Photo essay: Playing Gaelic games in Dubai

Ahead of St Patrick's Day on Sunday, The National joins the Irish sporting community for a spot of hurling and camogie

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Every sport comes with its own terminology, but many people may struggle to identify in which games they’d come across a “free out”, a “sideline cut” or – more ominously – a “fair shoulder”.

For the many men and women living in the UAE who were reared on the traditional Irish sports of Gaelic football and hurling, such terms are like a native language. But although this lexicon may be baffling to a newcomer, the skill, action and drama on the pitch need little explanation.

Irish people have been living and working in the Emirates for decades, and like many other emigrant communities in this country, they have brought their traditions with them. Among these are Gaelic games that provide fitness and excitement on the pitch and offer friendship and support off it.

According to the Gaelic Athletic Association, which administers the games in Ireland and abroad, there are more than 85 competitive teams in the Middle East. Games and training sessions for Gaelic football and hurling (or camogie for women) are a common sight at sports grounds in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and beyond. But what are these sports that bind this community together?

Hurling is a fast, tough game played by two teams of 15 over 60 minutes at club level. Players wield a bladed ash stick called a caman (or hurl, or hurley) to strike a small, hard leather ball called a sliotar. Played on a much larger field than a football pitch, hurlers can send the ball vast distances. Tackling is tough, challenges are direct and a lot of dexterity is needed to balance the ball on the stick, or to hit it – while running flat out – at rugby-style goals: over the bar is worth one point and into the goal is worth three.

Gaelic football has the same team size, scoring system, pitch and rules. At first glance, it resembles a cross between football (the better-known version), rugby and basketball. Like hurling, it is a direct, physical game played by men, women and children alike.

The roots of both sports go back far into Irish prehistory but it was in 1884 that the process of organising and codifying these games began. The sports were not just for fun – they formed part of a revival of Irish nationalism and identity nearly extinguished by the devasting famine of 1845 to 1852.

In the 21st century, the association remains a unique phenomenon. Even footballers and hurlers who play at the highest level in Ireland remain amateurs. There is no transfer window – players line out for the parish they were raised in and the county they were born in. It is not unusual to see smaller, rural clubs all over Ireland field teams containing several siblings from the same family.

In Ireland, the games are a kind of social glue that binds players and communities together. That togetherness can be seen in Irish communities from New York to London to the UAE, where training, playing and celebrating as a team keeps emigrants in touch with family and friends, as well as their Irish heritage.

Barcelona FC, it is often said, is more than a club. If that is true, then Gaelic sports are more than a game.

Updated: March 15, 2024, 6:11 PM