July 30, 2004

Munster for Beef

The all-Ireland championships are on and I've got to say I've been enjoying them. They're kind of a huge horkin' deal. See, back in the Victorian day the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) was created to revive traditional Irish sports, namely hurling and Gaelic football. It was all part of a push to revive Irish pride and nationalism and ethnic identity and whatnot, and a some of the people involved in the early years, being prideful, nationalistic, ethnic Irishmen, were also involved in rebelling against the English. When Michael Collins (the 1920s I.R.A. guerrilla leader) assassinated fourteen high-ranking cops and spooks during the Anglo-Irish War, the English response was to roll tommy guns onto the G.A.A. grounds at Croke Park and strafe the crowd, completing the action of the first Bloody Sunday in Irish history.

Once Ireland got its independence, the G.A.A. became more of a pure sporting organization, not really connected with politics, but the games remained hugely popular. Each of the 32 counties fields a team in each sport, at junior and senior levels. They compete in divisions based on the ancient divisions of Ireland: Ulster (the North, including Northern Ireland but also some counties in the Republic), Leinster (East, including Dublin and the surrounding counties), Munster (South, including Cork and Kerry) and Connaught (West; Galway, Sligo, et cetera.) There's a division championship, and then the All-Ireland tournament, which are separate I guess, though I admit the rules of the draw are unfathomable to me.

What I think helps make 'em so popular and what I like about them is the inter-county rivalries and the sort of amateurishness of the whole shebang. Ireland is not a big country---6.5 million including the North; divide its population up into 32 different little sectors and you're not talking a huge pool of talent to draw from to field these teams. Even though they're competing at a national level, these are people who have jobs, they're not in that sense professional athletes, and it's not like there's millions of dollars to be made in doing it, or a draft or any of that stuff. A county's team is mostly made up of guys who actually grew up there. There's some circulation with the coaches --- there was a match last week between two teams coached by Kerrymen, neither of them Kerry --- but it's mostly a pride thing, a rivalry thing, and I dig that. I also like how attainable it seems; clearly it's not every kid who's gonna get to play for his county, but it's not like the Gods of Genetics have to descend from Olympus to anoint you with a body that's 6'5'', has 3% body fat and can run the 40 in 4.5.
These factors together make people feel a real local interest in their teams, and in their players. Not that people don't do that for the pro teams in the U.S, but there's not that sense of expectation, and bitterness, and disloyalty that comes with professionalization ---- We are paying you a lot of money to play a game for a living, and if you respond with petulance, we will hate you. If you do not play well this season, we will both hate you and fire you.

It's a bit like if New York City had a tournament with teams from each borough --- in fact, now that I think about it, that would be awesome, and I hearby demand that it occur. Can you imagine going to MSG to see Brooklyn take on Queens? Or even better, do it by neighborhood --- Bensonhurst v. Jackson Heights. Chelsea v. Inwood. The South Bronx v. Greenwich Village.

The sports themselves are entertaining to watch, even for me, who's not too clear on the rules and has made no effort to obtain clarity. Gaelic football is way different from American football; it's closer to rugby, but again, there are significant changes...like, um.... you can dribble, for instance. And the ball is round. In equally my gawping ignorance of hurling, I will state that it looks a bit like what would happen if you issued sticks to a bunch of people and told them to play field hockey without explaining the rules. They whack the ball along the ground occasionally, but most of the time they just sort of tap it and go, "aw, fuck it," pick it up and throw it to their teammates. Except when they want to get some real distance on the thing, (or they're attempting to score a goal) in which case they toss the ball in the air and take a massive swing at it, as if playing baseball. The games moves very fast, and high sticking, collisions, and sharp elbows to the face are not only tolerated, they're strongly encouraged. In fact, rather than me trying to explain this to you, check out this picture:


Gaelic football is just as fast and almost as violent --- I mean, take away sticks, you're bound to have a little less blood --- I caught a few minute of the Westmeath-Laois football match the other day and saw two guys get laid out when they were both so far from the ball the T.V. crew couldn't find any footage of the collision. With both sports, the announcers have a breathlessness you generally get only with horse races.

The games are similar in many ways; you might say they have the same bones. The scoring systems are the same; in both you can take a few short steps before you must pass, attempt to score, or dribble (bouncing the ball off your stick in hurling and off your foot in football); both encourage a player to attempt to score from what seems a long distance away to American eyes --- near midfield in some cases. That's because the scoring is sort of half like American football and half like soccer. There's a goal with a net at the end of the field, topped by a set of goalposts, as when the same field is used for football and soccer in an American high school. Sending the ball between the posts is worth a point, sending it into the net is a goal and worth three points. Goals are much more difficult than putting the ball over and the scoring of one can mark a turning point in a match; perhaps that's why they note them separately. When you look at the score box in the corner of the screen it might read Wexford 1-8, Clare 0-10, which actually means Wexford is winning, because that's a goal and eight points --- 11 total --- to Clare's ten points.

That's about all I've figured out about the rules so far. I haven't decided who to root for yet. My mom's ancestors are from Galway, but my Dad's peeps are from Cork; I've still actual cousins there whom I've visited. On the other hand, from what little I've heard it seems like Cork and Kerry are the 300-lbs. gorillas of the league, and I don't want to end up rooting for some hurling version of the Yankees. The Dubs are a hardily plucky/pathetic perennial depending on your point of view; they've got a vast population in comparison to the other counties, yet the size of their pool of talent is not reflected in the standings. Also, their traditional chant is apparently "Up Dubs," which, no. So at the moment I'm down to shirt color….

Posted by Diablevert at July 30, 2004 09:00 AM | TrackBack

I like your proposals for the NYC 'hood match-ups - although they partly seem unfair. South Bronx versus Greenwich Village? Hmmm. I think the odds would be pretty steep on that one.
How about W'burg versus East New York, while we're at it.

Posted by: A-L at August 2, 2004 12:31 PM

Billyburg v. the L.E.S., n'est-ce pas? Skinny hipsters duke it out: SEE them throw a hissy when they rip a hole in their vintage jeans; SMELL the cut grass mixed with Bedhead stick and Eau de P.B.R.; HEAR the crunch as bony hips collide in action...

Posted by: cms at August 11, 2004 08:00 PM

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