Hurling is Ireland's oldest and most purely native game. Others, such as Gaelic football, have official recognition as national pastimes, but hurlers can quote scholars to show that their game was old when Christianity was new. It is uniquely Irish in style: a dashing sport with a long history as romantic as Ireland's own, with which it is peculiarly involved. Jack Lynch, the Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, played for County Cork in national competition in the 1940s, before he was elected to public office—and that in itself is a satisfaction to the patriotism of hurlers.
Time was when it was against the law to play hurling. It was banned in the 14th century, along with all other things Irish—language, costume, folkways—by statutes aimed less at the Irish than at English colonists who tended to go native, as colonists in Ireland always do. It was banned again as recently as 1921, during what the textbooks call the Anglo-Irish War. The stick, or hurley, was a formidable weapon, and it could be used as a dummy gun in close-order drill or field training. Moreover, hurling devotees were intensely nationalistic; every hurler was suspect as a secret soldier. Nowadays the stories and legends are something to tell after the game. What counts most is hurling itself—the match beginning perhaps this minute anywhere from Donegal to Cork—with the ball in the air and the hurleys swinging, chancy as the weather, artful as a dance.
The All-Ireland hurling championship is played annually in Dublin on the first Sunday of September. The All-Ireland sets loose a hullaballo very like that of the World Series, and the pleasant noise crosses the ocean to the little Irelands of the Western Hemisphere. Yet the immigrant Irish of the U.S., Canada and Latin America do not depend on Dublin alone for their hurling excitement. There are hurling teams playing week in and week out in San Francisco, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo and New York; in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver; and in Buenos Aires. Croke Park in Dublin is the world capital of hurling, but Gaelic Park in New York is a second capital, resolutely Irish despite its blatantly American setting. It used to be called Croke Park, too, after the mother house, but Irish officialdom disliked the confusion of names and New York settled on Gaelic Park as suitable for its purposes.
Hurling and Gaelic football are seen there every Sunday afternoon, weather permitting, from early spring to late fall. The 22 hurling clubs that compete in the New York league are named for the Irish counties from which their players came. Selected players from these clubs also compete as an all-star team in the oddly named National League, which includes teams from Ireland. The players are unpaid, and earn their livings, for the most part, as truck drivers, transit employees, clerks and workers in the building trades, though there is a smattering in the professions. (A man from Fermanagh said of the hurlers, "Most of them work, but here and there you'll find a priest or a saloonkeeper.") The average attendance is 3,000, but when an international match is played—teams from Ireland come every year—the figure is more than quadrupled.
August 27, 1967
Gaelic Park lies in the hollow of a hill on 240th Street in the far reaches of the Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York City. It isn't a grand place, Gaelic Park; in fact, it's rather shoddy, with aging grandstands and dilapidated wire fencing around the playing area. But it has the charm of its Sunday population: the athletes with their innocent energies and the spectators with their unoffending loyalties. Whole families turn out for the games, with children in numbers to gladden the parish priest. The lads, dressed for Sunday, prowl after the girls; the girls, some with hairdos extravagantly bouffant, prowl back at them. The hurlers, meanwhile, have at each other with a ferocity that does credit to the game's ancient origins.
Hurling is mentioned in the Gaelic saga literature, fragments of which survived and became the inspiration of the revival of the Gaelic language in Ireland in the late 19th century. A revival of national games began at the same time, and the Gaelic League for the language and the Gaelic Athletic Association for the games were two faces of the one movement. Both became strongly nationalist and revolutionary. The gibe in one of Joyce's novels about "a revolution with hurley sticks" turned out to be almost a prophecy. One of the founders of the Gaelic Athletic Association was Michael Cusack, lampooned in Ulysses as "the Citizen," a Jew-baiting jingo who spouts easy Irish phrases. It is considered a malicious caricature by such GAA members who ever got around to reading Ulysses—and by a lot who never did. An operatic character, Cusack was passionate about both Ireland and Irish games. He wrote the first code for modern hurling, and its essentials still stand.
Before the founding of the GAA in 1884, local rules prevailed in county or village or were dispensed with altogether. Both hurling and Gaelic football were a merry anarchy in which, according to one historian of the games, almost anything would go, including "wrestling and vituperation." The intention of Cusack's code was to refine both the skill of the playing and the sportsmanship of the players. Neither wrestling nor vituperation is tolerated in the modern game, and players who are intentionally rough or who use foul language are punished according to the gravity of the offense. One player was recently suspended indefinitely, with no appeal for clemency allowed for two years, for "hitting an opponent and bringing the game into disrepute." Most hurlers very much dislike the idea often held by foreigners, and particularly Americans, that their game is a sort of donnybrook for the display of Irish temper. They claim that the tempers of Irishmen are no more explosive than those of any other people. They argue the case for Irish mildness with an entertaining heat.
Disciplined game though it is, hurling at first looks to American eyes like a melee in which the players whack each other about the head and shoulders and make up their own rules as they go along. The hurlers, 15 to a side, wear shorts and jerseys, socks, shoes with leather soles and hard leather cogs—and nothing else, except what protective intimacies the shorts may conceal. Now and then a player will wear a beanie or a soft cap with a visor against the sun, and all 15 carry hurley sticks, which are made of ash and weigh as much as two and a half pounds.
The pace of the game is swift, and with 30 men flailing the substantially built sticks (except for the flattened hitting end, the hurleys look and feel like ax handles) at one small and lively ball, players are occasionally sliced up a bit. But injuries occur not nearly so often as in football or ice hockey or, for that matter, lacrosse. In spite of appearances, hurlers are not out for blood, and they are genuinely offended by any suggestion that they are. The good players, they insist, rarely hurt or are hurt. They use the hurley with deft precision, and in so doing achieve a startling emulation of the techniques of other sports.
A hurler will go up in the air after a ball in the middle of a crowd, like a good pass receiver in football. He may stop it in midair with his stick or catch it one-handed, like a second baseman taking a high throw. Whether he stops the small hard ball (it is about the size and appearance of a baseball, except for its heavy raised seams) or catches it, he is apt to toss it in the air and hit it fungo style, sending a long fly ball or a ringing line drive downfield. Or he may hit an incoming ball in midair, like a tennis player with a two-handed grip returning a hard smash. He can hit a moving ball on the ground like a polo player or move it along with his stick, as in hockey. If he does catch the ball he is allowed to run no more than three paces with it in his hand, but if he can balance it on the end of the hurley (either by carrying it there, as in lacrosse, or by bouncing it, like an upside-down basketball dribble) he can run as far as he wants with it. "Tipping" the ball like this is an impressive and crowd-pleasing maneuver; it is something like carrying an egg on a spoon in a race at a picnic, with all the other picnickers hacking away at the egg with their own spoons.
A ball on the ground cannot be picked up or even touched by the hand, but it can be lifted, and often is, with the hurley. Hitting an opponent with the stick or hand is a foul, along with tripping, holding and other forms of interference. The penalty for a foul is a free try, or free puck, at the goal. Scores are made by hitting the ball through H-shaped goalposts (there's football again); a ball hit under the crossbar into the netted goal cage behind it counts three points, while a ball hit over the crossbar counts one. A hurler making a free try at the goal may choose to swing crosshanded, but in form and because of the arching shot that results he looks exactly like a golfer making an approach shot to the green. (The kinship with golf is stressed in a curious annual custom in County Louth. On Whit Monday each June hurlers compete over a four-mile course of mountain, bog and heather north of the town of Dundalk. The scoring is the same as in golf: the man who makes it over the mountain in the fewest strokes—pucks, the hurlers say—is the winner. The event, a promotion both for hurling and for Dundalk, honors a very ancient legend. Dundalk is supposed to have been the home of Cuchulain, the mythical hero of the Irish sagas, who seems to have been a cross between Achilles and Paul Bunyan. The story goes that he could hit a ball in one province and run to another in time to catch it on his hurley and puck it on to still another province.)
But all the likenesses dissolve after a while and hurling is like nothing but hurling: a glory to play and a splendor to watch. The ball scampers like a rabbit or soars like a bird, with anarchic variations of movement both aloft and on the ground. It is the swiftness and unpredictability of a ball in almost continuous motion that makes hurling seem like a game left over from more innocent times than ours. There are rules, naturally, but a watcher isn't much aware of them. The game is so simple an expression of the dark old human compulsion to whack things about (not including rival players) that it is satisfying to watch even if one has no understanding of the rules at all.
Hurling is a wide-open, high-scoring, freewheeling game: no slow progress down the field in carefully marked stages, no long pauses to line up putts or to discuss managerial strategy; no stifling defensive theory to reduce goals to a minimum. There is a constant swirl of players; sticks clash; the ball flies 70 yards one way and then 100 yards the other as fast as it takes to say it. The action is constant; the skills displayed are awesome.
The most famous of all living hurlers is Christy Ring of Cork, who often has appeared in exhibition matches in New York. He is known as the Babe Ruth of hurling, though not in Ireland. The story they like in Gaelic Park is about the Irish-American who went back to the old country and was telling his cousins about Babe Ruth. "He was the best," he explained. "He was the Christy Ring of baseball." Ring, who is 47 years old now, looks something like Y. A. Tittle. He has a bald crown fringed with blondish hair, like a monk's tonsure, blue eyes, a strong jaw and a pale face. He lives in Blackrock, a suburb of Cork City, and works for Shell Oil. At one time he drove a tank truck, but now he has an office job. Around Cork they tell how he used to park his truck, climb down from the cab and spend some time hitting the ball along the road and against fences in order to keep his hand in on difficult shots.
Ring was an intense competitor and played in the All-Ireland finals eight times, but he is mild-mannered and so soft-spoken as to be sometimes hard to hear. A genuinely shy man, he dislikes personal publicity; by American standards, his efforts to avoid public attention seem almost pathological. Once, at Gaelic Park in New York, he was caught by a television interviewer before he could get off the field and into the locker room. It may well have been the shortest interview in the history of TV. The reporter asked him what was the most important feature of hurling. Ring tapped his forehead and said: "T'inkin'." Then he bolted for the locker room.
Ring speaks in a Cork accent, which involves a melodious displacement of Hs. One of his compatriots, watching a player in an ambitious attempt at a goal from somewhere in the center of the field, murmured: "Ah, you foolish man, to thry a t'ing like dhat!" Initial Ts are likely to become Ds with a whisper of an H in them, but the effect is far from illiterate. It is a proud provincial poetry. It is when they speak that the spectators at Gaelic Park show themselves as Irish, not alone in accent but in certain oddities of syntax that have survived in Irish-English for generations. Grumbling about what he considered the inferior quality of hurling being played, a man complained to a neighbor in the stands: "This is no class of game at all. Of course, they're only jun'ors and better is not to be expected of them. When the sen'ors play you'll see a queer old tuggin'." He was a Kerryman, and in Kerry I's are ghostly. A little later he praised Christy Ring as a "gen'us."
In calling the teams junior and senior the man was using Gaelic Athletic Association terms for hurling leagues. The words have no reference to the age of the players but to the quality of their play. They are roughly like the minors and the majors in baseball. The fans mutter as much as they cheer, and even the cheers have an odd formality: "Up the field, Mayo! Down the field, Limerick! Dig in, Clare!" The muttering is more fun. When a player was hopping the ball on his stick rather indecisively, a fan whispered: "Puck it up the field, lad. Sure, you don't have to bring it in personally." The same man who complained about the dullness of junior playing pointed to the goalkeeper of one of the teams, a massive young man, and said, "Look at the proportions of that one, rearward. Wouldn't you think there'd be a penalty declared against an arse like that? It would take all day to walk around it."
Another time spectators were remarking on a player whose methods they considered overrough. "Keep an eye on him today," one said, "for he's in a t'reatenin' mood." (Final Gs are almost always on the run in rural Ireland.) Said another, "Ah, he's the desperate laddo when his temper's up." A third spectator: "Temper is all well and good, but where's the sense of t'rowin' the hurley about in all directions?"
The games at Gaelic Park are important in themselves, but a spirit beyond games hovers over the place. It is a homesick imagination, an Irishness never far below the American surfaces. It stirred a different kind of homesickness in one middle-aged Irish-American frequenting the place: a homesickness for the Chicago of his childhood. In those days, 40-odd years ago, the same games were played on Chicago prairies. The children of Irish-born parents lived with the legend that haunted the parish halls: the jigs and reels and set dances, the songs about Irish bravery and British cruelty. The suspicion crept into at least one young mind that it was all partly a stunt: the agonies of history were put to slippery uses by men far removed from the realities of Ireland. Toward Election Day, candidates for political office became more Irish than seemed reasonable, and the immigrant neighborhoods were asked to vote for "their own."
After 40 years the Irishness of most Irish-Americans has been vaporized into sentimental convention about an Ireland long gone. The memories of generations of immigrants have been watered down into catchwords and musical-comedy tunes. The famous Irish names in U.S. public life made their successes in the American way and on American terms. Such names are supposed to have large prestige with Irish-Americans, but it is hard to see at close range among the newest generation of immigrants. They have better uses for their reverence.
The Ireland these newcomers grew up in is not the historic victim celebrated in the songs (though agitation continues for "the return" of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, which is still part of the United Kingdom). Ireland is now an independent and sovereign nation, and like other small nations it has to scratch for a living. So do its immigrants, and all the glamour of the Irish-American names can't help them do it. The unskilled are barred from entry by U.S. immigration laws, except, of course, as visitors. This sometimes puzzles them, because they have heard the stories of what a land of opportunity the U.S. has been for other Irishmen: Farleys and Kennedys and people like that.
Yet at Gaelic Park the politicians still show up toward Election Day with so many salutes to the struggle for Irish freedom that you would think they had arranged it personally. They bare their heads solemnly before the big games for the singing of the Irish anthem, The Soldier's Song, probably not knowing that the words were written by Brendan Behan's uncle, Peadar Kearney, a man whose revolutionary opinions would bleach the body hair of the average American politician.
A visitor to Gaelic Park gets the impression that the players and the fans don't care much about politics of any hue. They are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, of course, and it shows. Benefits are played for Cardinal Cushing's charities or for parish churches. Nuns make collections for charitable purposes outside the ticket windows. In the stands there are always priests, often visitors from Ireland. The gift shop near the park entrance displays Irish textiles, crockery and gimcrack statues of the saints.
The place is Irish, in obvious ways and subtle ones, including attitudes of mind at once proud and critical. A man from County Mayo in the crowd said he thought the centuries of suffering under foreign rule had tended to make the Irish narrow in their nationalism, their politics and their religion. It might have been James Joyce speaking, or Sean O'Casey, though he had never read either of them, because, he said, "it wasn't encouraged on the other side" when he was a schoolboy. Joyce was regarded as heretic and immoral, and O'Casey was only a Protestant anyway. "They brag about them in the travel literature," said the Mayo man, "and play them up in Irish Airlines radio commercials. But back home we never got to read them." It is different nowadays. Most of Joyce's books can be bought in Dublin, and O'Casey's plays are done on television and at the Abbey Theatre. An official censorship, anachronism though it is in so civilized a country, has at least the national virtue of inconsistency.
Back home, as at Gaelic Park, the talk is not always as reverent and respectful as officialdom would like to assume. The Gaelic Athletic Association recognizes only hurling, Gaelic football, handball and rounders as proper Irish sports (the last is a bit of surprise, since it is a primitive form of baseball that is probably English in origin), and it specifically bans Rugby, soccer, hockey and cricket. It suspends members of the GAA who play those sports or so much as watch them as spectators.
The ban is a controversial matter in Ireland. Some hurlers and footballers feel that, understandable as it was in the days of British rule, banning such sports today is meaningless and serves only to inflame old animosities. They argue that a game survives on its merits and that hurling is too good a game to need official nursing. Croke Park, the handsome temple of the Gaelic games, is in a neighborhood of Northside Dublin that is highly patriotic in its own way but not disposed to be solemn about it. The lads in the public houses there kid the hurling and Gaelic-football enthusiasts by calling them kulchies, a Dublin term that means "hicks" (it is thought to derive from a tiny market town called Kiltimagh, which is pronounced—roughly, and without the purity demanded by scholarly speakers of Irish—Kulchimah).
Brendan Behan was born and grew up in the Croke Park neighborhood, and the tone of the talk in its street and public houses is very like that of Behan's books and plays, in which not much is sacred except perhaps laughter. Citizens in his old neighborhood hold that a game is a game, wherever it comes from, and they go as often to Dalymount Park, where soccer is played, as they do to Croke Park for the hurling. In years past they used to watch the hurling games for free from a bridge across the Royal Canal. Now a grandstand blocks the view and they have to pay their way in.
They don't mind paying, despite their refusal to go along with the traditions of the GAA. It isn't the tradition that attracts them. It's the action.