Sloitars and hurleys: Why some think Irish hurling is the 'greatest sport in the world'

Part-soccer, part-field hockey, part-gaelic football, hurling is yet another sport you probably have never heard of. Some in Ireland think it's the greatest sport in the world.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The stadium was roaring.

Except for me, a fact duly noted by the boy sitting next to me in a blue and gold jersey and matching jester's cap, the colors of Team County Clare.

"You're not cheering for anyone," the boy told me.

Here we were, sitting in Ireland's largest stadium, watching the Senior All-Ireland Men's Hurling Final, a back-and-forth battle between County Clare and County Cork. Being an American with only the barest ancestral ties to Ireland, I had no dog in this fight. Rather, I was there to simply enjoy this year's biggest match in the greatest team sport in the world that no one has ever heard of.

The idea of "hurling" as a sport sounds like a joke about the stereotypical Irish propensity for drinking and fighting. It is a real sport, one that is best understood by first grasping the quirks of its close cousin, gaelic football.

Gaelic football is basically a form of soccer (a.k.a. football to the everywhere in the world except for the United States), with a few key differences. First, unlike with soccer, you can handle the ball. Second, in order to keep players from running down the field with their arms wrapped around the ball, which is about the size of a soccer ball, players must release their grip on the ball every few steps, either via a basketball-like dribble or by popping the ball up into the air briefly and then catching it. Lastly, there are two ways of scoring: the traditional "ball in the net" goal, worth 3 points, and putting the ball between the goalposts but over the goal, like a football field goal but worth one point. There are other differences but those are the main ones.

Hurling adds a few new wrinkles. First,  the ball, called a sloitar (pronounced "slitter"), is the size of a tennis ball. Second, every player has a hurley, a large wood club, about the size and shape of a field hockey stick, but with a larger head. The "dribbling" rule still applies, by the way. Players can still handle the ball, but also still need to release possession of it periodically, and the hurley provides a new way to do that: by balancing the sloitar on the hurley's head while running full tilt.

This sounds like a recipe for chaos – or the setup for a joke involving large Irishmen running about a field swinging clubs at a tiny ball.

Players do end up in brief scrums as they fight for a loose ball, but more frequent are the dashing runs of attackers zigzagging by defenders, sometimes balancing a sloitar precariously on the hurley's curved face.  Scoring comes frequently, but mostly in the one-point, field-goal variety: Games often feature a few dozen scoring plays, only a handful of which are goals. That effectively offers something to both fans of high-scoring affairs like American football or baseball, while also preserving the rarity and value of the goal.

And the sloitar isn't just airborne during scoring opportunities. Players pass it with volleyball-like slaps of the hand, or swats of the hurley. Some of those swats can rival baseball line drives – and the receiving player will often pull the ball down barehanded.

There is surprisingly little violence, as well. Injuries do occur, though they generally come not from bludgeoning, but rather from chest bumps and shoulder charges. (Of course the risk of a hurley to the head is real, so players do wear lacrosse-style helmets: a somewhat recent addition to the game.)

The Irish dedication to the sport is no surprise. The game's history dates back 2,000 years. Every county in Ireland – that's both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland– has county teams in several different age brackets and in both genders (though women's hurling is known by a different name, camogie). Those teams compete in provincial and national competitions, the top-flight competition being the annual All-Ireland Senior Championship.

But the sport's potential for international popularity is arguably handicapped by one of its other quirks: All the players are unpaid. Note, they're not true amateurs: players get sponsorships and some are big stars in Ireland.

At half time, a team of the best players never to win the All-Ireland Senior final was introduced, and they were cheered like baseball Hall of Famers. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), the body which oversees gaelic football and hurling, says there's no appetite to go pro.

But at the same time, hurling isn't going to dissuade too many potential players abroad from dropping their soccer ball, hockey stick, or football pads in favor of a hurley if it's purely gratis. That leaves hurling on the outs in the wider sporting scene.

Oddly, it also seems to be having the inverse effect on Ireland's success in other sports. Gaelic football (also unpaid) and hurling dominate the scene so much that some question whether it's undermining Irish potential in other sports, like soccer, rugby, and the Olympic Games. As Irish sports pundit George Hook told the Monitor last year, "We'd win as many Olympic medals as New Zealand, except for the GAA. The GAA siphons off enormous amounts of talent for sports that have no world recognition."

Regardless of its untapped potential overseas, it shows no signs of fading in Ireland.

Certainly, this year's final was proving gripping. Despite a steady stream of "over the goal" tallies, the boys from County Clare weren't able to open any distance between themselves and Cork. Cork's hurlers, though more inconsistent in their scoring, were able to keep up with well-timed three-point goals – and in the closing minutes, took a one-point lead on Clare.

An inopportune foul by Cork, however, gave Clare a last-gasp scoring chance. The hurler flipped the sloitar into the air, clocked it with his hurley, and sent it between the posts to tie the match. Final result: Clare 0-25 – i.e., no goals and 25 over-the-goal points – Cork 3-16. If you do the math, that's a 25-25 draw.

A grumbling sigh went out across the 80,000-plus stadium fans. There's no overtime in hurling. Instead, they'll come back and do the whole thing over again on Sept. 28.  As the GAA website's preview says, "So, here we go again."

The replay will provide another opportunity to see what the stadium announcer declared not-so-humbly to be "the greatest sport in the world." While it may be hard to find abroad, I advise any sports fan to find a local Irish pub with satellite service. It's a sight to behold, and well worth the effort to find, regardless of your rooting interest. 

Personally, I'll be rooting for County Clare.

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