Introducing the Emerald Isle's roughest game.
The Irish regard soggy mist as an old friend. Unfortunately, the mist that's hanging like a veil over Cusack Park today is a bit of a bitch. And for the 30 men crowding the playing field in the small town of Ennis (just north of Limerick), the dampness changes everything about the game they're playing, making the fist-sized ball they're used to tossing about seem like a greased trout they have to struggle to control. Not that the players or the thousands of riotous, screaming fans in the stands even notice. After all, this is no typical game of football, basketball, or soccer. It's hurling, the national sport of Ireland. And regardless of just how bad the weather gets, the game will go on today just as it has for thousands of years.
And that's why MF is here. Because in a sports world where hockey players sit out entire seasons due to contract disputes, b-ballers spend more money on bar tabs and bling than some families make in an entire year, and bloated baseball salaries have changed the very way fans root for their team, hurling remains an anachronism of the sports world—an incredibly popular team sport with a massive number of fans, played entirely by amateur athletes who fill stadiums on weekends and go back to their day jobs come Monday morning.
For those not familiar with the sport, just imagine a game of lacrosse played with a short hockey stick (called a hurley) and a baseball (or sliothar), and you'll have a pretty good idea of how game play progresses.
Today's match pits hometown favorite County Clare against County Offaly. It's a fast-paced, unpredictable battle. As in basketball, the game can transform in seconds as players constantly jostle for position and control of the ball. And the day's moisture isn't helping things. As the game reaches its peak, Clare full-forward Tony Gri?n has just dropped the sliothar. Struggling to pluck it from the slick turf, he sees two Offaly players approaching. They surround him, jutting their sticks at his gloveless hands, forcing him to whip the ball along the ground into the distance. And that's when the game quickly changes direction, like it always does. Another Clare forward snags the ball, burning past three Offalymen and through the mist for 40 yards. Within milliseconds, the roaring crowd is on its feet, fists thrown wildly into the air. Back on the field, the path to the goal has become a gantlet of shoulder checks, "accidental" shirt tugs, tripping movements, and smacks to the hands. But with a whack of his hurley from 30 yards away, the forward sends the ball soaring below the crossbar of the H-shaped goalpost for another three points—and the win.
The resulting surge of emotion and celebration from players and crowd alike is deafening. It's exactly the sort of celebration you might expect to see after any type of professional American sporting event—with one major exception. These guys really seem to be doing it for love of the game. Not model girlfriends. Not fancy cars. And certainly not monster paychecks. Instead of rushing off the field after the match, both teams linger on the pitch, shaking hands, swapping stories, and sharing congratulations. Afterward, a member or two of the winning team might be lucky enough to score a free roast beef dinner—if a fan is feeling particularly generous. But even that seems to be enough to keep everyone happy.
The next day, the town of Ennis has calmed down considerably. With the memory of the Clare and Offaly match still lingering in the air, I find myself sitting in Bellsmore Pub, a tiny bar owned by Davy Fitzgerald—a goalie on the Clare team and the league's most popular player. Inside the pub, everything seems lifeless: stale air, dust frozen in shafts of sunlight, pickled old men on their barstools. Outside, the world zips by on a two-lane highway that runs past a cemetery. Fitzgerald fidgets on his barstool, alternating between our conversation and his two cell phones—one for team business, one for real estate. "Trying to buy a few houses and sell 'em off quickly," he says.
So, what's the star of Ireland's biggest sport doing playing the real-estate game? As it turns out, trying to make ends meet—just like the rest of us. Despite his celebrity in the region, Fitzgerald pays his rent one real-estate deal at a time—the plight of a true amateur sportsman.
Although he's allowed a minor stipend of $2,600 a year from the league, for travel costs and meals, the 35-year-old points out that he never collects the money. "I don't claim any expenses," he says. "For me, hurling is just about the buzz I get from doing it." And the pain it takes to win. In his determination to stop a racing sliothar at any cost, Fitzgerald has broken both hands and has had his ankle bones chipped by misguided bats more times than he can count. "It's part of the game, but you accept it. If you're built up enough, you won't feel it till afterward."