Monday, February 27, 2006

Games Mad

The Gaelic Athletic Association sponsors both hurling and Gaelic football. Scheduled games are listed in the local paper under G.A.A. leagues, but they don’t specify which of the two games will be played. We watched Na Fianna vs. Drumcondra at Glasnevin, but didn’t know until we got there which would be played. They say Gaelic games are very big in Ireland, enough so that following soccer football is still a relatively unfamiliar concept. Tourist guides all had descriptions of huge drunken crowds watching the big Gaelic matches each year, so were unprepared for a near-empty field.

The only fans at Glasnevin were two coaches, two teenage girls (Girlfriends? Daughters? Hurling groupies?), a small boy, an older man with a pipe, and the four of us, two Americans and two Romanian-Americans. On the field, there were about 10 men whapping vicious looking sticks at a hard rubber ball. Ah, hurling match, we sports gurus knowingly concluded.  Can't fool us.

Hurling looks most like some cross between lacrosse and field hockey at first, but soon shows elements of baseball, tennis, golf, and egg-and-spoon race. If the egg-and-spoon part seems a little gentle, a little frou-frou for a man’s sport, it is because we are used to the school picnic version, with tiny spoons and no one playing defense. Imagine church picnic egg-and-spoon with defense.  Now make it young men who drink heavily.

To move the ball toward the hurling goal, you may

carry the ball in hand, but only for a few steps;

whack it forehand or backhand, either in the air or off the ground, though it takes a bit of time to windup for a good one;

kick it, but it is too small;

or balance it on the wide end of a tree root while running. That’s the egg-and-spoon part, and the least efficient of these four bad ways to make progress. Other lads are trying to strike you with their tree root in a sharpish manner throughout. Apparently you can’t throw it, which is the only method that would make any sense.

The ball does travel a long distance at times, when a goalie or defender gets an open space and a good wallop. This occurs more at the end of the game, when people are tired of running around pressuring every possession. I imagine that an over-30 league would pretty rapidly become a series of long volleys between overweight defenders, like spent boxers looking for that one knockout punch. Some of these guys can pop it 80 yards or more with some accuracy, scoring a “pint” from distance.

The scoring is quite simple. There is an H-shaped goal, with the bottom third netted. Putting the ball under the bar is 3 points, over the bar is one point. If the Irish don’t want people to make drinking jokes about them, they shouldn’t have scoring involving “3 pints equals 1goal,” or indeed anything about pints at all.

We gradually sidled up to the lone gentleman. An older man with a pipe is always a trustworthy individual, just as talking ravens always have the key to your adventure. This particular gent had played a good deal as a youth, and was able to make shrewd observations on our behalf. It is the all-stars from games like these who make up the county teams which go on to fame and glory playing in front of drunks in September. But with no sportswriters or fans, the only possibilities for choosing an all-star team would be the votes of the coaches or the players. “You remember our Kevin, he was the one who got the two late pints against you out at Glasnevin with a backsmash from the deep end.” “Thick lad, about 24?” “No the quick one, about 19. You’re thinking of our Big Kevin, then.” “Red hair?” “That’s the one.” “Allright, he’s on then.”

Gaelic football is more dangerous than hurling. I had thought the wielded tree roots would have given the concussion advantage to the older game, but O’Pipe confided that you could use the stick to defend yourself in hurling, and he actually winked. Ah, that explains it then. One enters the game with a defensive, nigh unto paranoid attitude, which is likely self-fulfilling. Gaelic football is like the Australian rules football I used to see on ESPN at 2am in the 1980’s. One allows you to pick the ball up directly from the ground and the other doesn’t, but it’s similar enough for them to have exchange matches every year.
Amazingly, many people bet on these games. While it is difficult to imagine a thriving market in wagers on games not attended, I have this from several sources. One of the bettors determined which game was closest and what bus to take by looking at my newspaper, but was unable – and unconcerned – to tell me which sort of GAA game it would be. Although Na Fianna was county champion last year, Drumcondra beat them 3-8 to 1-10. All over Dublin, money changed hands over this.

Tourists aren’t buying hurling mementoes at the sidewalk stands near O’Connell Bridge, as it is all soccer there. A pity. I would love to have had a cap that said Drumcondra Hurling Club over an unrecognizable crest (“Unrecognizable? Lad, that’s the coat of arms of the Earl of Drumcondra, who fought against Lord Killester at Donnycarney in 1782! The cursed English were comin’ up o’er the hill…”). The Irish team did well in the World Cup this year, which gives the pushcart peddlers another green thing to hawk.

One could also find overpriced rugby shirts, or flimsy T-shirts of a soccer player looking over his shoulder and grinning while urinating on another team’s jersey. There were any number of opponents you could thus insult (Same figure, different team logos. Efficient), but Manchester United seemed particularly popular. As urine recipient, that is.

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