Two of the four proud provinces of Ireland, Connacht and Leinster, clash the ash at the Ghantoot Racing and Polo Club in Abu Dhabi today for the honour of becoming the M Donnelly Inter-Provincial hurling champions. You hang around long enough in this life and you'll see it all. But the way the big events have been landing on the UAE's doorstep of late, then I guess we shouldn't be so surprised.
This slice of Irish sporting culture is brought to you chiefly courtesy of Etihad Airways, who have been flying to Ireland for a couple of years now and last year came on board as a sponsor for the M Donnelly Inter-Provincial hurling championship. Whoever is in charge of marketing at Etihad Airways can take a bow because if you want to market your product through something that is uniquely Irish, then it doesn't come more unique and Irish than the ancient sport of hurling.
In this respect, hurling is to Ireland what falconry is the UAE. It is the country's national sport and if you want to feel the pulse of the nation, then you will find it in a hurling contest. In bygone times hurling was a pastime of the ancient Celts and forms an integral part of Irish mythology. The greatest legend is of a young hurler called Setanta, who was set upon by an Irish wolfhound owned by Culann, an Ulster chieftain.
To preserve his life Setanta drove the sliothar down the throat of the wolfhound, killing it instantly. To pacify the powerful chieftain, Setanta offered his services to the army of Culann. He became known as Cu Chulainn, the hound of Culann, one of the great warriors of Irish mythology. Through the annals of time, hurling has evolved to become the fastest field sport in the world. The basic concepts of hurling are relatively simple: boiled down to its essence it is like many team sports.
It is a case of advancing the sliothar, a leather ball with ridges, to the opponents' end of the field and scoring by striking it with the hurl over the bar for a point or into the net for a goal, worth three points. The greater accumulation of points wins the game. The sliotar can be caught in the left hand for a right handed player and struck with a quickly applied two handed grip of the hurl.
If space opens up in front of the player he may opt to go on a solo run with sliotar delicately balanced on the bas, or flat end of the hurl. Chasing players will try to hook the solo runner by tipping the ball loose. Any chopping motion of the hurl is considered dangerous play and will result in a free. With specialist free takers unerringly accurate and able to strike the sliotar more than 70 yards, it is not in the best interest of teams to give away too many frees. Of course, the sliotar need not be taken into possession at all but can be struck on the fly. This takes great timing and is the purest form of the game. A familiar refrain of coaches is "pull high, pull low and pull hard". This style of hurling is a throwback to an earlier era and gets the adrenalin flowing in the players and the crowd.
A high-profile game in Croke Park is a gladiatorial contest beyond compare. The speed of the play as the sliotar is propelled around the field. The clash of the ash is when the hurls of the opposing players collide as they pull on the sliothar. Broken hurls fly through the air, sometimes broken on limbs that are immune to the blows. A hurl is flung on to the field so the disarmed player can rejoin the fray without delay.
The individual contests which can swing a game, each sliothar fought for as if the player's life depended upon it. And then the scores, coming frequently from all angles and distances. The occasional rattle of the net coming from distance or from a few yards. A sport which requires discipline, fearlessness and manliness. And the players are not paid, they are amateurs. To understand their allegiance to the game is to understand something which runs very deep in the Irish psyche, a sense of place. They play for the village and they play for the county. They play for the respect this engenders.
The legendary heroes of Irish sport are hurlers, the likes of Jack Lynch and Christy Ring. Their names hang on the infrastructure of their native place. They are Ireland's Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. Passed from this world, but recalled whenever the game is discussed. Jack Lynch, arguably the country's most popular taoiseach (prime minister) was known nationwide as a hurler before he ran for office.
The logic of many an ordinary man and woman would be that if Lynch could hold the midfield for Cork against Tipperary in the white heat of a Munster final, then he was more than capable of running the country. They might have heard that he was an accomplished lawyer but they invariably would have seen him hurl the Tipp men to a standstill in Semple Stadium. This was something tangible; he would be well able for rogues like Richard Nixon after that.
In the era of Lynch and Ring, the 1940s and the 1950s, the Inter-Provincial championship, or the Railway Cup as it was more commonly known until recent times, was a big deal. Finals which were held in Croke Park on St Patrick's Day drew big crowds. But with the passing of time, the following for the competition diminished. The All Ireland club competitions came more to the fore, but the players never gave up on the Inter-Provincials, regarding it as honour to be selected to play for the province.
If you were picked for the team, then it meant you were considered the best in your position in the province for that year. Growing up in Ireland I had a great passion for Gaelic games. But coming from the shadow of the Cork and Kerry mountains, made famous by Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy with the classic song Whiskey in the Jar, I was brought up in the Gaelic football tradition. I have heard it said that hurling was played in the better off areas of the country, because copious amounts of ash hurls and sliotars cost money, whereas a couple of footballs were all that was needed in Gaelic football country.
It is also said that the game flourished where the ash flourished. Both these theories could be true, because historically West Cork was not known for its cash or its ash. Down through the years I watched the Inter-Provincial final every St Patrick's Day. For me the devil was in the detail. Would the Connacht hurlers field 15 Galwaymen, or would some instant celebrity from Mayo or Roscommon be catapulted into the team? How many Corkmen vis-à-vis Tipperarymen would make the Munster hurling team? Would they give a Kerryman a run and boost the game within that county?
The wheel has come full circle, I have never seen an Inter-Provincial match live and now I will see one in Abu Dhabi. Some years ago the GAA decided to give the flagging championship a shot in the arm by exporting it to the centres of Irish diaspora. And it has gone down a treat from Boston to Paris. Hardened old Irish expatriates remember growing up with the Railway Cup and have come out of the woodwork to attend the games.
The crowds are also bolstered by the curious. Anyone who heads along to Ghantoot will be in for a treat because, as any aficionado of hurling will tell you, you have to see it live. Television simply does not do the game justice. Each year the great hurling counties of Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary make the annual pilgrimage to Croke Park with their fanatical followings to compete for the All Ireland title. These are the top three, but Wexford, Galway, Offaly, Clare, Limerick and Waterford are capable of producing top teams and upsetting the traditional powers of the game.
When any of these counties go for many years without an All Ireland title, they speak of a famine, that they have gone so long without the All Ireland. And then when the breakthrough comes, they talk of the famine being over. One such memorable occasion came in 1980 when Galway returned to the fold and Joe Connolly gave a memorable acceptance speech in Irish after lifting the Liam McCarthy Cup. Now turn the clock forward 25 years and the pride of Cork, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín gives his speech in Irish but in a changing evolving Ireland, giving rise to the immortal line from the doyen of Gaelic games commentators Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh: "Father from Fermanagh, mother from Fiji, neither a hurling stronghold."
As for the two protagonists in today's final; Connacht hurling is Galway hurling. Galway are the team within the team. That is why Connacht were able to see off Munster with a late flourish in the semi-final. Leinster pick from one of the true strongholds of hurling in Kilkenny, but they can also draw players from prominent hurling counties like Wexford and Offaly. Leinster will go into today's game as favourites because they have a greater pool of players to select from, but then there is the question of whether the players will gel on the day.