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Ireland is in no danger of losing its position as the undisputed home and world centre of hurling.
The sport is intimately connected with Ireland – so much so, in fact, that the Irish national hurling team is the only such team in the world. This does not mean, however, that the sport is unknown and not played outside of the country. It only means that some creative organisation and adaptation of the rules are necessary for any sort of international “hurling” game to be played at all. But we’ll come to that in a moment.
Ireland may be a small country, but the vicissitudes of its famously turbulent history have seen the Irish diaspora rank among the largest and most widespread in the world. And Irish culture has an international reach that totally defies the size of the country from which it emanates. There are few people in the world who have not heard of the country, and Irish literature, music, holidays, festivals, and food are enjoyed all over the world. This is not only down to the size of the diaspora (which is massive, numbering some 70 million people worldwide) but it is also the countries to which theyemigrated. Historically, Irish people have found themselves not only citizens of the closest island (10% of the UK’s population claim Irish descent) but more importantly in the USA, where 40 million people claim Irish descent. There are also significant populations in Australia and New Zealand. Britain, America, and Oceania make up the Anglosphere, and these countries collectively exert a global cultural influence far more powerful than any other. So did these emigrants bring hurling with them?
The answer is yes – and hurling is indeed present in all these nations and frequently played at the competitive club level. The sport also has a distinct visibility and is well-known even outside of Irish descended communities. Just as the UK’s past global influence was the number one factor in making football the world’s most popular sport and ensuring millions of cricket fans from Mumbai to Melbourne, the Irish diaspora have certainly spread hurling worldwide, albeit to a lesser extent than these popular sports.
How Irish is Hurling?
Of course, few people outside of the UK consider football a distinctly English sport any more, such is the effect of it becoming so globally popular. In fact, there seems to be a rule emerging here that sees a sport’s association with one single country decline as that sport becomes more globally popular.This therefore becomes a good metric for measuring just how globally popular a sport actually is. Cricket, for example, is still partially associated with England, but the world-class players and teams hailing from south Asia and Oceania havecertainly made the sport more global. Scotland’s great export – golf – is massively popular in America and thus it is also only partially (less so than cricket) associated with its home country. Rugby is less widespread, and so many still consider it British sport (although a Frenchman might take serious umbrage with that).
So where does hurling fit into this scheme? Well, it should come as no surprise to anyone, from any country, that it is still very much considered an Irish sport, and that speaks to the limited extent of its global popularity. Yet it certainly has a foothold overseas, and not only among the Irish diaspora.
Where is Hurling Popular?
To determine how popular hurling is worldwide, you need to consider not only where it is played, but where hurling-like sports are played too. This is a vital and important part of international hurling, as the limited extent of true hurling teams overseas means that Irish hurling teams frequently play teams that play a sport similar enough to hurling for matches, with modified rules, to be held. For this reason, the list of countries where hurling is popular frequently includes countries where true Irish hurling isn’t actually played at all.
An example here would be the Scottish sport shinty. Although Scotland has a sizeable Irish diaspora, the oldest international “hurling” match-up in the world is between the Irish national hurling team and the Scottish national shinty team, playing a modified composite game which is neither true hurling nor true shinty. However, the gameplay and rules are similar enough that it is not difficult for players to adapt and for the game to go ahead. The sport which is actually played when a shinty team meets a hurling team is called “composite rules shinty-hurling”, or just “shinty-hurling”, and it is technically classed as a “composite sport”. It might sound complicated, but this is unfortunately the fate of all sporting teams who wish to play a sport with limited global reach at the international level. This of course has the potential to annoy hurling purists, especially as Scotland have historically beenthe leading team over the history of this unique international match up.
However, this is not to say that true hurling isn’t played at all overseas. In fact, at the club level, hurling in its original form is actually played in the three major locations relative to Ireland – Great Britain, the USA and continental Europe. It is the last of these which is the most curious, as it is a location without a significant Irish diaspora. This should give hope to those who would like to see the sport become more popular, as it is indeed growing globally.
How Does International Hurling Work?
Setting the curios of international composite games aside, true hurling is indeed played at the club level between hurling teams from different countries. Just as in Ireland, each of these countries has a hurling regulatory authority known as the GAA, which is an umbrella organisation for a range of traditionally Gaelic sports. There is a British GAA, an American GAA and even GAA authorities for individual cities, particularly those Eastern Seaboard cities traditionally associated with large Irish populations like Boston and New York. These games are played with all the rules, locations and health and safety equipment appropriate for a game of true hurling.
There are then several cups and tournaments that each of these GAA–regulated teams compete in. These games are of course the ones favoured by hurling purists, but when it comes to national teams, hurling just isn’t popular enough to avoid the composite rules. However, the sport is growing, so this could well change in the future.