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."
Fitzgerald's reputation looms large in Ireland's sports circles: He's a celebrated 17-year veteran goalie used to playing regularly in front of 50,000 fans. Young kids proudly wear his jersey number, and he's the author of a best-selling autobiography (Passion and Pride). As with many children in the region, his dream of hurling began when he was 6 years old, as he watched Clare lose in a championship game. "I remember standing behind the goalkeeper, studying his every move and saying that someday I'm going to be him. It was my dream. It was all I ever wanted to do."
And he's not the only one. In Ireland, it's hurlers—not firemen or astronauts—whom every young boy grows up admiring. "The players who fill our leagues are our auctioneers, our postal workers, our bankers," says Fergal McGill, a spokesman for the Gaelic Athletic Association, which governs Irish hurling. "We're very proud of them." And they're proud to serve.
Despite day jobs, mortgages, and children, the guys on Ireland's hurling teams still find time to train just as hard as any pro. Fitzgerald recalls a training session in which their manager, Anthony Daly, handed the team over to four Irish Army Rangers, the Irish equivalent to Navy SEALs. The entire Clare squad—consisting primarily of teachers, cops, bankers, and electricians—was herded into a wooded area in Galway for three grueling days of team-building exercises. "Six guys on a team," says Fitzgerald, "and we had to carry these two guys on a stretcher around this course, stopping every so often to do 100 situps. When we were done with that, we had to climb into this river that was three feet deep, and we had to crawl through the water. It was just lashing rain, and we had to get down in it."
Then there was the time, late one night on an all-weather field near the town of Ballybake, when Daly pushed the team to run as snow piled around their ankles. Months later, in a locker room talk before another soggy Sunday game, the manager's logic finally became clear. "We know we can play in the rain," he told the team, "because we trained in snow." Enjoying the memory, Fitzgerald is suddenly jolted back to work—and reality—by a ringing phone and a new client looking to purchase a home.
Later that week, the Clare team once again comes together, ready for a long practice session in Cusack Park. Dozens of players are running drills, passing balls, and hitting pop flies—the sounds ricocheting through the region like rifle fire. Daly's practices stress skill, quickness, and especially stamina, echoing the notorious savagery of practices when he was captain of the Clare squad during the championship years.
The pinnacle of accomplishment in hurling is winning the All-Ireland Final, an elimination tournament in which all 32 Irish county leagues compete. The powerhouses are Cork (30 titles), Kilkenny (29), and Tipperary (25). Clare has won only three times, the last one in 1997, consigning the squad to a sort of Boston Red Sox status. "It's the Atlantic Ocean between winning and losing," says Fitzgerald. The goalie claims he and his teammates were treated as heroes for months in Clare after their last All-Ireland victory. "We didn't pay for our meals for weeks," he says. "Some folks think that's the height of it — being on the Clare team. But it's nothing compared with winning."
And that's the fuel that drives Fitzgerald, his teammates, and every hurler who's ever taken the field. The Clare team will return to Cusack Park the next Sunday, and the weather promises another soggy day. But no matter—even with a misty veil over the field, there will be plenty of time-honored grunts plus the smack of hurley against hurley. From the stands, it'll be di?cult to identify the players through the bitch of a mist. But even in the fog two things remain clear, just as they have for thousands of years: the power and purity of sport played purely for sport's sake.