For the Love of Gaelic Games

Of two things I am positive: Irish sports are some of the most exciting games to partake in, and I should stick to watching as opposed to actually playing.
This weekend, more than half of the Champlain Abroad Dublin students attended Experience Gaelic Games, an almost four hour session where we were taught the art of three of Ireland’s most popular sports—handball, hurling, and Gaelic football. There was time devoted to each to learn the basics, work with a partner to put passing techniques into practice, and finally to play a match.
I’ve never been athletically inclined. Growing up a dancer, with the only equipment needed being performance shoes and a ballet bar, I’ve been so out of the earshot of sports. In gym class throughout school, I would stand back and let everyone else duke it out on the court or field, and follow the herd of kids running towards the ball in play. But I was pumped for the day. New sports, new me, right?

Champlain GAA

Champlain Abroad students learning hurling techniques

When our group arrived, we were brought to the members’ room in the back and given a quick tutorial and video demonstration of handball, hurling, and Gaelic football. Seeing it in action was daunting, but knowing that I wasn’t surrounded by professionals was reassuring. Before we were brought downstairs for handball, we were told that sports in Ireland are comparable to literature in the arts in the culture that they bring forth. It is a livelihood and a passion, bringing together a community of people and players alike. And unlike in America, professional athletes playing Gaelic sports don’t get paid for the game. We were told that they might get nicer equipment as they move up the ranks, and the better athletes generally become household names; but as far as payment goes, it’s in the achievement of getting to do what you love.

After our briefing, we were brought to an indoor court to learn handball. Played one on one or two on two and with a palm-sized, lightweight ball, handball involves hitting said ball against the wall in such a way that the opposition is unable to return. Everyone got the basics down, and most were able to carry that into the competition we formed. There were two lines, and if you lost the match on both sides, you lost completely. (Side note: I was one of the last players out there only by default.)

Hurling was our next sport; and after a cookie break, everyone donned a helmet and grabbed a hurley, before heading out to the field. I have to say how impressive and technical the sport is. We learned three different ways of lifting the ball onto our stick, at least four passing techniques, as well as how to run whilst balancing the ball on the stick. Then, we were thrown into a match.

Me and Kayla Williford, ready for action!

Me and Kayla Williford, Champlain Abroad students ready for action!

I definitely couldn’t keep up on the field, and wasn’t sure I was watching the same sport I had just learned all the basics of. Nonetheless, it was exciting to experience. To see it in action, starring my fellow students, who too had just been taught the essentials of the game. I’m glad I wasn’t in the middle of it all—as many would be if they saw me trying—but rather got to look on from almost the outside.
Gaelic football was the most enjoyable, for me, of the three sports. It incorporates elements of volleyball and soccer, though in our match we weren’t allowed to kick the ball to pass it. But we went through the basics and drills, and again began a scrimmage. I was able to keep up easier, most likely because nothing was needed save my hands and feet, and actually had the ball twice. I passed it off quickly to teammates, the feeling of success washing over me. It felt a little silly; but that the sport clicked with me, and that I could ably participate was relieving, redeeming, and adrenaline-intoxicating. Within the community we had created with Champlain Abroad, we had created another. Rather, we had solidified it with the commonality of Gaelic games.

Champlain Abroad at Experience Gaelic Games

More smiles than fierce Gaelic growls! Champlain Abroad at Experience Gaelic Games.

It was as we were finishing the day that the truth of the sport as culture fully sank in. Both partaking in and observing are entertaining, and brings everyone around together. As I’ve established, I proved my worth (or lack thereof) on the field that day; but the ability to understand the sports, to try my hand at them, and to feel satisfied at gaining this new knowledge was priceless. They have been practiced through the centuries, and as time passed became more closely linked with national identity. It’s easy to see why. The comradery on the field was unlike any other, and meant more than the actual game itself. Friendly rivalry, congratulations all around, and more than enough laughter to go around. Nothing remains but the passion that comes from engaging in such events.
I’m definitely not the Most Valuable Player in athletics, but I have gained an undeniable appreciation for the life that breathes through Gaelic games. I experienced them, and to my great satisfaction. Maybe I’ll never pick up a hurley stick to play a match again. If I do get my hands on one, though, I’ll definitely be able to give you some pointers on passes.

Lindsay Maher
Champlain Abroad Dublin, Fall 2015
Writing, Literature & Publishing Major at Emerson College

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