In early July 2017 we took a family trip to Ireland. It was our first family trip, and our first visit to Ireland, and it has spoiled me for other adventures. There were eight of us, including our redheaded, blue-eyed granddaughter, who celebrated her first birthday in Galway.
My maternal great-grandmother, Annie Mary Curley, was born in Galway, married Dennis Linnehan, an American, and moved to Newton, Massachusetts. There she gave birth to my grandfather and his sister, and died in 1897 in childbirth at the age of twenty-seven. The infant, a second girl, died several months later. (This was discovered only recently, thanks to some genealogical research on the internet.) Despite my Germanic surname, almost all my ancestors were Irish, or at least that is what my 23andMe profile rather incredibly reports. I don’t seem to have any DNA that can be traced to Continental Europe. This would not surprise you if you knew my mother, though it might if you knew my father’s admiration for German order and efficiency.
Ireland was wonderful, especially the time we spent in the west on the Dingle Peninsula in a many-windowed house that looked out on the Blasket Islands and the tumultuous Atlantic. We were ferried to the Great Blasket, where Irish was spoken right up until the island was abandoned in the 1950s. Some of the crumbling stone cottages that dimple the island’s nearly vertical landscape are being restored as tourist attractions. The views are dramatic and the ruins humbling. But how people could have lived there for centuries boggles the mind, since you need the stamina and agility of goats, or the blind obedience of sheep, to manage its insanely steep terrain.
We had flown into Dublin, rented three cars for the three families involved in the pilgrimage, and checked in, jetlagged, at the Croke Park Hotel. As it turns out, Croke Park is famous for two things. Across the street from the hotel sits the colossal Croke Park stadium, home to the Gaelic Athletic Association. The stadium, the third largest in Europe, seats more than eighty thousand. On Sundays it usually hosts a game of hurling, an ancient and wildly popular sport that seems to be part soccer (there are goals and goalies), part lacrosse (the players use wooden sticks to pick up the ball, and to carry or hit it), and part rugby (you can also score by batting the ball between elevated goalposts). Hurling has deep cultural significance for the Irish: some form of the game has reputedly been played on the island since prehistoric times. Croke Park is also infamous for being the site of “Bloody Sunday,” when British soldiers, in retaliation for murders committed by Irish revolutionaries, killed fourteen unarmed civilians during a match on November 21, 1920.
As it happens, the Leinster Championship final between Galway and Wexford was being played the day we arrived. Curious about the enormous crowd and the sport, we bought tickets and climbed unsteadily to our seats in the nosebleed section. The first thing that strikes you about hurling is how vast the playing field is, usually 150 yards long and 100 yards wide. There are fifteen helmeted players on each side, and each squad was led onto the field by a marching band. The hurlers seemed to be able to effortlessly bat the ball eighty yards at a time. It’s a contact sport, and things can get belligerent. Just as fascinating as what was happening on the pitch was the enthusiasm and tribalism of the crowd. We were surrounded by Galway fans, young men and women who seemed to be on dates, who had traveled quite a distance, and who rooted passionately for their team. Watching a sport one can just barely understand while seated among a knowledgeable and boisterous group of devoted fans is actually a lot of fun. The romance of sport, especially for the young, brings back many fond memories for someone like me, who spent a good deal of time as an adolescent and young adult pursuing ambitions on the playing field.