Irish sports will intrigue PSU fans

Having recently returned from a trip to Ireland, I am growing more and more envious of Penn State football fans planning to follow the Nittany Lions to the Emerald Isle this summer.

The Croke Park Classic is already being celebrated on Irish television as part of the country’s tourism campaign, and it’s clear the Irish people are looking forward to hosting American college football.

At the same time, U.S. football fans will marvel at the games that enthrall the Irish.

During our visit over St. Patrick’s Day week, we had the chance to watch several of these interesting sports, including Gaelic football, rugby and hurling, in addition to the more familiar soccer and cricket.

Their holiday weekend started with the dramatic conclusion of the Six Nations Rugby Championship, during which Ireland defeated France in Paris, 22-20, to claim the coveted title. The match marked the end of an illustrious career for Irish star Brian O’Driscoll, who retired after the tournament.

Rugby is played in the U.S., but not with the level of interest and excitement of this international tournament, viewed by millions. It was next to impossible to get into any pub to watch the game, and some fans stood on the sidewalk watching TV’s through the restaurant windows. The buzz around the final game was like the Super Bowl happening on New Year’s Eve; O’Driscoll’s retirement similar to the Steelers’ win as Jerome Bettis called it a career; front page news on every Sunday paper.

Gaelic football, an Irish team sport played only by amateurs, has elements of soccer, football and rugby. Competitors battle on a gridiron-looking field to score points with a round ball through the other team’s goals. A goal in the soccer-looking net is worth three points while sending the ball through the football-like upright posts is worth one point.

With dashes between each type of goal on the scoreboard, your brain works overtime to calculate the true totals throughout the match.

Similar scoring is found in the sport of hurling, which also incorporates elements similar to baseball and hockey. Players use short, thick hockey-like sticks to carry and hit a ball similar to a baseball into a soccer-like net or through the uprights.

It takes a little time to catch on, but the passion for Irish athletics is infectious.

Here in the U.S. we take pride in our sports, from the World Series to the Super Bowl to the NCAA’s March Madness. But in Ireland, we’re reminded of our nation’s youth compared to our European allies; Penn State fans will see “for the glory” take on a whole new meaning.

In Ireland, the sports are often derived from ancient games, some thousands of years old. They mimic times when castle-dwelling clans battled for land, often with hand-to-hand combat.

When these competitors take the field they aren’t just playing for wins, championships or bragging rights, they are continuing the traditions of their ancestors; keeping their heritage alive, and giving Irish eyes a reason to smile.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays.