Going Gaelic.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - CopyYou know what? I’ve got to be honest, at that moment, lying face down on the AstroTurf, throbbing pain coursing through my torso having taken the impact of a hefty fall onto the trailing leg of my flatmate fully on the left side of my rib cage, I thought, this ain’t so much fun.

Never had I lain prone wracked with agony, then retracted into the foetal position, on an artificial sports pitch in Ireland before, but that was my fate last weekend. C’est le craic? Hmm, a cracked rib is my self diagnosis but at the time, on a blustery Saturday afternoon in Dublin, it felt like I’d been hit by a small hatchback being driven at speed.

The thing is with me, when it comes to sport, I’m an all or nothing kind of guy. Short, idiotic bursts of energy, exhausting my fitness in a heartbeat and falling over. Think Boris Johnson’s lunatic cameo during Soccer Aid circa 2007.  I should have learnt my lesson from countless crashes into walls and hopeless dives onto the floor during bouts in the squash court, but no, and this time I was trying another sport for the first time. Gaelic football. When in Rome and all that…

It’s easy to get tunnel vision about sport; passionate about one and stick to it. I’m guessing I’m not the only Englishman to have visited our neighbours over the Irish Sea completely unaware of just how huge the gaelic sports are over there.

Strolling through Dublin city centre in my Liverpool shirt, blazer on, 51st State style, a few randomers commented, a mixture of kinship from LFC’s strong Irish contingent and scorn from the odd Man Utd fan; but the popularity of the English Premier League in Ireland is overshadowed by their love of gaelic sports. At Na Fianna, the gaelic sports club that played exemplary host to this out-of-shape blogger and six other members of the same stag party, we were told that the two biggest sports in Ireland are gaelic football and hurling.

20140215_150854We learnt how clubs like this one had dozens and dozens of teams across genders and age groups from as young as under-8s and every city, town and village has a club or a whole host of clubs, and if you are born in a neighbourhood associated with a particular club, then that’s your allegiance set for life.

Out of each club are rosters of different squads representing different gaelic sports, much like at Na Fianna where they have gaelic handball, football and hurling teams. It’s a community atmosphere where people frequent as boys then men, and as girls then women. Star players, who rise through the ranks to achieve the honour of representing their county team, are expected to pay their dues and show up at their local club to take training sessions with the kids. One of the chaps involved in our sessions is the uncle of a top hurling player for Dublin County, but you’d have no idea.

Unlike soccer, where the stars are millionaires and live very differently to the supporters who pay through the nose to watch them perform in front of television cameras broadcasting the action worldwide, gaelic sports appear to have retained their ameuter standing albeit with a huge following. The biggest clashes regularly attract crowds of more than 40,000 – not unlike your average EPL fixture – and the All-Ireland Finals attract 82,500 fans every September at the purpose-built Croke Park stadium near Dublin city centre.

The best way I can describe hurling is hockey with a shorter stock and a broad oval blade but you can run with the ball – which is baseball-like – on the oval of your stick like you’re competing in the egg and spoon race, you can flick the ball into your hands and smash the ball with your knuckles to pass it. You can only carry the ball in your hand for a maximum of four consecutive steps mind. The purpose is to out score the opposing team by slamming the ball into the back of the net – much like a soccer goal. I’m scratching the surface on the rules here, but needless to say it was a heck of a lot to take in, not least since I’d grabbed about four hours sleep that morning before arising for a 4am flight across the water. You’ll have to forgive me if my mind wasn’t just a tad distracted by cravings for a couple of Guinness too. Fast isn’t it:

Hurling was a test physically, involving flexing muscles that I swear had never been flexed before – seriously, I had about 14 different aches on the bottom of my feet alone and damn, it’s rigorous on the buttocks I hasten to add. Anyway it was the second instalment of this educational three-hour session of sports that brought to a premature end my involvement in the frantic shenanigans. Gaelic football is like soccer mashed with rugby and basketball, only it is said to pre-date soccer by around 500 years. Here’s a taster:

Unlike hurling, which, as a non-hockey player, was a whole new concept to me, gaelic football was too closely aligned with soccer for me to cope with. All I wanted to do was rampage towards goal with the ball at my feet, do away with the same-as-hurling four step malarky and welly the beggar goalwards. Mentally I was stuck in a halfway house of stubborn resistance and so it’s not surprising my energies were soon expended, and, running on empty but with all the unrelenting determination of a bull charging at a matador, a showdown to catch an incoming ball during a training exercise brought my abrupt and brutal demise. Falling amid the tussle with my opponent was instantaneous, a split second after jostling I was smashed into the plastic turf, writhing in pain. I think I’ll stick to soccer… from the safety of watching at the pub, with a pint of Guinness in my hand, obviously.

  • Our gaelic sports dabbling was with www.experiencegaelicgames.com and I’d recommend them if you’re organising a stag do in Dublin. Despite my unfortunate injury, it was great fun.
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