It’s a big game at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium, and thousands of rabid fans are cheering as if their lives depend on it. There’s end-to-end action from 30 burly players, goalposts that look like a rugby- and soccer-net mash-up and a small ball being thwacked around with what seem to be squashed-flat hockey sticks.

Welcome to hurling, Ireland’s oldest and most beloved sport, where the feverish pace makes instant fans of first-time spectators, whether or not you know the rules.

“There really is something special about this game,” says Dublin team forward Ryan O’Dwyer, who recalls a 2011 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship semi-final as his biggest match. “It was the first time we’d qualified for that stage in 50-something years and I felt lucky to be on the pitch. But I was so focused on the game, I didn’t really notice the 70,000 spectators.”

Even larger crowds than that are not uncommon for a game that courses through the veins of many locals. Administered throughout Ireland by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA)—a volunteer-driven sporting and cultural organization—hurling’s folkloric roots stretch back at least 2,000 years.

Players use a hurley (the stick that’s also called a camán in Gaelic) to hit the hard, leather-seamed sliotar (pronounced sh-litter), or ball, around a pitch that’s typically a third longer than a Canadian Football League field of play. A game lasts 70 minutes and points are scored between the H-shaped posts over the crossbar (one point) or under the crossbar and into the goal (three points).

And, while shoulder charging is allowed, mandatory helmets with faceguards are the players’ only protection.

But the biggest difference between hurling and the major sports of other countries? Ireland’s senior-league hurlers—known as inter-county hurlers—are all unpaid amateurs with regular jobs outside the game.

“I know it seems strange to a professional sports person, and at times I do think I’m a little mad,” says O’Dwyer, who devotes around 20 hours a week to the game beyond his 40-hour school-teaching commitments. “But there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. The honour of playing far outweighs the workload.”

Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

It’s this kind of humble passion that underpins participation in the hundreds of GAA club and county teams that operate in Irish communities of all sizes. Based in Celbridge, Co. Kildare (20 kilometres southwest of Dublin) Aoife O’Brien plays camogie (women’s hurling) and watches both Gaelic football and hurling, but she prefers the latter for its heightened pace and skill.

“Whole towns revolve around the club,” she says. “It’s where all your family and friends are. And, if you’re not playing, you’re volunteering to help. As for the players, they do it for the love of the game. I think that’s an important part of why the fans are also so committed.”

Back at Croke Park—where the year’s hottest ticket is early September’s All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final—the stadium’s popular GAA Museum and behind-the-scenes guided tours provide illuminating introductions to the game for newbies.

Museum visitors learn that early sliotars were made from cow hair and spittle and that ash is the best wood for hurleys. They also get a glimpse of the Liam MacCarthy Cup, hurling’s Holy Grail equivalent to the Stanley Cup. 

Following the history lesson, a tour of the stadium itself demonstrates just how popular Irish sports are today. As the GAA’s national venue, the 82,300-capacity Croke Park is reputedly Europe’s third-largest stadium—behind London’s Wembley and Barcelona’s Camp Nou. Rebuilt in recent years, it even boasts a high-tech outdoor screen that is larger than a tennis court.

It’s an indication that there’s big money in hurling. But, rather than lining the pockets of players, coaches or owners, it’s plowed right back into the grassroots.

“GAA clubs are the symbol of being Irish,” says Tadhg Cowhig, who began helping with match-day programs 20 years ago and now heads up the team at the company that publishes them. “So many people give their time, and these teams really do their communities proud—the camaraderie at every game is palpable.”

Cowhig adds that hurling’s matches are often edge-of-your seat exciting—“The most mind-blowing element of hurling is not the explosive speed or the passionate tackling, it’s that this dazzling game of skill is not a professional sport.” He says fans connect more with the game because they know it isn’t about money or fame.

It’s an approach exemplified by top hurlers like O’Dwyer. “We all strive to play at the highest level,” he says. “I try to live as professional a lifestyle as possible: I eat properly, stay away from drink and get my fitness work done. It’s a challenge while I’m also working and raising a family, but I absolutely love it.”

O’Dwyer’s also convinced that visitors to Ireland will love watching the game, which is often regarded as the world’s fastest grass sport. “If I had to give one bit of advice for first-time spectators, I would suggest going in summer,” he says. “It’s when the ground is hard and the game is at its fastest.”

This article appears in the July 2015 issue of WestJet Magazine.