05 April 2011

Sporting 1337

The fact is hurling is elitist. There should be no shame in that. It’s an art-form, something that can only be performed by a minority because it takes years upon years of mastering. That’s why it’s such a treasure.

It’s a fanciful thought to believe every boy and girl in the country is going to puck a ball. It should be that way but hurling can’t and will never be that game simply because it’s so difficult to play. Not enough people have the patience to pass on or absorb the skills.

— John Fogarty, Irish Examiner Sports Desk Blog
There's a good point well made in Fogarty's piece: there may be only two or three favourites for the All-Ireland Championship, but it's a stretch to relate it to the undeniable precipice between the McCarthy Cup-level teams and the rest, either as cause or effect. If Offaly or Waterford, for instance, have a poor season, it'll have bugger all to do with the state of the game in Sligo. And anyway, what's fundamentally changed lately? As Fogarty puts it, "To say the hurling landscape is more unequal than ever before would be wrong. It’s just nobody has attempted to leap the bar set by Kilkenny and Tipperary combined with the pair not letting anyone get near taking that jump". But what about that precipice, the one even Clare are above? And what merit is there in the traditional argument outlined in the quote above?

Is hurling any more difficult to play than soccer? Soccer is a game whose genius is in its main constraint: the prohibition of the use of the hands and arms. For all that we may harp on about soccer's simplicity, we usually forget about how counter-intuitive this is. We are manual creatures; our natural instinct is to manipulate our environment with our hands. Civilisation was built with opposable thumbs. But by denying ourselves the chance to do this when we play soccer, we force ourselves to change the way we think about how we use our bodies and how our movements fit into our surroundings. We don't often think of it this way. It just seems normal to us (those of us who grew up with the game, that is) because it is an almost standard part of many children's development: learn to crawl, learn to stand, learn to walk, learn to kick a football. And the reason this is so is because it is embedded into the culture by the weight of generations, just like hurling is in Kilkenny, for example. There are players who can do things with their feet no human should be capable of, things that are beyond the grasp even of 99.99% of footballers. But we don't extrapolate from this that participation in football is open only to the few. Even the basic act of kicking a football properly is something of a marvel; it comes naturally to no-one. Watch someone kick a ball who is not used to it, and then watch someone who can. The difference between them is hour upon hour upon hour of practice. Yet the game's global reach is unmatched.

Or take rugby. Its defining restrictions are the offside rule — you must keep behind the ball — and a prohibition on throwing the ball forward. This makes the apparently simple aim of getting the ball down to the other end wonderfully difficult; it demands a team discipline that must be acquired by each individual player. Even Jonah Lomu had to learn it. Or take cricket. A true master of spin bowling is rare, but no-one suggests that the discipline — not just really good spin bowling, but the very discipline itself — should be the preserve of some priest caste whose gods are Warney and Murali.

Yet it persists, this notion of hurling as an art so uniquely, impossibly fine as to be beyond someone from Longford or Leitrim. Perhaps it looks this way because it is usually paired as a sport with Gaelic football (tying your shoelaces is intricate compared to Gaelic football). It's a cute idea, if you dig it. But it's way off. Hurling's elite is defined geographically. On a national level, hurling is a relatively minor pursuit. Locally, in what we might call hurling counties, it isn't. Fogarty says that "hurling is the modern equivalent of the Roman Games: adored by the masses but performed by few". But in the aforementioned Kilkenny, it has the same status as soccer does in Brazil. In Tipperary, Galway, Cork, Wexford, et al, it's a genuine grassroots activity. The reason these counties dominate is because they have a tradition of playing, coaching, watching and encouraging the game, just as is the case with any given sport in its stronghold. We might say "hurling is in the blood/water/air/soil down there", but this is a figurative way of expressing the depth of this culture, or of expressing pride in it. It is not a literal description. People in these places are not somehow gifted with the hurling gene.

The reason hurling isn't big outside the island's south-western half is because nobody really cares about it; the reason nobody really cares about it is because there is no tradition of caring about it. Cultures can change, and there is no inherent reason why the currently lopsided hurling landscape should remain locked in such a form. It's just that whatever efforts have been made to remedy the imbalance (if "remedy" is the word) have not been strong enough to make a decent difference. I only got into hurling at all because I happened to have a friend whose father happened to have played minor for Wexford back in the day. Otherwise, hurling would have been as much a blind spot to me as to most others where I come from. For most Irish people, hurling is as alien as the Irish language. More so, in fact: after all, nobody is compulsorily sent to hurling training for thirteen years. Most people at least know what the Irish for "litter" and "toilet" are, but give a hurley to someone from outside the heartland, and even if they know which end to hold, they'll probably grip it like they would a golf club; hand them a sliotar and watch them dig the tennis racket out from under the stairs.

Outside hurling country, the game serves a similar function to Irish. For some, it is a source of passion, pleasure and even pride. For most, it is an irrelevance, its absence barely felt. For others still, it is a chance to exclaim that it is ah! The greatest sport in the world!, before switching back over to see whether the safety car has pulled in at Hockenheim yet.

(For Eamon Dunphy, it's something to plunder for his list of Irish sporting bosses who are better than whoever the national soccer team manager happens to be at the time.)

It may be that everyone wants to maintain the status quo: that the current elite want to remain as much while occasionally feeling guilty that Dublin aren't doing better; that the rest of the country wants to continue being less than hurltastic. If so, fine. But let's not argue the case with such inbred thinking. Because it's a short step from this to believing that uilleann pipes are tolerable, and that's not a world I want my children to live in.


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