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Joseph Carroll
August 28, 1967
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August 28, 1967

The Gentle Irish


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A ball on the ground cannot be picked up or even touched by the hand, but it can be lifted, and often is, with the hurley. Hitting an opponent with the stick or hand is a foul, along with tripping, holding and other forms of interference. The penalty for a foul is a free try, or free puck, at the goal. Scores are made by hitting the ball through H-shaped goalposts (there's football again); a ball hit under the crossbar into the netted goal cage behind it counts three points, while a ball hit over the crossbar counts one. A hurler making a free try at the goal may choose to swing crosshanded, but in form and because of the arching shot that results he looks exactly like a golfer making an approach shot to the green. (The kinship with golf is stressed in a curious annual custom in County Louth. On Whit Monday each June hurlers compete over a four-mile course of mountain, bog and heather north of the town of Dundalk. The scoring is the same as in golf: the man who makes it over the mountain in the fewest strokes—pucks, the hurlers say—is the winner. The event, a promotion both for hurling and for Dundalk, honors a very ancient legend. Dundalk is supposed to have been the home of Cuchulain, the mythical hero of the Irish sagas, who seems to have been a cross between Achilles and Paul Bunyan. The story goes that he could hit a ball in one province and run to another in time to catch it on his hurley and puck it on to still another province.)

But all the likenesses dissolve after a while and hurling is like nothing but hurling: a glory to play and a splendor to watch. The ball scampers like a rabbit or soars like a bird, with anarchic variations of movement both aloft and on the ground. It is the swiftness and unpredictability of a ball in almost continuous motion that makes hurling seem like a game left over from more innocent times than ours. There are rules, naturally, but a watcher isn't much aware of them. The game is so simple an expression of the dark old human compulsion to whack things about (not including rival players) that it is satisfying to watch even if one has no understanding of the rules at all.

Hurling is a wide-open, high-scoring, freewheeling game: no slow progress down the field in carefully marked stages, no long pauses to line up putts or to discuss managerial strategy; no stifling defensive theory to reduce goals to a minimum. There is a constant swirl of players; sticks clash; the ball flies 70 yards one way and then 100 yards the other as fast as it takes to say it. The action is constant; the skills displayed are awesome.

The most famous of all living hurlers is Christy Ring of Cork, who often has appeared in exhibition matches in New York. He is known as the Babe Ruth of hurling, though not in Ireland. The story they like in Gaelic Park is about the Irish-American who went back to the old country and was telling his cousins about Babe Ruth. "He was the best," he explained. "He was the Christy Ring of baseball." Ring, who is 47 years old now, looks something like Y. A. Tittle. He has a bald crown fringed with blondish hair, like a monk's tonsure, blue eyes, a strong jaw and a pale face. He lives in Blackrock, a suburb of Cork City, and works for Shell Oil. At one time he drove a tank truck, but now he has an office job. Around Cork they tell how he used to park his truck, climb down from the cab and spend some time hitting the ball along the road and against fences in order to keep his hand in on difficult shots.

Ring was an intense competitor and played in the All- Ireland finals eight times, but he is mild-mannered and so soft-spoken as to be sometimes hard to hear. A genuinely shy man, he dislikes personal publicity; by American standards, his efforts to avoid public attention seem almost pathological. Once, at Gaelic Park in New York, he was caught by a television interviewer before he could get off the field and into the locker room. It may well have been the shortest interview in the history of TV. The reporter asked him what was the most important feature of hurling. Ring tapped his forehead and said: "T'inkin'." Then he bolted for the locker room.

Ring speaks in a Cork accent, which involves a melodious displacement of Hs. One of his compatriots, watching a player in an ambitious attempt at a goal from somewhere in the center of the field, murmured: "Ah, you foolish man, to thry a t'ing like dhat!" Initial Ts are likely to become Ds with a whisper of an H in them, but the effect is far from illiterate. It is a proud provincial poetry. It is when they speak that the spectators at Gaelic Park show themselves as Irish, not alone in accent but in certain oddities of syntax that have survived in Irish-English for generations. Grumbling about what he considered the inferior quality of hurling being played, a man complained to a neighbor in the stands: "This is no class of game at all. Of course, they're only jun'ors and better is not to be expected of them. When the sen'ors play you'll see a queer old tuggin'." He was a Kerryman, and in Kerry I's are ghostly. A little later he praised Christy Ring as a "gen'us."

In calling the teams junior and senior the man was using Gaelic Athletic Association terms for hurling leagues. The words have no reference to the age of the players but to the quality of their play. They are roughly like the minors and the majors in baseball. The fans mutter as much as they cheer, and even the cheers have an odd formality: "Up the field, Mayo! Down the field, Limerick! Dig in, Clare!" The muttering is more fun. When a player was hopping the ball on his stick rather indecisively, a fan whispered: "Puck it up the field, lad. Sure, you don't have to bring it in personally." The same man who complained about the dullness of junior playing pointed to the goalkeeper of one of the teams, a massive young man, and said, "Look at the proportions of that one, rearward. Wouldn't you think there'd be a penalty declared against an arse like that? It would take all day to walk around it."

Another time spectators were remarking on a player whose methods they considered overrough. "Keep an eye on him today," one said, "for he's in a t'reatenin' mood." (Final Gs are almost always on the run in rural Ireland.) Said another, "Ah, he's the desperate laddo when his temper's up." A third spectator: "Temper is all well and good, but where's the sense of t'rowin' the hurley about in all directions?"

The games at Gaelic Park are important in themselves, but a spirit beyond games hovers over the place. It is a homesick imagination, an Irishness never far below the American surfaces. It stirred a different kind of homesickness in one middle-aged Irish-American frequenting the place: a homesickness for the Chicago of his childhood. In those days, 40-odd years ago, the same games were played on Chicago prairies. The children of Irish-born parents lived with the legend that haunted the parish halls: the jigs and reels and set dances, the songs about Irish bravery and British cruelty. The suspicion crept into at least one young mind that it was all partly a stunt: the agonies of history were put to slippery uses by men far removed from the realities of Ireland. Toward Election Day, candidates for political office became more Irish than seemed reasonable, and the immigrant neighborhoods were asked to vote for "their own."

After 40 years the Irishness of most Irish-Americans has been vaporized into sentimental convention about an Ireland long gone. The memories of generations of immigrants have been watered down into catchwords and musical-comedy tunes. The famous Irish names in U.S. public life made their successes in the American way and on American terms. Such names are supposed to have large prestige with Irish-Americans, but it is hard to see at close range among the newest generation of immigrants. They have better uses for their reverence.

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