The hot sun beat down on us.  I stank like sweat with hair gel dripping, stinging my eyes.  Why didn’t I know that would happen?  And who would have thought I would regret forgetting my sunglasses in Dublin?  I looked across the field and called out for a pass.  Ok, here it comes, keep calm, remember what they told you.  Now one, two, three steps and shoot!  Away it flies, off into the distance…nowhere near where I intended!  It’s hard to become a pro at hurling in a couple hours, especially when you grew up Canadian and hadn’t even heard of the sport a week before.  And I was just beginning to understand the history and culture that these Gaelic games represent.

I had been traveling with my friend Marc through Ireland for about a week and so far it had been quite the educational experience.  We rolled up to the Na Fianna GAA Club in Dublin in the late morning on a Saturday.  The sights and sounds as we walked up were exactly as you would expect at an athletic club at that time of day – kids with far too much energy for a Saturday morning chasing each other all over the field, playing and practicing their favorite sports.  We were here for “Experience Gaelic Games” – an authentic Irish experience which introduces tourists to Irish sport while promoting their heritage.  It’s run by the lovely husband and wife team of Cormac and Georgina.

Cormac greeted us at the door.  Being the wonderfully friendly individual that he is (and, of course, Irish) he chatted with great enthusiasm.  He gave us a brief rundown of what we would be doing on this bright and sunny day.

“Experience Gaelic Games is about, first of all, introducing Gaelic games and the importance of Irish culture and an explanation of what makes them so special. The best way to understand something is to do it and it’s about participation.”  We went inside the club to hear, first hand, a bit about the games and their connection to Irish culture.

Through the doors, up the stairs, and into the back of the club we went.  Photos of club members young and old decorated the walls.  There was a common room for meetings and gatherings – I think there may have been a children’s birthday party going on while we were there.  The room where we finally settled was decorated with the blue checkered flag of the Dublin Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) team as well as hurling and football gear.  A bar at the back with beer on tap immediately reminded Marc and I of the curling clubs back home where it would feel out of place if you didn’t have a bar to go to and celebrate your team’s victory (or defeat)!  Some traditions transcend nations.

Hurling helmets at the Dublin Na Fianna GAA Club

Photos on the walls of the Dublin Na Fianna GAA Club

The place didn’t really have the feel of a tourist attraction at all, but like we were welcome visitors just here to learn a bit from our new friends about these Gaelic games.  As Cormac put it, “It’s a real pleasure to bring people to a working club, it’s not a man-made tourist attraction so to speak, it’s what goes on.”

We listened attentively as Cormac passionately explained to us how the indigenous Irish games, which include Gaelic football, hurling, handball and rounders, mean so much more than just sport to the Irish people.  There is a level of value and respect that goes beyond raw athleticism.  This goes as far back as a time when the Irish culture was being repressed, when the Irish people stood up and said “they won’t take anything Gaelic away from us again.”

As an Irish person you don’t choose your club – you’re born into it, and you grow up with it.  Playing for your club is about representing your tribe and your community.  If an athlete is good enough, he or she will be given the highest honor of representing his or her county in the All-Ireland championships.  Suddenly all of the Dublin County GAA colours and blue checkered flags made perfect sense – Na Fianna had a player on the Dublin team in the 2013 All-Ireland Football Championship and the club members couldn’t be more proud.  If we had arrived to Dublin a couple weeks earlier we would have seen the city awash in the blue checkered flags.

Gaelic games are based on a no-pay system – administrations and clubs are paid, not the athletes.   All players play because of a love and passion for the game.  This way, all of the money made from events goes back into the clubs, supporting young athletes and keeping the tradition alive.

At this point I was finally beginning to understand how different these games were from the grand financial showcases that we have back home in North America.  Cormac really managed to drive home an understanding of the community and strong cultural identity that is built around these games.

As Cormac put it, the boring part was over (I respectfully disagree with the word “boring”) and it was time to learn the rules and get out and play.  We tried three games that day – Gaelic football, hurling and handball.  A quick explanation and we were out on the field.

Want to know the rules of Gaelic football and hurling? Check out these videos.

First up we gave Gaelic football a try.  Cormac ran through some of the basic skills with us – kicking up the ball, bouncing while running, hand passing, resetting the ball, and shooting on the net.  A few laps back and forth across the field and I was actually starting to work up a sweat!

Next up Mairtin taught us a bit about hurling – an ancient warrior sport played with a big stick and small ball!  He taught us all about how to pick up and carry the ball with our big stick, also known as a hurley, and how to pass and shoot.  At this point we had a few more eager hurlers joining us and we had enough to have a quick match.  Everybody was about at the same skill level, so nobody felt intimidated being a beginner.  It was surprising by the end of the match to see how much everyone had improved and was able to play something that resembled a real hurling match.

Gathering around to learn how to play hurling

Scott, Mairtin and Marc after a hurling match

Our wonderful coach Mairtin taught us how to play hurling!

Handball was the final sport of the day.  Less popular than Gaelic football and hurling which fill up stadiums, handball is less of a spectator sport, but still a lot of fun.  If you’ve ever played squash, you’ve just played handball with a racquet.  The rules are very similar.  It was a nice break to take turns on the court.  I haven’t played sports in years and was a little winded after that hurling match!

As we departed Na Fianna to catch our bus out of Dublin, Marc and I reflected on our experience.  Time and time again in Ireland we were amazed at how friendly and hospitable the people were, and this was no exception.  Cormac, Georgina and Mairtin welcomed us into their Gaelic club and taught us so much about their passion for sport and tradition.  We left there with an understanding of a side of Irish culture that we arrived knowing nothing about.  If you’re ever in Dublin I highly recommend that you take some time to truly experience the Gaelic games.