The most popular sports in Ireland are rugby, football (soccer), Gaelic football (called “Gaa” by the Irish, they tell me), and hurling. In July, I was fortunate to be in Dublin when the finals for both hurling and Gaa took place. While there is a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) experience to learn about these Gaelic Games near Glasnevin, I lucked out when I researched it. They had an abbreviated class, Warrior Ways, right on Trinity’s campus a block from our home. Sign me up!
We live a block from the Trinity College Dublin campus, so when given the option of taking the bus or taxi over to Glasnevin or walking over to TCD, I chose the site near me. I signed up online to reserve my spot.
That part of campus — with the playing field and Pavilion — always seems rather posh and exclusive. It was good to walk out there and feel as though I actually belonged, kitted out though I was for a workout.
How I Approached The Trip
My primary goal for this event was to learn more about sports important to my Irish heritage. Nothing in any other nation compares with the depth and width of the GAA’s integration into the life of its people. A map of the 2,000+ GAA clubs closely follows the Irish map. Local people of all ages play the national sports that continue to promote the culture. According to Cormac O’Donnchú, one of the class’s leaders, the GAA has developed into the largest social organization in Western Europe.
For the day, I stretched before I went and wore comfortable clothing and good running shoes. Despite being an athlete pre-injury, I haven’t run since my 10 years in a wheelchair, so was curious about how this would work.
From home, I walked to the pavilion, signed the release forms, and waited for Cormac and Vinnie to give me the information I needed.
“GAA is the most successful cultural organization for the protection of indigenous culture,” Cormac explains. “Our sports are part of our heritage, and the king of these sports is hurling. It’s older than our recorded history.”
Then they sized me for my helmet, gave me an ash wood hurling stick, and offered a sliotar (pronounced “slitter”) made of a cork center covered in leather, the “little ball” so important to this fastest of all sports, where the sliotar can reach 180 km/h (112 mph).
A very small class size allowed the coaches to provide me with extra attention. They didn’t worry about my being middle-aged or overweight but acknowledged the athlete within and were patient and kind. That’s just about the perfect way to start any sport, especially one that requires skills you don’t have. I retained some hand-eye coordination from childhood tennis but never played soccer or lacrosse, so they started from square one and built me up from there.
They told me I was the best athlete they’d had all day. Never underestimate your ability to do something new, regardless of your physical condition and medical challenges. If you can meet the basic criteria for the sport, go experience it.
After “holding up” so well during hurling, I was disappointed that my energy was spent before we started Gaelic football. The field much larger than a football field, measuring 142 to 159 yards in length and 87.5 to 98 yards in width, was physically impossible for me to cross. To put it in perspective, an American football field is 100 yards in length and 53 yards wide.
Comprehending all the rules that differed between both American football and soccer was difficult. It’s a true testament to Irish athletes that can keep all the rules straight for all four sports. The good news? My coaches reassured me that I would pick up the game with repeat attempts and practice. They never gave up on me.
My Biggest Challenge
I overdid it. I tore a couple of muscles while hiking the 16-kilometer Stairway to Heaven too close to this event and should’ve been evaluated sooner. I also wish I had attended games in person at Croke Park so I knew what was expected of me.
Growing As A Traveler
If you love sports in America, you’re bound to love sports when you travel. Embrace that. Get out of your own way and have fun where you can.
There are so many things to love about traveling to Ireland. The English language, ease of euro use, safety, clean water and air, and beautiful beaches, cities, and countryside all make it easy for Americans to travel. Making the effort to learn just a little more about uniquely Irish sports makes all the difference in feeling included within these communities.
Cormac explained that they hope to interest international visitors in the culture and heritage of these two mostly unknown Irish sports.
I’m already looking forward to my next lesson!
- First, seek out the unfamiliar. The more you connect to something uniquely “theirs,” the more you may find you endear yourself to people you visit.
- Second, search online for some information about the basic rules, policies, and procedures.
- Third, if given the opportunity, go and see the game or event in person to have a better understanding.
- Finally, go with a couple of bottles of water, an open heart, a happy attitude, and plenty of patience.