Casey is a Social Media Manager at EF Educational Tours. Her family has lived in New York, Thailand and Turkey. She once ate bugs in China and insists they’re not that bad.
When I think of my trip to Ireland, a few things come to mind. The lilting Gaelic accents, obviously. The stunning, marble-white campus of Trinity College and its vaulted library ceilings packed with musty, centuries-old books. The kaleidoscope stained glass panels in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The breathtaking emerald coast that runs along the Ring of Kerry. And, somewhat surprisingly, the Gaelic Games.
The Gaelic Games are not something known to most visitors prior to their trip. Organized by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) – an organization that promotes cultural heritage through sports, music, dance and language – the Games refers to sports like Gaelic football, hurling, Gaelic handball and rounders. While these aren’t well known on an international level, they’re hugely popular in Ireland, making them a must-see cultural experience when visiting the Emerald Isle.
Much like Football to Americans, or Football (soccer) to the British, these sports have become deeply ingrained in and representative of the Irish culture. They’re more than just organized sports – they’re illustrative of Ireland’s deep history and strong sense of nationalism. In contrast to popular American or British sports, GAA teams remain strictly comprised of amateur athletes, meaning their professional athletes aren’t actually ‘professional’ at all. Coaches, players and managers are not allowed to be paid or sponsored, and as such many of the most popular players – national idols in some respect – still maintain day jobs. At the end of the day, they’re normal people who have trained for years in order to represent their counties and towns on the field, under stadium lights.While in Dublin, we had the privilege of being taken to Croke Park, one of the main athletic stadiums and home to the GAA headquarters, where we were taught two of the most popular activities – Gaelic football and hurling. Gaelic Football was incredibly fun to learn. A mix of rugby and soccer, players move the football down the field by kicking it, carrying it, bouncing it every few steps, passing hand-to-hand, and punting. Scoring is broken down by points and goals. A point is earned by kicking or hitting the ball with a closed fist over the crossbar. A goal, worth 3 points, is earned by kicking the ball or hitting a received pass with a closed fist into the net.
Needless to say, it’s organized chaos when you’re first learning how to play. Struggling to remember when to bounce or kick the ball, while tripping over your own feet in the process, makes you immediately envious of the ease with which proficient players sprint down the field. But it’s absolutely amazing to watch, and that coupled with its deep historical importance – during British rule, underground games were used as a means of rebellion when the sport was banned – makes it easy to see why it’s the most popular and highly attended sport in Ireland.
While Gaelic Football was probably my favorite to play, the history of hurling was the most fascinating to me. Why? Because it’s older than Ireland’s first recorded history. Yep, you read that correctly. With the earliest written mentions of it dating back to the 5th century, and with verbal mentions going back to 1200 BC, it’s an OLD sport. But it’s aged well – its Ireland’s second most popular sport. And it’s easily one of the most intense games I’ve ever watched.
One of the students ended up being put in goal for a short demonstration match, and in his words “there’s nothing more terrifying than wearing just a helmet, having dudes with axe-like sticks running at you and hitting a high speed sliothar (the baseball-like ball used in hurling) at your face.” Invigorating, no doubt.
Experience the Gaelic Games and the unique history of Ireland on EF’s tour of The Britannia.