In 1999, I had the opportunity to teach English Literature in Glanmire, County Cork under Pat McKelvey. McKelvey, then an English teacher and since the headmaster at the school, insisted that I come out to the pitch and watch the intermediate schoolchildren play a hurling match. –Ya haven’t seen a hurling match? He said with his lilting accent that differed so much from the marble-mouthed Cork one. --Ya can’t leave this country without having seen a hurling match. The players were all lined out on the field 13 on 13 as the players were intermediate. Each wore a helmet and brandished an ash hurling stick, what looked to me like an axe handle that flowed into a sort of paddle that could be used for striking the ball on the ground or in the air scoring points and goals by hitting the ball through the top of the uprights or into a goal respectively.
I was underdressed for the November wind and soft rain, and quite honestly expected the match to be cancelled, but before I knew it the school priest had thrown the ball in between two hurlers shoulder to shoulder and when those young athletes’ ash hurleys met as they pulled on the ball, I heard what has been termed the “clash of the ash” for the first time. Maybe the wind was blowing in such a way to carry the sound to my ear so that I could hear it with such clarity, but all at once I was overcome by contradictions of what I heard and what I was about to see. The sound from those two hurls snapped like one pulse of a thunderbolt and echoed against the school. It was all at once dangerous and beautiful. Watching the bravery and skill of these thirteen year-old, many of them my students, as they played what appeared to me a dangerous game both thrilled me and caused concern. One of my students had to be carried off the pitch after he took a hurl to the shin. The school priest smiled when he saw my concern, and assured me: Stephen, you can’t have a decent match without a few of them being carried off.
It was during this first match along the sideline that I struck my first sliotar. I didn’t think it would go as far as I hit it, but I connected with the sweet spot that every hurler knows, and the ball sailed over a line of spectators directly onto the pitch where two players happened to be stuck in. It was confusing for the players as both balls were struck into play simultaneously. The referee blew his whistle to stop the game. There I was, hurley in hand and dumb look on my face, as the crowd of snarling onlookers turned and cursed me.