Shoulder to shoulder: the Irish love affair with sport
One of the many things that defines North Americans, such as me, is our fervent and undying passion for our sports teams. Any casual search online of the terms “American football fans” will reveal legions of supporters decked-out in all manner of colours, complete with home-made fan accessories and signs. This fanaticism applies to any of the so-called “Big Four” sports—hockey, basketball, baseball and football. I have run around in the freezing temperatures of Toronto, celebrating a Canadian hockey win. I have watched my endlessly disappointing Maple Leafs lose year after year in the NHL Playoffs. I have relaxed under the summer sun with my friends while watching the Blue Jays hit a few home runs. However, beyond the odd international soccer match or Olympic competition, there is little that unites the people of the United States or Canada in quite the way that sports do here in Ireland.
On the local scale, the focus is on the two sports native to Ireland: hurling and Gaelic football. Hurling, known as the fastest game on grass, is most appropriately described as a mashup of hockey, lacrosse and baseball. It involves 30 men on a field competing by scoring points or goals (each worth three points) or hitting a ball (sliotar) with a stick (hurley) into a net or over a bar. Gaelic football is a mix of soccer and basketball that also involves 30 men hitting a large leather ball into a net. A cursory look on YouTube will show you the basics of these sports in all their Irish glory. The key thing about these sports is not just how unique they are to this country, but how they unite people in a way that no other sports team can. In North America, you might support the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, but in fact 16 out of 25 players of the LA Kings team that won the Stanley Cup in 2014 are from Canada. However, in Irish sport, every county has a team that competes in the national competitions and the players of each county team must originate from that county. There are no players from County Tipperary that play for County Cork – you’re a Tipp player until the day you hang up your hurley!
While this may seem restrictive, it actually unites the different counties and Ireland as a whole. The GAA was established not only to promote Irish sport, dancing, and music, but also as a means to create both a local and national identity that survives to this day. A day spent watching two teams battle on the hurling pitch does not end when the referee blows his final whistle, but continues long into the night. Whether celebrating a win or commiserating a loss, the local pubs will be full.
National pride for Ireland is most evident on the rugby pitch, most significantly when the best of Irish rugby players play against France, England, Wales, Scotland, and Italy in the annual Six Nations Championship. While rugby is truly an international sport, there are only a few countries that can mimic the pure passion the Irish have for their rugby team. No other team starts their matches with 52,000 people singing an anthem that harkens back to the fight for the country’s independence like the Irish do with “A Soldier’s Song”. Nor do they follow their anthem with a call for unity like “Ireland’s Call” that echoes around the Aviva Stadium in the late winter and early spring. These are songs with roots in national identity. Singing them during each match galvanizes the team and encourages players on the field like no other song can. It is truly something to experience.
A year ago I would have said I’d seen some of the most emotional sports fans in the world cheering on my local Toronto teams. But all that changed when I came to Ireland. Yes, people will tell you to come to Ireland to study and to experience the dancing, food, and beauty of this country; but I say come to Ireland to experience the sport and the pride the Irish have for their teams. I promise it will inspire you—so much so that only a few short months after your arrival, you will be chanting, arm in arm with fellow supporters, wearing your best green jersey as the ultimate convert to this great country’s great love affair with sport.
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