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Hurling in Ireland - Ein Film von Peter Prestel

Ireland, somewhere many, many years ago. On long winter evenings men and women work separately on the utensils for a game that has almost holy status. Poems written in the old Irish language glorify the players.

The young men with the ashwood sticks are the heartthrobs of all of the Irish girls, who have spent many hours skilfully weaving a ball from horsehair. They then hand over this ball to their favourite player in spring, before the beginning of the first game, as a sign of their love and to bring him luck ...

And then the girls too have eyes for only one thing: the game of hurling.

Hurling. The Irish proudly claim that it is the fastest and oldest ball game in the world. One thing is certain: it can also be dangerous.

The home of hurling: Ireland. On the "Emerald Isle" in the Atlantic, hurling is a national sport. What is more, it is only played here in Ireland, and nowhere else in the whole world.

The walls of Birr Castle. The small town of Birr is located in County Offaly and is regarded as a hurling stronghold.

15-year-old Stephan is on his way to a training session with a friend. Three days a week he goes through the streets of the town to the training ground. The "hurley", the ashwood stick that gave this fast sport its name, is carried proudly by every player; and there is hardly a boy in Birr that doesn't own at least one hurley. Stephan can't imagine life without hurling.

O-Ton Stephan (young Hurling player)
Our`s ... - it`s like a second religion in this part of the country. Anyway, in Offaly it`s very... it`s a game; they play it like soccer in England, you know. It`s very passionate around here and they play it a lot. And we play Hurling as like - we stand on the ground and we play Hurling and you always have Hurling in your head.

Stephan is one of over 300,000 GAA members. For over 100 years, the Gaelic Athletic Association has dedicated itself to promoting the old Irish sports. Hurling is the "royal discipline".

The GAA owns almost one thousand sports grounds and is thus one of the largest landowners in the country. Clubhouses and sports halls round off its property. Honorary officials, in particular priests and teachers, look after more than 10,000 youth teams throughout the country; they are all "under the spell of the bent stick".

However, the GAA is not only the largest sporting association in Ireland, it is also the largest cultural association on the island. The Irish language, Irish dancing and music, which were threatened with extinction not so many years ago, now enjoy great support. A "hurling dance" shows the close relationship between sport and culture. Membership of the GAA is a mental attitude.

The fact that for a long time this mental attitude was anti-British is understandable. When the founders of the GAA met in this hotel in Thurles in 1884, Ireland was tyrannised by the British like a colony. London wanted to break the Irish spirit and identity. To counter this, these men joined forces and called to mind the old Irish sports.

The fascination of the game drove the Irish into the stadiums and into the clubs of the GAA in thousands. "Our game", hurling, as old as Ireland itself, became a symbol of the wish for freedom.

Stephan knows the history and the stories of hurling well. Even when he's not actually playing, everything in the hilly countryside surrounding Birr revolves around "our game".

The local hurleymaker has his workshop in these castle ruins. The choice of the right hurley, the ideal stick, can be a long and complicated process. "The ashwood must be like my own extended, living arm", says Stephan, "it's got to be just right". The hurleymaker fully understands this, and patiently advises every customer. For him, hurling is more than just a business.

O-Ton Hurleymaker
Hurley is our live around here. IŽve grown up, I live for hurling; not does it matter to me - IŽve went to school just punching the time really, I hurled every day at the week, I think most of the neighbours in the rural area around here, and that one thing that brings us all together is hurling.

Making a perfect hurley is an art. It means having a good eye for the right cut, a lot of feeling for the right wood, and intuitive sensitivity for the optimum balance of the stick. A good hurleymaker is a respected man in Ireland.

Stephan has finally found what he was looking for. On his way home he thinks about the forthcoming battles he is going to fight in the old game using the new hurley.

Monasterboice, a high crucifix from the early 10th century. In the middle, a man with a hurling stick. Was "our game" a holy game in those days?

Brú na Bóinne, one of the oldest surviving structures in Ireland. Almost 5000 years old. 180,000 tons of stone were used to build the tombs. Symbols of Gaelic culture can be found here.

Hurling legends surround the mythical hero of the Irish: Cuchulainn. He is said to have killed an angry watchdog of the king once when he was playing. He struck the hurling ball down its throat. The Book of Leinster, an epic series of legends from the 12th century, even describes a game of hurling from the year 4000 B. C.

Cuchulainn on his deathbed. His statue can be admired in the main post office in Dublin. It is no coincidence that the hurling-playing national hero has found his place in this central building in the city.

This main post office was the starting point of a decisive development in modern Irish history.

The post office, Easter 1916. - Barricades are set up, shots are fired. The Irish rise against their British oppressors.

The British rulers react promptly to the provocation from the post office and call in troops against the rebels. Many Irishmen go into the one-sided battle with the only weapon they have, the hurling stick.

The streets of Dublin become a battlefield. The Irish don't have a chance. The British weapons are superior by far. The Black Watch, a special unit of the British, achieve shameful notoriety in the bloody suppression of the Irish rebellion. But the struggle for freedom goes on.

Croke Park, 21st November 1920, the day that went down in Irish history as "Bloody Sunday". In the course of retaliatory action, British soldiers fire into the crowd. 13 people die, including the player Michael Hogan. "Our game" has become a political issue, and the hurley has become a symbol of resistance.

Before the game. Stephan and his friends are getting ready. The concentration and tension can be seen in their faces. Each member of the team of 15 has to show what he can do on the pitch.

O-Ton Steven
You have to be very physical, very strong, as a lot of skills in the game... It`s very fast and tough. So you have to be really practicing for a long time before you are really good at.

A layman can only detect the niceties of the game in the slow-motion action replay. The basic rule, however, is simple. If you shoot the ball between the two high posts above the goal, you get one point. Shots into the goal are even more popular, for they are rewarded with three points. But the hurling god has placed a bitter struggle in front of the goal, with plenty of tricks and enormous technical skill.

The goalkeeper is beaten. Three points. But the "ash thrash", as some critics disparagingly call the game, continues with undiminished intensity right up to the final whistle after two halves of 35 minutes each. And when you have learned how to observe the game closely, it is almost as exciting for the spectator as for Stephan himself.

In Birr, even the youngest children play hurling. "In this way, the kids don't even think about being scared", says a trainer. In school, hurling is a compulsory subject, and the most talented players are supported in the GAA club. The children can be sure of their parents' support, for good hurlers are highly respected.

One player who enjoys such great respect is Brian Whelahan. The 27-year-old player won the All-Ireland Final in 1994 with the Offaly select team, the highest honour in hurling. However, the fuss surrounding Brian on the fringe of the Juniors game can be explained by the fact that the Offaly teams have made it once again. The big final takes place in Dublin in a few days. Brian's recipe for success:

O-Ton Brian "Good hurler... have an understanding wife"
Well, a good hurler, obviously , he has to be very lucky towards his career. He has to stay injury free like at all sports. He obviously has to be very dedicated, even though we are an amateur association, the game has now taken on a professional level. We train, probably everybody, as hard as professionals. But we still have to get up early in the mornings, go to work, and... just has to be very committed and obviously have a very understanding family and wife.

In the last few weeks Brian has hardly been to work in his own pub, just as he has hardly seen his wife. Before such an important game, the life of the hurlers revolves around the little ball and nothing else. Reaching the final was a surprise that has turned Birr into a sea of flags. Green, white and gold, the colours of Ireland, are also the colours of County Offaly. For weeks now there has only been one topic of conversation: Will the players make it this time?

A shop owner in Birr told the opponent in the final, the team from Kilkenny, to stay in bed on doctor's orders, as a precaution. This was of course a joke and certainly not a challenge to a fight, for despite the rivalry between the counties, all hurlers are united by a bond of friendship and solidarity.

The final training session. Brian and his friends are very tense. Standard situations are practised for the last time.

An almost awed silence reigns among the spectators of the final training session. The select teams of all 32 counties, 26 from the Republic and 6 from Northern Ireland, compete for a place in the final. As far as hurlers are concerned, Ireland is undivided. Together, they feverishly await the deciding match - Brian in particular.

O-Ton Brian
We are very worried, you know, about Sunday, we were up against probably, you know, probably the best Hurley team in the country. And they have beaten us already this year, so we are very worried over that and hopefully we have done... we have prepared it well - and it will go for us on Sunday.

After the training session. The fans wait for their heroes. Where else on earth is it possible for pure amateurs like Brian Whelahan to fascinate the masses to the same extent? In Ireland life is still a bit different. At least for the few days in September in the run-up to the All-Ireland final...

The Offaly Rover, the unofficial anthem of the county. It is performed in the overcrowded municipal hall of Tullamore. The fans are celebrating because they have reached the final.

17:35 We haven't heard the last of the Rover for tonight. The party, which is intended to get the fans into the right mood for victory, will go on into small hours.

In the chapel of Birr school. Stephan always comes here before important matches, whether he himself is playing or, as in the big final, is only watching as a spectator. This is not unusual. Gaelic sport is organised according to the principle of "One parish, one club". Father Pat, Stephan's teacher, explains the connection:

O-Ton Pfarrer
Astonishingly the church featured greatly in the rebirth of the game. Because it saw in the game an opportunity for self-development, for the promotion of self-esteam and self growth. And the establishment of social order and integration. So the church would see a great importance and plays a great importance in the game. And will support the game always.

A bishop blesses the hurling stadium, Croke Park in Dublin, a national shrine. Ever since the foundation of the GAA, the hurlers have been under the patronage of the Church.

But representatives of the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, used the popularity of the game in the past for their great objective: independence for Ireland.

In 1949 they finally make it. The green, white and gold flag waves over Dublin. The Republic of Ireland is an independent state. It is with bitterness that many accept the partition of their country. The problem of Northern Ireland is born.

The Catholic Church continues to rule in Croke Park, which is reserved for Irish sports only. It goes without saying that "British" soccer may not be played on this sacred turf.

As well as VIPs like Grace Kelly, senior church dignitaries can always be seen among the spectators of the All-Ireland Final.

O-Ton Pfarrer
There is nothing like it. And it is very very difficult to explain what itŽs like. And you have to be there - itŽs something that really affects your inner being and your soul and you become so involved in the game itself and the game is so great and so fast and very often when you get two balanced teams and technically good teams there can be very very little in it so - you know - it can be very very exciting and you become so engrossed in the game that itŽs an experience that everybody should have, I think. Such an ancient game and it has stayed with us for so long. It`s just part of our being. There is a spiritual context. And it brings out something that`s deep seated and deep rooted within our very soul, and that's why I think, it has succeeded so long.

Hurling ist ein uraltes Spiel, das über alle Zeiten bei uns geblieben ist, so daß es ein Teil unserer Existenz wurde. Es gibt einen religiösen Zusammenhang. Es bringt etwas zum Vorschein, das tief in unser aller Seelen wurzelt, und deshalb war Hurling immer unser Spiel.

The Rock of Cashel. A jewel of old Ireland. Once seat of the Kings of Munster. The Irish national saint, Saint Patrick, converted King Angus here in the 5th century. Cashel later became an episcopal seat.

Celtic tradition and ecclesiastical power were united in Cashel. It is therefore no wonder that a bishop from Cashel played a decisive part in the rebirth of hurling.

Bishop Croke was a fervent nationalist who preached against the British occupying army in the 19th century. Gaelic sports meant a lot to him for political motives as well, and so Croke accepted an important position within the GAA. This is why the stadium where the hurling final takes place every year is named after him.

O-Ton Pfarrer
Croke Park , it was named after a very famous Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, who is instrumental in starting of the whole Gaelic Athletic Association and a lot of our priests and bishops would have actually played the game themselves and would have been very, very good players.

O-Ton Hurleymaker
It's the biggest stage. You can`t get bigger than the Croke Park and practically every hurler has dreamed of playing in Croke Park.

O-Ton Steven
There... Croke Park is a lot of dreams for some lot of people. Anyone who picks up a Hurley always wants to play in Croke Park.

O-Ton Brian
Well it`s everyone`s ambition obviously to play in Croke Park first of all but to play for your County at All-Ireland level - that`s the greatest dream anyone can ever have.

In the hope that he has had enough sleep, Brian Whelahan sets about making his dream come true. Brian is one of the main actors on this All-Ireland Sunday, the most important public holiday in Ireland after Saint Patrick's Day.

This is what dreams are made of - a ticket for the final. Tickets are obtained by drawing lots. Hundreds of thousands of people want one. Stephan is one of the lucky ones. He can watch his stars in green, white and gold lining up against the favourites from Kilkenny.

Hours before the match begins, fans throng into the stadium. Inside Croke Park, the Archbishop of Dublin welcomes important personalities and others who regard themselves as such.

A truly festive occasion. This is the very last, the most important match, the "All-Irish Final".

OFF-Ton Brian
When you do hit the pitch this roar hits you and its just awesome.
Some people love it, some people, you know, would prefer not to hear it. You know a lot of nerves, been lot the dark moments and its not until the throw- in time that they start to leave you.

The game starts. The 70,000 spectators in the stadium are enthralled. The atmosphere is only comparable with that of the World Cup Final in soccer. Brian and the other players can feel that in their own bodies. The first moves are very nervous as a result.

Then the ball moves better through the ranks of the green, white and gold players. A quick body swerve and the first sigh of relief - the first point for the team from Offaly.

A long shot, over 100 yards, takes Kilkenny into an attacking position. The Offaly defence is poorly organised, and they promptly pay the price: goal, three points for the black-and-gold team.

Now the final has really got going.

Brian Whelahan tries a shot from a distance of 90 yards. - Exactly between the posts. Hurling played to perfection.

And Offaly piles on the pressure. Brian gains possession of the ball, hand pass to John Troy - between the posts once more, one point for Offaly.

The second half. In 35 minutes we will know who will be entitled to hold up the Liam McCarthy Cup. Offaly cannot afford any more misses ...

Brian has meanwhile moved into the attack. Offaly is aiming for victory.

Joe Errity bulldozes his way through on the right and coolly scores the first goal for Offaly.

But Kilkenny reply with a counter-attack to score their second three-point goal. The match has reached the decisive phase.

Once more Joe Errity attacks, passes to Brian Whelahan, and he succeeds in scoring the magic goal. Offaly wins the All-Ireland Hurling Championship. Their joy knows no bounds. Brian is the hero of the day.

A sports journalist once wrote: "Hurling is far removed from these 7-digit sponsoring sums and international fame. Yet a victory in Croke Park gives the players something that can't be bought with money: a piece of immortality."

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