladies GAA) also play Gaelic football and hurling and use the same playoff structure as the men with the championships ending in Sept at Croke Park. One item of note I thought was humorous was the initial marketing strategy for the women hurlers, “chicks with sticks”. Needless to say, that didn’t catch on unless you had a death wish. I wouldn’t have the nerve to say that to one of the ladies unless I was looking for a crack across the head. One last note on GAA sport. There are both senior and minor GAA teams that compete for the coveted All Ireland trophies. The minor teams are for those under 18 and most if not all rules remain the same except for the length of the half’s, 30 vs 35 minutes. FYI – I just scratched the surface on these games in the interest of keeping you reading.

While there are other sports played in Ireland such as the aforementioned Rugby and soccer, none are near as popular as GAA hurling and football. The League of Ireland soccer conference is also an amateur field of players which makes it a challenge to recruit and retain them since there are many professional teams in Europe who pay good money for players. Sadly, I would liken the League of Ireland to more of a farm system for the European teams. Rugby in Ireland is a professional sport and is known as the Guinness PRO12. It is an annual rugby union competition involving twelve professional sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, so not really an all-Ireland thing despite the name Guinness attached to it.

So what’s it all mean from a sport enthusiasts perspective? First thing, you are loving life from April to Sept. After that, kind of like after the NFL super bowl in America, you’re very depressed until the next season begins. The good news in America, you have basketball and hockey to keep you going until baseball starts and then baseball until football starts. Unfortunately, in Ireland, once the All-Ireland championships are done in Sept, the GAA fan is kind of at a loss until the next April. And to make matters worse, the weather starts to turn to crap. Good news, the NFL is starting to catch on over in Ireland and while it is an extremely slow moving game compared to the GAA games, it is sport after all and really, that’s what any true sport enthusiast is looking for. That and a good thing to do while you drink beer on the weekend.

Lastly, a word about sport vs sports.  Sports is more of an American term to describe all sports even though it may talk about just one sport at a time. Sport is more of an English term to describe all sports. For example, in America we have a sports section, in Ireland (and the UK) they have a sport section and sport news on TV. Go figure…

Good news, the Irish phrase is back and we have 2 this week…

PHRASE: Uladh, Mumhan, Laighean, Connacht
PRONOUNCED: ooh-lad, muv-onn, lion, con-ocked
MEANING: Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Connaught


PHRASE: Is fear rith maith ná drochsheasamh.
PRONOUNCED: is far rit mot nah druck/shass/ubh
MEANING: A good run is better than a bad stand

After I posted the quiz from our party last week, I had a request to post the answers so here goes:

  1. What is the name of the town where the movie, “The Quiet Man” was filmed? Answer: Cong
  2. What Irish county has the Barack Obama gas station/museum? Answer: Offaly
  3. Who was the first Irish-Catholic President of the United Sates? Answer: JFK
  4. What local craftsman created the 2017 bowl presented to the President of the US? Answer: Eamonn Terry
  5. What famous mayor of Chicago has ancestors from county Waterford? Answer: Richard J Daley (and his son)
  6. What is the stage name of the famous actress Maureen Fitzsimons? Answer: Maureen O’Hara
  7. What is the traditional meal eaten on St. Patrick’s Day in America? Answer: Corned Beef and Cabbage
  8. What U.S. state has the highest percentage of persons with Irish heritage? Answer: Massachusetts
  9. Colonists protested British rule in 1773 due to a tax on what product? Answer: Tea
  10. Kathy and Jay moved to Ireland from where in America?  (state or city) Answer: St Petersburg, Fl.

How did you do???


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