Hurling and Gaelic football are among the fastest and most physical sports in the world, and well worth catching on your travels, whether on TV or, preferably, live. Rugby and soccer are also widely followed, while going to the races is a great day out, with less of the snobbery sometimes found in Britain. Golf (see Outdoor activities) is also hugely popular north and south of the border.
Hurling and Gaelic football
Both Gaelic football and hurling, Ireland’s two main indigenous sports, are played at a rollicking pace on huge pitches, 140m long and 80m wide, between teams of fifteen; goalposts are H-shaped, with three points awarded for a goal, when the ball goes under the crossbar into the net, and a point when it goes over the crossbar. Over two thousand clubs in villages and parishes all over Ireland vie for the privilege of reaching the club finals, held on St Patrick’s Day at 80,000-seater Croke Park in Dublin, one of the largest stadiums in Europe (see Croke Park and the GAA Museum), while the more popular and prestigious intercounty seasons begin with provincial games in the early summer, reaching their climax in the All-Ireland County Finals in September, also at Croke Park. Details of all fixtures for hurling and Gaelic football can be obtained from the Gaelic Athletic Association (w), while there’s always something of interest on w, an independent fans’ forum.
Hurling is played with a leather slíothar, similar in size to a hockey ball, and a hurley (or camán), a broad stick made of ash that is curved outwards at the end. The slíothar is belted prodigious distances, caught and carried on the flattened end of the player’s hurley. It’s a highly skilled game of constant movement and aggression that does not permit a defensive, reactive style of play. Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary are the most successful counties, while Clare, Galway, Offaly and Wexford have emerged in the modern era. No county from the North has ever won an All-Ireland Final, though the sport is very popular in the Glens of Antrim and parts of the Ards Peninsula in County Down. Camogie, the women’s version of hurling, is becoming increasingly popular, and is also well worth watching. Dublin has won the most camogie All-Irelands, though the most successful teams in the modern era have been Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary.
Gaelic football has similarities with both rugby and association football, but its closest relation is Australian Rules Football; indeed every autumn, Australia play Ireland in a hurly-burly series of “international rules” matches that are known for their frequent brawling. The round Gaelic ball, which is slightly smaller than a soccer ball, can be both kicked and caught. However, running with the ball is only permitted if a player keeps control by tapping it from foot to hand or by bouncing it, and throwing is not allowed – the ball must be “hand-passed”, volleyball-style. Whereas hurling’s strongholds are in the southern counties of the island, footballing prowess is more widely spread – Kerry is the most successful county, followed by Dublin, then Galway, but there are plenty of strong teams in Ulster at the moment, notably Tyrone.
Rugby union and soccer
Rugby union and soccer are very popular in Ireland and tickets for international matches, especially for rugby, can be hard to come by. The Republic’s home soccer matches (wwww.fai.ie) and Ireland’s rugby matches (w) are played at Dublin’s recently rebuilt Aviva Stadium (formerly Lansdowne Road). Northern Ireland’s soccer matches (w) are played at Windsor Park, Belfast. For the international rugby team, which is a joint Republic–Northern Ireland side, the main event of the year is the Six Nations Championship, a series of international games played in February and March against England, France, Wales, Scotland and Italy. You’re more likely to get tickets, however, for matches featuring the four provinces, Munster (which includes Irish rugby’s natural heartland, Limerick), Leinster, Connacht and Ulster, in the Europe-wide Heineken Cup or Amlin Cup or in the Magners League.
Soccer is played semi-professionally in both the North and the Republic, organized into the Carling Premiership and the Airtricity League respectively. Both international teams field most of their players from the English leagues; Manchester United and Liverpool are the most popular clubs among Irish fans. Glasgow Celtic are also popular both north and south, Rangers in the North, with support following Catholic and Protestant divisions, respectively.
Going to the races is a hugely popular and enjoyable day out in Ireland. A good place to get a sense of the Irish passion for horses is the National Stud in Kildare, while for details of all meetings, go to Horse Racing Ireland’s website w. The Irish Grand National is run at Fairyhouse in County Meath on Easter Monday Easter Monday, followed in April by the five-day Irish National Hunt Festival at Punchestown in County Kildare; at the Curragh, the classic flat-race course in Kildare, the Irish 1000 Guineas and 2000 Guineas are held in May, the Irish Derby in late June or early July, the Irish Oaks in July and the Irish St Leger in September. Dublin’s race course is Leopardstown, while notable local meetings are held at Galway, Killarney, Listowel, Sligo and Downpatrick. One local oddity worth mentioning is the meeting at Laytown in County Meath, the last remaining beach racing under Jockey Club rules, held once a year when the tides are at their lowest.