Hurling: The Greatest Sport You Never Heard Of

In December, 2013, I spent a week driving around Ireland, visiting various cities and landmarks. My first stop was in Dublin, to pick up the rental car. I noticed a massive stadium across the street from the rental service. My first thought was this must be where they play all the big football games, not realizing that Ireland had its own amazing sport that myself and probably most Americans have never heard of.

The stadium is called Croke Park. The game: Hurling.

Few sports played on Earth can boast beginnings as early as baseball, but hurling isn’t far off. Rules were made official in 1885 by the Gaelic Athletic Association, and published in local newspapers throughout the country. It is believed that hurling arrived in Ireland well before Christianity, as mention was made of the game in original fifth century Brehon Law.

At first sight, it looks like a cross between lacrosse, baseball, American football and soccer. Perhaps even a bit of hockey. A hurling team is made up of fifteen players, all armed with a hurley, a piece of wood shaped like an axe. Like many other sports, the goal is to rack up more points than the opponent, and in hurling, this is done by scoring goals (into the net) and driving balls through the crossbars (above the net, between the bars). A goal is worth three points, and a ball that passes between the crossbars is worth one point. It’s worth noting that a hurling ball, or sliotar, is just a bit smaller than a baseball and made of both cork and leather.

Imagine baseball players, each with a bat, moving the ball down the field any way they can, and driving the ball into the net or over the crossbar. For two 35 minute periods, the action almost never stops. The crowd has no reason to stop cheering, part of what makes these matches so exciting is the constant engagement and drama. At any given point, a ball can be driven nearly the entire length of the 150-yard pitch.

Like in soccer, only certain types of tackles are legal, and there are strict rules on which type of tackle is allowed. This is important because the players wear nothing for protection besides a helmet with a few metal bars to protect the face. The interaction between players sometimes seems quite precise, and sometimes seems desperate and haphazard. Either way, the precision and skill required to field a small ball travelling at close to 90 miles per hour does not go without notice.

The intensity on a hurling pitch is evident by crowd reaction. Over 80,000 spectators crammed Croke Park on September 27th to see the replay (first game ended in a draw) of the championship match between Tipperary and Kilkenny. No sport has spectators more intensely engaged in every single action. They become a living, breathing extension of the on-field drama, each movement accentuated by a collective gasp or cheer. It is a sight to see, and a sound to hear.

Something should also be said about the voices of this sport. The on-air broadcasters are incredibly adept and knowledgeable. It’s perhaps some of the best play-by-play I’ve heard in any sport.

I have to admit, I’m writing from a place of complete ignorance. I also have to admit, that after watching my first two hurling matches last night, I can say that this is a game I will keep an eye on until my bitter end. For anyone interested in high-energy, high-skilled competition, a good hurling match has no equal. It’s not even worth comparing to playoff hockey, or American Football. There is simply nothing to compare to the level of intensity found in these championship hurling matches, as you’ll see if you enjoy the video below.

Baseball is, and will always be the sport nearest to my heart, but I can honestly say that after last night, hurling will forever be on my radar.

Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association is responsible for the putting together the annual All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship, the annual run of games between 14 of the top inter-county teams in Ireland. Consider the below video your first taste of hurling. It most likely won’t be your last.


7 thoughts on “Hurling: The Greatest Sport You Never Heard Of”

  1. EleanorDolanHayes

    Hurling is also an amateur sport all the players have full time jobs and train two_three nights a week and play local club games most weekends while also training for their county teams. Hurling isn’t just a sport over here it’s a way of life and definitly the best game in the world.

  2. tlaverty EleanorDolanHayes Amount of training depends on what level they are playing. Most club players will train 3 times a week plus a game on most weekends. Some big clubs train 4 plus times a week. County players can train 5-6 times a week, depending on games. Some inter-county players train twice a day (Dublin footballers, Clare hurlers for example).

    However for work this is a big problem. The demographic for the average inter-county player is now early 20s, single and usually a job that is flexible time-wise – student, teacher, policeman. As such, the older family man that maybe works as a farmer/does shift work or has a more demanding professional job like being an accountant, banker etc is being pushed out of the inter-county game, or retiring earlier than 20 years ago. 

    Also hamstring/cruciates are becoming more and more prevalent in the GAA then in other comparable sports because players are training too much and then spend a lot of their other time sitting down studying or doing menial work. Basically they are training like professionals, but get none of the support/rest professionals get.

  3. TannerFoSholeySholey

    Nice article!! I discovered hurling about a year and a half ago when an Irish exchange student started the first hurling team in Montana as a club team for the University of Montana!! After only one year of training and playing a few tournaments we went on to win the National Collegiate Championship in New York!  There are several collegiate and club teams in America now and the popularity of the sport continues to grow! I’d encourage you to check out the NCGAA as they run most of the collegiate events in the country for both Hurling and Gaelic Football.  The NCGAA National Championship is being held in Missoula, Montana this year on Memorial Day Weekend and will be an intense weekend full of hurling!!  Again, great article and thanks for spreading the greatness of the sport of Hurling!

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