I am often asked, “What is the most local Irish thing I can see and do while I’m there? Besides drinking green beer, that is.”
I used to answer, “Try to catch a hurling match on TV or, even better, from Hill 16.”
This would inevitably be met with blank stares and unsure responses like, “Oh yeah, I watch curling whenever the winter Olympics are on!”
It is difficult to explain just how important the Gaelic sports are to the Irish people, especially given that they have so little exposure beyond this small island. You won’t find many modern Irish folks hunting for leprechauns like the international tourist marketing schemes might suggest, but you will find entire communities packing pubs and filling stadiums to cheer on their local Gaelic teams with no less fervor than American Oakland Raiders fans—with fewer chains and spikes.
These games—hurling in particular—are nearly as old as the first Irish civilizations, and are the stuff of ancient myth and legend as much as they are modern entertainment. They have existed continuously throughout Ireland’s turbulent history, and like the Irish language, are one of the few constants that have survived Viking raids, English rule, and the Celtic Tiger.
I used to always advise prospective Irish visitors to try to see one of these games played at the highest level either in a crowded local pub or from Hill 16: the cheap, standing-only terrace at Dublin’s Croke Park. Both of these are still great options, and both are traditional ways to get in touch with “real” Irish culture. Recently, I tried my own hand at these popular sports with Experience Gaelic Games in Dublin, and now I have an even better recommendation for those looking to get in touch with their real or adopted Irish roots.
— Cory Hanson (@HansonCory1) October 16, 2015
Hands, Feet, and Hurleys
We gathered at Na Fianna Gaelic Athletic Club, one of many such clubs in nearly every community in Ireland. There, we received a brief overview of the importance of the games to the Irish people and a quick video rundown of the play and rules of the games, with highlight-reel footage of these unique sports at their best. I noted the oohs and aahs of the other guests seeing for the first time hurlers launching 90-meter shots through the goalposts and footballers stiff-arming defenders away before drop-kicking bombs into the back of the net. I wondered again why these games don’t have the international appeal given their high-scoring, high-impact, high-velocity play.
Our first game was handball: an Irish neighborhood game traditionally played against alley walls but also played competitively in standard indoor courts. I had seen the American variant of this game played in Queens and Brooklyn, and was excited to try the game for myself. Each of the sports was carefully introduced and explained by our two Gaelic game coaches and players, Daire and Brian. We learned the fundamental techniques of each game in sequence before things broke out into a full-scale match.
Following the handball warmup, we donned helmets and curved clubs to hit the hurling pitch. Hurling is played with an ash stick called a “hurley”—although ours were of a safer, stiff foam—and a small leather ball called a “sliotar.” Players move the ball up and down the field with hands and hurleys to attempt to score a single point by getting the ball over the bar of the goal or scoring a three-point goal into the lower net.
I practiced the techniques of picking up the ball from the ground with the hurley and balancing the ball on the flat face of the stick while running—with limited success—before we split into two teams and threw in on a friendly scrimmage. To use a cliche, they make it look easy on TV, but we all had a good time and lots of laughs trying our best to maneuver the small ball up and down the field with the unfamiliar hurleys.
After a breather, we regrouped for a session of Gaelic football. This curious mix of soccer and full-contact rugby is more popular in Ireland than hurling, and a bit more approachable for other soccer-loving Europeans. Scoring in the game is identical to that of hurling: one point over the bar, three in the net. Moving the ball is also similar to hurling, with hands and feet working together to carry, kick, and pass the ball down the field. Just as before, we practiced the fundamentals of picking the ball up from the ground with the feet, legal hand use, and drop-kicking the ball into the goal.
By the time we kicked off for our Gaelic football friendly, the group had a better grasp on the rules and techniques of the games—especially the experienced soccer players among us. I committed a laugher of a penalty when my basketball instincts kicked in and I made a beautiful (and illegal) overhead pass to an open teammate.
At the conclusion of the scrimmage, we exchanged high-fives and smiles all around as we walked—all of us a bit winded, myself panting like a dog—back to the changing rooms. Now, when I’m asked about how to experience life as a local, I can say, “Pick up a hurley, learn from a pro, and give the Gaelic games a try yourself!”
About Experience Gaelic Games
At the session, I met the co-founders Georgina Caraher and Cormac O’Donnchú and found out more about their company and its offerings. For five years, they have been running sessions with visitors to introduce them to this cultural cornerstone. They are the only such tourist experience officially licensed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA)—the Irish governing body of all things Gaelic sports, overseeing Gaelic leagues from kids’ clubs to the national inter-county summer finals. This GAA endorsement is much more important a simple licensing agreement; the blessing of this organization was earned by maintaining the highest standards of safety and cultural authenticity, using only accredited coaches.
The stable of coaches working with Experience Gaelic Games are all members of their local GAA clubs. More than simple athletic fields, these clubs are an important part of Irish communities. The games are practiced and played by club teams of varying ages through the day, and the clubhouse is a local gathering place for Irish language and culture classes and neighborhood events. With Experience Gaelic Games, you get a peek behind the curtain of these clubs; to meet the local players and fans representing their own home colors.
Experience Gaelic Games is designed for the uninitiated; for those of us who’ve never seen a hurley much less know the correct grip with which to swing one. As enjoyable as attending a live match is, things can be a bit confusing without a primer. After attending one of these sessions, you’ll walk away not only with an academic overview of the rules and history of the games, but a thorough understanding of the incredible skill (and bravery) required to play these sports at a high level.
As for the cultural importance of the games, I feel—and I’m sure my Irish friends will agree—that this is something that takes a lifetime to fully understand, but this three-and-a-half hour hands-on session with the games is a good start.
Nuts and Bolts
- Experience Gaelic Games runs standard, 3.5-hour sessions throughout the year for groups of almost any size. Larger groups can schedule their experience in advance; solo travelers, couples, or small groups can sign up for the open public sessions running every Friday and Saturday. Public sessions start at €35.00 per person. Contact E.G.G. for a quote on larger groups.
- In addition to the standard Gaelic session, E.G.G. offers a number of in-town and out-of-town packages and bundles with local hotels, restaurants, and attractions. They also offer a mobile package that runs special sessions at hotels and convention centers nationwide—booked and arranged in advance, of course.
- The Dublin experience is at Na Fianna GAA Club, Glasnevin. It is easy to reach from City Centre (follow bus instructions on website, St. Moibhi is pronounced “MOH-vee“). Sessions are also offered at GAA clubs in Cork and Galway.
- This experience is a hands- and sticks-on activity; flat shoes are required and athletic clothing is highly recommended to best enjoy your experience. You can play at your own speed, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself really digging into these fun, fast games. Changing rooms are provided on site.
- Thanks to Georgina, Cormac, Daire, Brian, and the rest of the E.G.G. team for inviting me along for a look at this great experience.
See my full disclosure for more about invited reviews.