2015 Hurling Finals by Therese Cushing
On September 6th, the staff at O’Connell House took all of the Notre Dame-UCD students to the GAA Hurling All Ireland Senior Championship Final at Croke Park, an event we had been told was equivalent to the Super Bowl for Ireland. Most of us, myself included, were completely unfamiliar with hurling, so leading up to the match, I was looking forward to a fun afternoon with my friends in one of Dublin’s beautiful landmarks. It was indeed a fun afternoon, and Croke Park was magnificent, but our time at the Hurling Championship was also a unique cultural experience.
The match was preceded by quite a bit of ceremony and fanfare. The national anthem was performed, an armed guard marched around the perimeter of the field, and the GAA welcomed two children’s hurling teams to the field to wave Galway and Kilkenny flags at the entrance to the tunnel from which the players would storm the field. After several minutes of drumming and flag-waving that raised the anticipation of the crowds to a fever pitch, the teams gushed from the tunnel, went through their warm-up routines, and then the game began.
From an American perspective, hurling is a truly crazy sport. It’s somewhat of a mix between lacrosse, football, and soccer: players hold a stick (or a “hurley”) with a wide, flat end and try to score with a ball the size of a baseball (called the “sliotar”). The players can advance the ball by running with it in their hand for four steps, running with it balanced it on the end of the hurley, or whacking it down the field. The object is to get the ball between the upright posts for one point or past the goalie into the net for a goal (worth three points). The play is brutal. They wear minimal protective gear, and each player is constantly putting his body on the line. There were a few times throughout the game that medics dashed onto the field to attend a fallen hurler as play continued around them. As an athlete and an avid sports fan, watching such an exciting sport being played at the highest level with over 80,000 other people was a dream come true for me.
For about two hours, I was captivated by the game, cheering with the majority of the stadium when Galway scored, and groaning when Kilkenny made a good play. (Most of us were cheering for Galway since we had been told that Kilkenny was similar to the Yankees in that they always win and no one likes them.) But what struck me most was the reverence with which the sport is treated. There was plenty of shouting and swearing that took place in the stands, but it was evident that the fans had a deep respect for the players and for the game.
I sat in front of two Kilkenny fans, three rows from the top of the third tier of seats which afforded us an incredible view of the entire stadium. As high up as we were, the players were pretty far away from us, but the fans behind me called out the name of every Kilkenny player who touched the ball to cheer him on (or, in a few instances, to berate him.) We couldn’t see the faces of the players and they don’t wear their names on their jerseys, but amidst the wild frenzy down below us, these diehard fans knew exactly who was involved in the play and gave an impassioned running commentary for the whole game.
From my seat, I was also able to see a boy around eleven years old who was cheering for Galway. As I was still trying to figure out the nuances of the game in the first half, I would look to him when there was a play that confused me. If he was cheering, I would cheer as well, but if he was slouched in his seat, red-faced and scowling, I would hold my applause. As the game went on and the Galway’s lead had was slipping away, I became more and more anxious about what it would do to him if Galway lost. He already looked close to tears, and each Kilkenny score had him out of his seat, yelling angrily. But when time finally ran out, he picked up his things and vacated his seat in a composed, albeit dejected, manner.
The scene on the field was a different story. Midway through the second half, it became clear that Galway would need a dramatic shift in momentum to pull out a win, but it never happened. With a few minutes left, Kilkenny’s victory was all but assured, but when the final whistle was blown, the Galway players crumpled like they’d been hit over the head. They just collapsed, as if they had been winning and then Kilkenny made a last minute goal to take the game. I was surprised by how utterly devastated they were until I realized two things: first, I was used to seeing professional athletes in the States gradually slow down as they recognize the game is out of reach. These hurlers never stopped playing full-throttle. They were devastated, and they were also completely exhausted. Second, I remembered that hurlers are not paid. They play simply for the glory, the love of the game, and for their counties. They train as much as anyone else, but they do it before and after day jobs that pay the bills. Winning and losing, therefore, take on more significance.
Amidst the chaos on the field, Kilkenny players would leave the celebration to congratulate their fallen opponents on a game well played. There was something striking about seeing the players shake hands with one another, not in a formal line as often happens after sports matches, but voluntarily and individually. Every player knows the amount of work it takes to play at that level, and they respect one another for it.
I left Croke Park that day disappointed that the underdogs hadn’t been able to defeat the reigning champions, but I was also invigorated by watching such a high-paced game for the first time. Most significantly though, I felt that I had experienced something truly Irish, which is what I came to Dublin for.