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Hurling is the great Irish national sport. After a hard day of raiding cattle and sword play back in the Iron Age, the lads relaxed by playing a game. The great national epic, the Táin, celebrates the skill of the ancient heroes of Ulster in battle and hurling.

In the late 1800's a national revival of the Irish language and culture gathered force. The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884 to promote both, and ever since the G.A.A. has administered the game and promoted Irish identity.

Television would have loved traditional hurling. The players, each armed with a three to four foot ash stick, would attempt to hit and hurl a ball from one village toward the distant goal in the next village. Over ditches, through hedges, around hillsides and forests, the hurlers would whack the ball and catch it on the flat rounded end of the hurley stick. Since the fellows of the opposing village would be attempting to move the ball in the opposite direction, it is not beyond the realm of imagining that hurley sticks might be used for more than just batting the ball.

The game revived in 1884 is much more civil. On a standard sized, grass playing pitch, two teams of 15 players attempt to pass and hit the ball over or through a crossbar at opposite ends of the field. The game is recognised as one of the world's fastest sports.

Gaelic Football is played with almost the same rules, but no stick is used. It is like soccer with limited use of hands allowed.

Hurling and Gaelic football are amateur games in that the players do not earn a living from playing. A country wide system of local clubs maintains clubhouses and playing fields and acts as one of the key social centers for community activities (the others are the church, parish halls, and pubs). Dedicated fund raising and local involvement has resulted in the building of some very fine stadiums. The All Ireland Finals in Dublin every year bring in crowds of 80,000 to Croke Park, the nation's largest sports stadium. The G.A.A. has a Web site, which contains the game rules and some history.

Soccer is the the other big sport, with its own set of local clubs, amateur players, and volunteer referees. The best Irish players go abroad to make a living, and England and the continent get the benefit. However, national teams which compete for the World Cup are made of players from dozens of different local and overseas teams who all claim Irish ancestry. Soccer exploded into popularity when English coach Jack Charlton convinced a number of great British players whose grandparents were Irish that they stood a better chance of gaining exposure and World Cup play if they signed up with the Irish team. This surprise team, some of whom had never even visited Ireland, swept into the finals of the World Cup. The country exploded with excitement and soccer delirium. While the present team has not ascended the same heights, soccer (or football as everyone in the world except America calls it) remains a major and important sport in Ireland.

I know absolutely zero, zilch, less than nothing about Irish soccer since my own sport is to march around unpopulated bogs and forests. But, as they say in Ireland, it's who you know. So, I called my brother-in-law who is a referee in an amateur soccer league and who once played at the semi-pro level for a couple of years.

Ireland has three levels of soccer - leaving aside the national team which only gets together for international championships and World Cup meets.

Lowest level - Youth League
This is the schools and high schools. Scouts are always on the lookout for talent. Usually, the talented youngsters start playing in higher leagues when they turn 18.

Junior Football
This is purely amateur men's football. It's at the town, village level. Typically, each county will have its own league with a load of local teams competing against each other.

Irish League
A step up. These are the teams playing much more serious soccer. Still totally amateur. In this league, maybe there would be one or two teams per county and it's really the inter-county soccer league.

League of Ireland
This is the semipro level. Players would expect to make at least 150 Euro per game. The best players in the country would make as much as 800 or 1,000 per game. These negotiations for salary are individual and never released. Maybe there are people making more, but this is doubtful.

So, in Ireland, it truly is semi-pro. There couldn't be more than a handful of players able to make a living wage from the sums paid.

League of Ireland top teams would be -
In Dublin - Shelbourne, St. Pat's Athletic, Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers
Outside Dublin - Cork City, Galway, Kilkenny, Athlone Town and then a revolving cast of one or two teams who sometimes break into the League for a couple of years.

Teams move up a level when they win their own Premier Division. They then get to play against the lowest team(s) in the next higher league. If they can beat them, then they move up.

The season is winter - from September 1st to the end of May. Rain or shine, snow or muck, play goes ahead. Conditions will be a lot more wet and cold than anyone not Irish will be used to. As well, the game is much more physical than in America. The grounding of all athletes in Ireland is the GAA, and all native Irish games involve tackling. That tends to carry over into the soccer. In fact, apparently, the lower the league, the more physical the game. Without the finesse which the semi-pros are capable of, the locals revert to their early training.

The Football Association of Ireland - the FAI - is the umbrella organisation for all levels of soccer. One of these years the government will finish an overhaul of the Lansdowne Road stadium in Dublin and there will finally be a suitably large home for international games.

Equestrian activities, particularly show jumping and horse racing, are another key sport. Ireland has the best grass on the planet, and consequently some of the best horse flesh on the globe. Every town has its equestrian centers, and a goodly percentage of farms house a few horses as well as the more mundane cows and sheep.

Betting shops, called bookmakers, are all over the place. Traditional fox hunts are still commonplace and in the depths of winter when the major tracks shut down, a circuit of point-to-point races travels from town to town. Irish horse racing, like British, involves lots of jumps and miles of running. A typical race might last 10 or more minutes. Get out on a freezing January day and watch the horses splash through the slop and you'll know what it feels like to be a real Irish person: wet, cold, fortified with drink and lots of companionable talk, and surprisingly happy. There's a nice commercial site with links to everything concerning Irish horses.

Golf. There are over 300 golf courses scattered everywhere in Ireland. Each attracts a membership of many hundreds, and visitors are usually welcome to play a few rounds during the warmer months. The standard of greens and fairway maintenance is extremely high and most of the courses earn the coveted "Championship" designation. The major Irish tournament on the international circuit is the Murphy's Irish Open, which attracts thousands of enthusiasts to watch the pros do their thing. There are dozens of individual golf courses on line. Golfing Ireland is a site that covers the whole of the Irish golf scene.

Rugby. Ireland enthusiastically supports amateur rugby, and international play with the other great rugby superpowers - notably South Africa and New Zealand - is followed by large numbers of Irish people. There is again a system of amateur clubs, but these are centered on a few counties such as Kerry and Dublin. For the most part, Rugby is a telly sport, but an exciting and bone crunching one.

Motor rally, hillwalking, and cycling are the other common sports. Every town in Ireland has local clubs involved in these sports. In early July 1998, the Tour De France, the second largest sporting event in the world after the Olympics, began in Ireland. In three d ays the bicycle racers covered hundreds of miles and some very scenic routes between Dublin and Cork.

In sum, there's plenty for the sports minded to enjoy in Ireland. And Satellite TV and the Web make it possible to keep tabs on some favorite overseas team.

Tickets for Sporting Events

CJ suggests checking out the following sites for tickets to Irish games and information about upcoming games:

GAA - The GAA's official site. Game information, times and locations are listed here.
Crokepark.ie - the GAA's premier stadium. All the biggest games are played here.
Ticketmaster.ie - Tickets to all major events in Ireland including many sports outings.

TV and Overseas Sports

Some of you recidivists (that's the technical term they use when jailbirds are tossed out into society and they insist on returning to their former, unfortunate pasttimes) insist on following your home teams from your home country.

This topic was raised in the bulletin board and here are two typical responses. It seems that American site visitors were most concerned about this issue, so the responses below relate directly to American sports. However, just to reassure the rest of you, SKY Sports does follow many European teams. And, there's Eurosport.com which follows all European sports.

"We have SKY satelite and it carries many American sports. On Thanksgiving we watched the Detroit Lions play! If you subscribe to Sports Ilustrated Magazine, renew your subscription in the U.S. for as long a period as allowed. They forward it to Ireland for free when you send your new address. It would be really expensive, however, to subscribe initially from Ireland. That's what my husband did to keep up on the U.S. sports. It comes about a week late but he still enjoys it. (Note from Scott: the same applies to many other magazine subscriptions. If you've got a favourite, stretch it out as long as possible before you move. There's more on this in the Money section, Save Money page.

And J. writes: The North American Sports Network (NASN) shows a lot of live NBA and NCAA as well as live NASCAR. But no live NFL at all, only highlights shows (NFL primetime, NFL Matchup). (Sky Sports has all the live/delayed coverage.) NASN also shows the great talk shows but the channel is expensive, around 15-20 euro a month. Eurosport shows some Nascar also mostly delayed versions, I think. Its not a premium channel though. To get these channels you have 2 choices :

1. Get Sky Digital Sattellite System with a monthly cost of 24-28euro on top for your premium channels (NASN, Skysports, etc)

2. Get NTL or Chorus Digital (similar price) but they're cable TV. Note: You wont get any live NFL games with this, only tape delayed versions. That's because these providers dont provide Sky Sports Xtra - the premium channel for big, big matches.



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