Ireland, that fun-loving island out in the Atlantic, is world renowned for many things, both real and imaginary. For instance, St. Patrick, it’s patron saint, the luck of the Irish, leprechauns, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the Blarney Stone, Guinness, U2 and hurling.
Yes, hurling. It’s the ancient Gaelic ball-and-stick sport that’s been played all around the Emerald Isle for some 3,000 years.
And, down Kilkenny way, in the southeastern reaches of the country, hurling is more than just a sport, it’s a way of life, as the “band of merry media” — 18 travel writers and photographers invited by Insight Vacations (Insight) to sample its Treasures of Ireland journey — is about to find out as we hop off the motor coach and take our places on one of the training pitches at the O’Loughlin Gaels complex.
“The rest of Europe may be enamored with soccer, the so-called beautiful game,” remarks PJ Lanigan, our instructor and proprietor of Lanigans, the fave local sports pub-restaurant, “but here in Kilkenny, the epicenter of the fastest sport on grass, hurling rules and for good reason.”
Pausing for effect, the part-time coach/full-time barman proudly adds, while lifting the coveted Liam McCarthy Cup for all to see, “The Cats, our senior GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) division team, has won the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final a record 34 times.”
We learn quickly from PJ that hurling, a totally pure amateur sport — no player is paid, other than for his day job, or receives commercial endorsements — is comprised of two opposing 15-man teams (the distaff version of the game is called camogie) that, at the senior level, play two, pedal-to-the-metal, 35-minute halves.
Each player, sans protective pads, but wearing a mandatory plastic helmet with a face guard, uses a hurley, a wooden stick made from ash with a flattened, curved end to carry, pass and hit the sliotar, a cork-core, leather-wrapped ball, about the size of a tennis ball.
The object of hurling is to navigate the defense and hit the sliotar through the uprights of the goal posts (1 point), or strike it past the opposing team’s goalie into the goal net (3 points). The team with the most points as time runs out is declared the winner of the match.
Under the watchful eye of PJ, the creator of The Kilkenny Way: The Ultimate Hurling Experience — a huge tourist draw for the area involving hurling instruction on the hallowed grounds of Nowlan Park, the Cat’s 24,000-seat home stadium, and a pub lunch at Lanigan’s upstairs Legend’s Hurling Bar Museum — we grab a hurley and break down into two groups.
Facing each other, we attempt a simple exercise of open-palm patting of a sliotar to our opposite’s hurley, who, in turn, taps it back to our open palms, and so on. OUCH! That sliotar smarts.
Next, we take turns drilling on the field, trying to carry a sliotar on the flat end of the hurley. It ain’t easy.
Finally, we take a stab at a scoop-and-strike maneuver, lifting the sliotar up off the pitch by the end of the hurley while running, then hitting it, if we possibly can.
WHIFF. WHIFF. WHACK!
Surprisingly, no one’s offered a slot to play for the mighty black-and-amber Cats, so the “band of merry media” boards the Insight motor coach and follows PJ into Kilkenny City to his sports pub-restaurant, Lanigans, all decked out with hurling memorabilia.
Pints of Guinness all around and on the house, and bowls of piping hot, wholesome Irish stew on Insight’s euro. Mmm, mmm, mmm. It doesn’t get any better than this.
A farewell fist bump with PJ, the Kilkenny way, and I make my way out of Lanigans and head back to the motor coach. Along the way, I stop briefly inside Kilkenny Castle Park to admire the 13th century Anglo-Norman stone fortress and its well-manicured gardens overlooking the River Nore.
The challenge of hurling. The beauty of Guinness. The goodness of Irish stew. And, a castle thrown in for good measure. Not a bad way to jumpstart a visit to the southeastern corner of Ireland. Not a bad way at all. At all.
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©The Palladian Traveler