Mar 172010

What is hurling anyway?

I only knew it was an obscure Irish sport that had ruined my plans for an evening of Irish music in a cozy pub.

I’d chosen Kilkenny for my first night in the south of Ireland because of their reputation for nightly non-stop Irish music. I’d had visions of drinking Guinness and tapping my toe to the lively beat of the bodhran, sheltered from the steady drizzle of the rain outside.

But I was in the right place at the wrong time. I’d arrived the same night that Kilkenny’s hurling team, the victor in the national championship in Dublin, was coming home to their fans. The pub that would have had Irish music tonight was a favorite of the hurling crowd and the main partying location.

I’m not especially a sports fan even of sports I understand. And a pub crammed with boisterous Irish hurling fans conjured the image of a rowdy Superbowl party combined with the annual crazed St. Patrick’s day celebration at Murphy’s Pub in Seattle—lots of noise, testosterone, sloshing beer, and sloppy drunks. Ghastly. Not at all what I’d planned.

I went to dinner early so I’d be safely inside the restaurant when the train arrived and the team paraded through the few blocks of Kilkenny’s main street. After dinner, I planned to read a book or wash out some underwear in my hotel room. A dreary plan compared to lively Celtic tunes, but I was philosophical. You can’t always be in the right place at the right time when you travel.

As I left the restaurant, the town still pulsed with excitement. People scurried through the streets around me; some had staked out their spots in pubs; most were still gathered along the parade route. The team wasn’t there yet after all. The pent-up anticipation overflowed the narrow, medieval streets.

I ducked right and left, making my way to my hotel through the crowds, an isolated bubble of indifference. As I emerged on the main street, the energy of the crowd rose another notch and there was collective movement pressing against the waist-high barricade blocking off the parade route. The team was almost here; time for me to get off the streets. But then I paused.

I didn’t care about Kilkenny’s victory. And I’m so disinterested in sports I hadn’t even watched my own city’s football team the first time they went to the Superbowl.

But even though this hurling win was a national championship, the mood of the crowd felt more like a high school basketball team win. It didn’t have the commercialized hysteria of a big-city big-name sports team national championship. These were “their boys” and they wanted to slap them on the back and cheer them on. I realized I wanted to cheer them on, too. The excitement of the crowd had popped my bubble of isolation. And after all, how many travelers get the chance to cheer the national hurling champions?

A roar – the team’s bus had rounded the corner and the crowd broke out cheering. So did I. We clapped and waved and whistled. Dum dum da da dum, da da da dum da dum. We beat out the rhythm of an old high school cheer. The hurlers waved from the top deck of their double-decker bus. Some young boys were riding along with them – probably the dream of any young hurler-to-be.

After the bus went by, the crowd surged past the barricades and into the street following the team toward the large Tesco parking lot set up for speeches by hurlers and Kilkenny dignitaries. And I flowed with it, carried along by the current in the middle of the stream of fans.

The rain came down steadily. A friendly crowd, there was no pushing and the occasional jostle from an umbrella rib resulted in a polite “excuse me.” Teens, adults, mothers with babies in strollers, this was an event not to be missed. Gold and black were the team colors and they were everywhere in the crowd. A swarm of very wet bumblebees.

The parking lot was already full of people. We surged forward, dispersing into small groups, merging with and maneuvering around those already there, looking for the best position to hear the speeches.

A delay in the program…and the rain started to fall harder. Without an umbrella, I decided I was a fair-weather Kilkennian and was willing to miss the speeches. So I headed back to my hotel to get dry.

The serendipity of travel – I missed an evening of Irish music but became an honorary Kilkennian for an hour to celebrate their victory. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time after all.

  2 Responses to “The Champion Hurlers of Kilkenny”

  1. Sounds like a great time, what a way to experience the charm of a new place. How can a Washington gal let the rain cause her to depart a celebration early? I’ll look forward to you next posting.

  2. Vikki – okay, you’ve got me there! Now I feel like a wimp for going in and avoiding the speeches, which I assumed would be given in such a thick Irish brogue I wouldn’t understand anyway. There, did I recover from my Seattle-rain-wimpiness?

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