Eamonn Sweeney: Have you ever seen a starker contrast between sports than the hurling final and Ireland's qualifiers?
Imagine someone entirely ignorant of Irish sport watching last Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final and the matches played on Saturday and Tuesday evening by our national soccer team.
Now imagine explaining to them that one sport was played by amateurs who had to perfect their skills in their spare time from work and the other by highly-paid professionals, many of whom had been in full-time training for a decade or more.
“You can see the difference alright,” your imaginary friend would reply. “One bunch of players are playing an extremely difficult game with an enormous amount of skill and providing extraordinary entertainment for a huge crowd. The others are playing a simple game badly and boring the arse off a smaller number of spectators.”
At which point you’d have to explain that it was the geniuses who were the amateurs and the plodders the professionals. He’d probably think you were joking.
Have you ever seen a more stark contrast between sports than that presented by those three matches? Sunday’s game was a thing of excitement, exhilaration, joy and celebration. Saturday’s and Tuesday’s offered only disappointment, resentment, boredom and frustration. The only honest conclusion to be drawn from the evidence was that hurling, a game played only in Ireland and even then only in a part of this country, is a vastly superior game to soccer, the world’s most popular sport. Or at least to soccer as played by Irishmen.
I’m a bit reluctant to come to that conclusion, perhaps because it smacks a bit of the ‘our games are better than foreign games’ which led to the Ban mentality that disfigured Irish sport for so long. Yet the essential argument of the Fíor Gaels of old was not that Gaelic games were more aesthetically pleasing than the likes of soccer, it was that they were played by a better kind of person who in doing so displayed the superior quality of his Irishness. They didn’t think hurling was better than soccer because it was more exciting, they thought it was better because it was Irish and anything Irish was better than anything foreign.
Not many people think like that these days, which leaves us free to consider the games on their own merits. We’re not as insecure and defensive as we used to be. Watching Sunday’s thriller we didn’t think, ‘This is a great game, much better than any of those foreign games,’ we just thought it was a great game.
The question of how it compares to soccer or rugby has no bearing on the intrinsic worth of hurling. But the juxtaposition of the three games makes a comparison unavoidable not least because they’d largely have been watched by the same TV audience.
On Sunday, that audience wouldn’t have been able to look away for a second. Allow your attention to stray even momentarily and you’d be in danger of missing something important. On Saturday and Tuesday, the challenge was to prevent your attention wandering, so few and far between were incidents of any worth. The hurling final seemed to be over in a flash and every neutral watching would have loved to see a replay. The internationals dragged on interminably. As Dr Johnson said about Paradise Lost, “None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure.”
At Croke Park, there was a constant hum of excitement from the crowd, a buzz which indicated a sense of wonder at what the spectators were seeing. The atmosphere was above all generous. At the Aviva, the biggest cheers seemed reserved for the moments when an opposition player made a mistake or hit the deck having been fouled by one of our players. There was a sourness about it all.
The attitude of the hurling spectators was one of enormous pride in the game they were watching and gratitude for what they were witnessing. At the Aviva, the dominant tone seemed one of grievance, a surly insistence that the sneaky foreigners were somehow cheating us, the by now routine complaints about refereeing suggesting that our boys are the Most Oppressed Players Ever. The hurling seemed to bring out the best parts of the Irish character, the soccer to highlight the worst.
There was also a noteworthy difference between the demeanour of the managers. On the one hand, Micheál Donoghue and Derek McGrath combining motivation and intelligence with self-effacement. On the other, Martin O’Neill doing his patented impersonation of someone throwing a temper tantrum in a customer service department while Roy Keane slumped glumly like an early house customer waiting for the cure to set in and the man beside him to finish with the paper.
Memories from the hurling final include Conor Cooney flicking the ball up off the hurl and first-timing it over the bar on the run, the just-introduced Niall Burke’s turn-and-strike-in-one-moment point, Joe Canning’s shot back over his shoulder to open the scoring, Conor Whelan’s point while moving at top speed along the left sideline, Jamie Barron’s electric first half one-two and point, Tommy Ryan’s tremendous individual score and Brian O’Halloran’s amazing effort, nearly the best of them all, an apparent shot to nothing hit while under extreme pressure from an almost impossible angle. What was there to cheer in the Aviva? Jon Walters pressurising an opponent into conceding a throw-in 40 yards out? James McClean making a couple of tackles? A few high balls being lamped into the Serbian box?
The difference between the two experiences was that between Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally going, “Oh God,” and Jimmy Rabbit in The Snapper going, “Ah Jaysus.”
In his more optimistic moments our old friend Hurling Man insists that if hurling got the proper exposure it could enrapture a global audience and put down roots in many foreign territories. But we know this isn’t true because hurling hasn’t exactly been short of exposure in this country yet not even half of our counties can play it to a standard which would enable them to compete in the All-Ireland without being disgraced.
In the weaker counties the game hangs on by a thread in a perpetual state of crisis. And even in the stronger counties hurling’s appeal is far from universal. There are large swathes of Cork, for example, where there has never been a senior hurling club and probably never will be.
Affection is not lacking for the game in the football strongholds and effort is not lacking on the part of those who try and promote it there. I remember spending a few enjoyable days with the Longford senior hurlers years ago and finding their love for the game as great as you’d find anywhere.
I don’t think anyone is to blame for hurling’s failure to thrive in the same way as football. Periodically new GAA initiatives to spread the good word to the heathen are announced yet the heartlands of the game remain broadly where they have always been. The truth about hurling is that, like many of the most worthwhile things in life, it is difficult. It is difficult to play properly and it is difficult to appreciate properly.
The English reaction to games like Sunday’s tend to be of the ‘it’s mental man. Paddies with sticks, you’d get killed out there’ variety. Yet hurling is not as rough as it appears to the outside eye. It is not physicality which makes it special. It’s not speed either. The reaction of the uninitiated to the old, “fastest field game in the world,” boast has generally been, “so what?” Speed is hardly a measure of a sport’s worth except perhaps when comparing different forms of motor racing. The essence of hurling is neither strength nor speed but skill.
Looking at the likes of Canning, the Cooneys, the Burkes, De Búrca and O’Mahony, it’s striking how technically proficient they are, how thoroughly they have mastered an array of skills, none of them easy. It’s probably this very difficulty which militates against an explosion of player numbers in hurling.
Had we possessed an empire like our old British overlords perhaps we’d have been able to spread our games the same way they did. But had that happened chances are the world would have ended up playing Gaelic football rather than hurling. It’s a lot easier to sing karaoke than to sing opera. Yet the sense of achievement in being able to do the latter, to master something which is so difficult and so beautiful is so much greater.
One reason hurling evokes so much joy in the spectator is that the joy the players feel at their mastery of such complicated skills transmits itself to us. Imagine how it must feel to be able to do what Joe Canning does. His skills belong to the realm of aesthetics as much as that of athletics.
So it’s unfair to compare soccer with hurling. The first is a game, the second an art. And like all great art, it ennobles not just the creator but the connoisseur.
If Hurling Man sometimes seems a bit of a snob, who can blame him? Some things are worth being snobby about.