One lesson from the Irish
I never really thought I would find myself writing an article about sports. I mean I've always casually enjoyed following sports, and I'm on the school swim team, but I've never had enough interest or boasted enough knowledge to really write about them. However, my experience with the sporting world in Ireland has inspired this "Postcard from Abroad," so with that disclaimer in mind, here goes.
First off, I would like to be clear that this article is not meant to disparage American sports; that's not my goal here. As I've already stated, I enjoy American sports, and I think there is a lot to be said for them, both on the professional and amateur levels. My goal with this article is rather to share something that I"ˆhave found to be remarkable: the Irish sporting system.
In Ireland the two most popular sports by far are Hurling and Gaelic football, organized under the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). The Irish also have soccer (yes, they also call it soccer over here), rugby, and a few others, but they are by no means as popular or as important as Hurling and Gaelic football. Hurling is somewhat like a cross between lacrosse and handball, and Gaelic football is best described as a mix between rugby and American football with a little bit of soccer thrown in. (If you're looking to procrastinate your homework tonight check them out on Youtube, both are pretty incredible to watch).
What makes Irish sporting so amazing though, is not just the games themselves, but the fact that the entire GAA is amateur. Even the top tier of competition, which is played on a national scale and draws enormous crowds, is entirely amateur. The players all have day jobs, and receive no compensation for competing; you would never guess this from watching the games, though. The level of skill, athleticism, and technique displayed in GAA matches is incredibly high, and the events draw enormous national attention and crowds. For example, at the All-Ireland Hurling Final two weekends ago, the national stadium, with a capacity of over 80,000 (more than most NFL stadiums), was bursting at the seams with fans. Even the women's finals, also amateur, will draw crowds upwards of 15,000. Even though the GAA is entirely amateur, the Irish by no means treat it that way, if anything, they support their teams with more passion than many American fans do.
The GAA and its teams are organized on a national scale by county. For example, in the Gaelic Football final this coming weekend, County Cork will be playing County Down. Within the county level there are also town and more local teams. Pretty much all children begin playing in the GAA from a very young age, and many of these children go on to participate in their local club throughout much of their life. Team allegiance is strictly based on one's county of origin; people support only the team from their county, period.
The GAA is more than just a sporting association, however; it is also a center of Irish community, social life, and culture. In addition to promoting sports, the GAA also plays a significant role in promoting traditional Irish dance, music, and the Gaelic language. In fact, when the winning captain of a national final gives a post-game speech, he or she gives it first in English, and then again in Gaelic. For the most part, Gaelic is completely dead; however, the GAA is a major steward of Irish culture, and it works to propagate the ancient language.
The All-Ireland Hurling final, contested between the counties Kilkenny and Tipperary, was held at the national stadium, Croke Park, in Dublin, two Sundays ago. Unfortunately the match was sold out, so a few friends and I ended up watching the game in a bar near the stadium. The city was electric; every storefront and house had both team's flags flying out front, and the streets were flooded with people going to the game. People were eager to talk to us and explain the game and its finer nuances. It didn't matter that we were Americans who knew next to nothing about the sport; everyone was eager to share part of their national culture and identity.
I have been very impressed with the Irish people during my time here so far. They have been incredibly friendly, helpful and passionate about their country. I feel like the GAA perfectly sums up much of the Irish spirit. It is an organization that unites both communities and the country; people are incredibly dedicated to the GAA. The Irish athletes, playing for free, compete with a fiery passion. They don't just play for love of the game, because the GAA is much more than just a sporting organization. They compete for love of their country and love of their ancient culture; ideals which I think we could all from learn a little bit.