TRAVEL: Sport rules in the heart of Ireland

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Many years ago, I attended a dinner where the speaker was Cliff Morgan, the rugby great who forged a secondary career as the most erudite of broadcast commentators.

“I hope young people witness something in sport that touches their soul,” he said, the romance of his sentiment augmented by those atmospheric Welsh tones.

I’ve often recalled Morgan’s eloquence. For at its peak, sporting essence is a response to the emotional investment created by those two extremes of joy and heartbreak.

I thought about Morgan’s words again the other Sunday, when joining 82,000 souls for the All-Ireland Hurling final in Dublin’s Croke Park.

This is a sporting state occasion. For while it may lack the global coverage of the Champions League, Wimbledon or Formula 1, it competes on level terms for fervour.

Hurling is the oldest and fastest field game in the world, with tactical complexities to match any team contest. But at its core is a ball, goals at either end and opposing warriors dressed in clashing colours. What’s not to like?

The game is strictly amateur, creating an integrity bereft of the grubby finance that tarnishes sport’s monied class. Gaelic Athletic Association clubs, of which there are 2,200, form the epicentre of communities. This is more than sport. It is heritage, culture, a way of life. You don’t pick a team, you are born to it.

One woman told me: “The game is from the heart,” patting her chest to emphasise the point. “It’s so unique to Ireland. It’s deep inside, in the veins of the people.”

In Kilkenny, babies are said to arrive with a hurl in their hand, while the county team dominates like Manchester United. I met one of their stars, Richie Power, who has six All-Ireland medals, to go with the three won by his father.

A salesman by trade, he’s typical of the weekend heroes who rejoin the working world Monday to Friday.

“Training can be five times a week, so you don’t really have a social life. But I would hate it if hurling became even semi-professional. If you are professional, you get paid win or lose. The fact this is amateur makes the success greater.”

For the innocent abroad, entering Croke Park is like admission to the hallowed church of someone else’s faith. The billiard-table surface is flanked on three sides by steep cliffs of seating, while the terrace of Hill 16 remains a permanent reminder of past political turmoil.

This is the fourth largest stadium in Europe, yet there is no segregation. Opposing supporters mingle in its bars, united by Gaelic passion and Guinness. They sit and stand shoulder to shoulder during the game, displaying the same zeal to its crucial moments, if only for contrary reasons. And they drink together in Dublin’s pubs long into the night.

On the field, there is beauty among the brutality and finesse amid the force. Two players rising for the same ball has a ballet-like quality, while the resulting challenge releases kinetic energy akin to a middleweight-title bout.

The match, between Clare and Cork, went beyond expectations. A last-second score tied the points, ensuring fans can dine on the second helpings of a replay this afternoon.

Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald praised the steel and character of his team. There was certainly plenty and the players who acted out this thriller deserve an academy award for best foreign drama.

So if you do ever go across the sea to Ireland, take in the heights that Gaelic sport has to offer. If it doesn’t touch your soul, you don’t have a pulse.

Three things to do

1 Check out the hooker and currach racing around the beautiful west-coast port of Galway. These wooden craft were traditionally used for fishing and transportation but now feature in racing regattas of the annual Tostal. See Galway Hooker Association for details.

2 The countryside around Connemara is some of Ireland’s most enchanting. For a slice of rural life, visit Cnoc Suain, Spiddal, where Charlie and Derbhaill Troy promote the region’s native traditions, culture and environment. See Cnocsuain for more.

3 Ireland may be famous for the black drink but bespoke cider makers at High Bank Orchard Farm, Kilkenny, offer quality alternatives. The estate is a historic site, producing a range of ciders, together with their speciality organic orchard syrup. Visit High Bank Orchards

Travel facts:

Events: The Gathering 2013 is a year-long series of events and celebrations taking place throughout Ireland. To plan your trip visit Visit Ireland for information.
To learn about the most successful hurling county in Ireland and to try the game yourself, visit The Kilkenny Way

Experience Gaelic Games gives visitors insight into hurling, Gaelic football and handball. Visit Experience Gaelic Games

For information on Croke Park Stadium, visit Croke Park

Stay: The Radisson Hotel, Galway, Radisson Blu Butler House, Kilkenny, Butler House Barberstown Castle Hotel, Straffan, Co Kildare, Barberstown Castle Buswell’s Hotel, Dublin, Buswells

Eat: Ard Bia Restaurant, Spanish Arch, Galway, Ardbia Lanigan’s Bar and Restaurant, Kilkenny, Lanigans The Village at Lyons Estate, Co Kildare, www.villageatlyons Matt the Thresher Restaurant, Pembroke Street, Dublin, Matt the Thresher