Hurling isn't what the Irish do when they've had too much Guinness (well, not always). It's actually a mad kind of aerial hockey invented to make the English feel embarrassed about tiggy-touchwood soccer. If you haven't had the twisted pleasure of seeing this example of man's inhumanity to man, head to the Emerald Isle - but keep your head down. This 15-century-old activity pulls no punches.
A hurling match is perhaps the fastest spectator sport in the world (with only ice hockey matching it for up-close frenzy). From a distance it resembles a roaming pack-fight between men with thin pale legs and names like Liam and Sean. At ground level it's much more frightening, a kind of 15-a-side escape from the asylum. Hurling is rapid, breakneck and rambunctious. The game moves too fast for the novice to understand anything but the most basic rules, but you can start by imagining an egg-and-spoon race with a pack of enormous angry stick-wielding roosters charging the leader. The aim is to hurtle a pellet-hard ball called a sliotar into goals using a stick with a paddle at its end (hurley). The players balance the sliotar on their hurley and then run, hit or bounce it forward, sometimes with all limbs attached.
It's when the ball falls loose into a pack that the bravery (or stupidity) of the combatants becomes clear. The running game becomes like a stationery game of no-rules hockey as players run in swinging their hurleys in the manner of a lumberjack on speed. Whacks to the shins are common, as is the occasional broken hand as some poor soul actually tries to pick the sliotar up out of this chaos.
The best place to see hurling is the atmospheric Croke Park in Dublin. It's the home of the GAA - hurling's governing body - and the Scene of high-attendance finals matches. For those with an interest in the game's long history, Croke Park also hosts a high-tech museum. Of course, with the Irish being such great travelers, there's probably a game going on near you this weekend too.