In Armagh 2009

Hurling: Ireland's fastest sport

photo1A Middletown player reaches past a Cuchulainn defender.

On a day made blinding by Armagh's sun, a team of hulky, young men in yellow and black uniforms run down a grassy field, clambering to stop a single white ball – a sliothar – from entering their four-post goals by swinging long, curved wooden hurleys up, down, and all around. As some fans anxiously hold their breath, others yell, "For F***s Sake! Defend!"

Seconds later, a twenty-something man, dressed less like an opponent and more like an American referee due to white and black stripes down his shirt, swipes the ball from the lad in yellow and black. With one quick smack of his stick, he sends it catapulting through the air.

The players desperately scramble for the ball. It bounces back and forth. Finally, the team in yellow and black regains control of the tiny orb. With that, a young man on the sidelines, Connor Coulter, lets out a sigh of relief.

"Great job Cuchullians," Coulter shouts, as his frown turns into a smile.

Coulter, 18, plays for the Cuchullians, one of only three hurling teams in Armagh County. Though the team hasn't won a championship in 20 years, Coulter believes that the Cuchullians have a shot at winning the title within the next couple years. To that goal, the young corner-forward trains seven days a week during the season that lasts from April to September. And he always plays in every team game, leaving some fans wondering why Coulter is not in this particular one.

No, not this one, not this time. Coulter, an attractive, charismatic and energetic young man, insists he wishes he could be out there on the field. He explains his coach thought it was best he sit this one out, rather than risk an injury that would prevent him from competing in a more important county-level match.

Though the idea some opponents would want to use unfair tactics to win the game or keep Coulter from doing well at his next game, it's not surprising, given the immense level of excitement, muscle mass and fierce competition hurling entails.

Fan Nicola Lennon tries to attend every game she possibly can. "Hurling is the most exciting sport," she exclaims. "I love watching my boyfriend play."

Indeed, hurling has become quite a popular sport among a growing number of young Irish men. In Armagh alone approximately 280 men hurl, while nearly 3,000 men hurl in Ulster Province.

"Hurling is the best sport," Coulter continues. "It is more manly and exciting than other sports."

For Keady County player Brendin Comiskey, who plays both hurling and Gaelic football, the thrill of hurling can't be matched by any other sport.

"I love the speed of hurling and the competitiveness of it," the 27-year-old states. "It is one of the fastest games in the world, and that makes it so enjoyable to play."

Ulster Hurling Development Director Jimmy Darragh agrees.

"I would be biased and say hurling is the more exciting game," he remarks. "It is frenetic! The sliothar goes from one end to the other so fast. It takes more skill than Gaelic football and is more exciting for spectators to watch.

But it's even more than that, Coulter says. "Hurling is a sign of identity for Irish boys," he says, adding that his father and two uncles were players.

To the outsider who knows little about the art and tradition, it may seem strange to see two groups of men running around with wooden sticks chasing a small ball. But once you're inside, and you're running down the field, with your goal on one thing and one thing only, it all makes sense, Darrah explains.

"You have to have played to understand," he emphasizes, as one who has spent years of his life playing, and has now passed the legacy on to his 20-year-old son, an avid participant in the sport now.

"Hurling is so unique," Darrah concludes. "It has been in Ireland for many, many years. Hurling is a way the Irish community maintains. It's heritage."