Friday, July 1, 2016

Interview with a cab driver: Making sense of Irish sports edition

When taxi drivers in the United States discuss hurling, it's usually in the context of "please don't inside the cab."

In Ireland, it's more likely that the topic is the sport of hurling (although the former still applies.)

Early on during my studies in Ireland, we had to take taxis from the University College Dublin one afternoon because a marathon had shut down the main road and all bus service from UCD. As a result, I and the others in the taxi were treated to an incredibly valuable introductory tutorial about Irish sports – and diplomacy – from our cab driver, Michael.

A shot of a hurling match we watched at Galway pub.
For instance, he called hurling the "fastest game on turf" – a brilliant blend of lacrosse, football (soccer), field hockey, rugby and possibly a few other sports thrown in there too. The sticks looked like sawed off field hockey sticks and they can whip a baseball-sized leather ball at 90 mph. There is some combination of passing and blocking and scrum-like pile-ups. And a team can score by hitting the ball through field-goal uprights (one point) or into a soccer-like goal below the uprights (three points).

He wasn't kidding. While we were in Galway, a group of us went to a pub and caught the second half of a hurling match between Dublin and Kilkenny after which I decided the sport got its name from the fact that bats, balls and elbows are being hurled in all directions all the time. The field is huge and the players will randomly hit the ball toward the uprights from literally anywhere on the field. One Kilkenny player cracked one from three-quarters of the field away dead-center through the uprights. There are rules about passing and dribbling that I don't understand yet.

Even if the TV weren't blurry, I still would struggle to explain it.
The other prominent Irish sport is Gaelic football. Like hurling, it's played with a soccer goal/field goal combination (one point for kicking the ball through the uprights, three points for a goal).

The scores in both sports, by the way, require some math because the format separates goals from field goals. For instance, in the Dublin-Kilkenny hurling match, Kilkenny had 1-25 (one goal and 25 field goals) to Dublin's 0-16. So actually, Kilkenny won in points 28-16. It took us a while to figure that out.

In Gaelic football, the rules about dribbling and passing and how many steps you can take are equally obtuse.

Michael, our cab driver, played for Dublin's top club, the Kilmacud Crokes and said some of the sport remains a mystery to me. "I played for nearly 30 years, and I still don't understand all the rules," he said. All the Gaelic football and hurling players are amateurs, he said. "But they're totally committed and train as hard as any pro player," Michael told us.

Gaelic football looks a lot like rugby at first, but there are fewer scrums and it seems to put a premium on good passes and the finesse of soccer rather than tackling and blocking of football or rugby.

The two sports experienced a renaissance in Ireland in the late 1800s as Irish nationalism increased. The Gaelic Athletic Association formed as a way to further promote these truly Irish sports and, thus, Irish culture. But for nearly a century, the rules about participating in the GAA were particularly strict. Michael told us that when he was a young player, GAA members were forbidden from playing non-Irish sports, such as rugby or soccer. If they were caught participating in some "foreign" sport, they'd get kicked off their GAA team.

"I still played all the sports anyway," Michael said. "I believe sports are meant to unify, not divide."

So I asked Michael, our philosopher/diplomat/cab driver, whether he and other Irish sports fans root for or against England in big tournaments, such as the Euro 2016 football tournament that's been going on this month.

He laughed. It's a rivalry, he said. "If Ireland were playing England in chess we'd all watch it," he said.

Michael said he has an English friend who roots for Ireland if England isn't playing and once asked him if Michael would root for England after Ireland was eliminated in a European tournament. Michael told him that he would support England right up to the championship game and then would root for the Brits to lose. "It's like big brother versus little brother," he said. And the little brother is tired of seeing the big brother win everything.

But what we've found is that not everyone in Ireland is as generous toward English teams. In fact there was more than a bit of schadenfreude Monday night when England played Iceland in the round of eight of the Euro 2016 championship – a match that Iceland went on to win 2-1. Murphy's Pub in Dingle erupted in cheers as the clock ran out on England.

Iceland, which has more volcanoes than people as the commentators kept pointing out, celebrated its upset in style.
My only regret is that we didn't get to see any matches in person, which I contend is a worthy excuse to have to return to Ireland one day.

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