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UNESCO Grant Hurling And Camogie A Cultural Status


Each year, UNESCO selects various cultural practices from around the world to add to their representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This year, they added reggae music and a sport from Ireland that dates back more than 2,000 years - hurling. Hurling, alongside the all-women's version, camogie, is often called the fastest game on grass. Alan Milton joins us. He's with the Gaelic Athletic Association and normally based in Dublin, but he's in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALAN MILTON: Thanks for having me, Scott, good to speak to you.

SIMON: Hurling, for people who've never seen it, is a terrifically exciting game - a little bit lacrosse, a little bit rugby, soccer, field hockey. How would you explain it to an American audience? Because I know you've been doing that for quite a while.

MILTON: Yeah. It's the fastest and oldest field game in the world, as far as we're concerned, and the only sport that I can really compare to - and you've alluded to it yourself - would be lacrosse. And to American viewers or listeners, sometimes I try and explain it as ice hockey on grass except for the ball leaves the ground and travels at speeds of up to 140 kilometers an hour. It's extremely brave. They wear minimal padding. And it's a full-contact sport.

SIMON: And tell us about the hurling stick because I've seen those. They're - if I may - to an American audience, they look a little bit like something you'd use to handle a pizza in a brick oven.

MILTON: (Laughter) I've been told they look like a large spoon. It's a coral-shaped (ph) stick. And at the end of the - at the bottom, it's called a bas where you strike the ball. The ball is made of leather. And it's called a sliotar. The hurley's supposed to reach from your foot up to your hip and is generally about 33, 34 inches for a grown adult.

SIMON: Do you think that hurling expresses some intrinsic aspect of the Irish spirit?

MILTON: I most definitely do. And I think most people would express an opinion that Irish people are passionate, and they can be quite expressive. And I - you know, they're not shy. If physicality needs to be brought to bear in a situation, sometimes that happens, too. But the game of hurling captures all of those attributes. And it distills it into a very, very entertaining format. And I think - we don't have breaks in our games, so when we watch American football, we can't understand all these breaks that happen because our game goes helter-skelter, up and down the field. And I would challenge anybody to type it into YouTube. You get a grasp for the intensity and the speed and the sheer thrill of the game. It's really, really interesting to watch.

SIMON: Whereas American football players have to pause after every play for a little nap, right?

MILTON: (Laughter) It's at odds with our game, let's say. Every game is different, I suppose. But it's what you grow up with, isn't it? It's what you're used to. And I think we're very fortunate to have hurling front and center in Irish life. It's not just a sport to some people at home in Ireland. It's a - it's very much a way of life.

SIMON: Forgive me for not knowing this, Mr. Milton, but is there a good hurling cheer, you know, the way, like, in international football, there's (singing) ole, ole, ole, ole?

MILTON: We don't gave ole, ole's - the scourge of ole, ole in our games, thankfully. It all depends what county you're from. And the chanting is not a massive feature of our games. But they would have traditional songs that they would sing, especially in the moments of success. So if you're from County Tipperary, you might sing "Slievenamon." Or in Kilkenny, they would sing "The Rose Of Mooncoin" after a trophy lift. So they all have their own little quirks and modes of celebration.

And - but at the moment, Limerick won their first all-Ireland hurling title since 1973. And I've never seen as many grown men crying at a sporting event. It was - it had to be seen to be believed. And it really gets to the heart of Irish life. And that's why the UNESCO status that was conferred upon the game this week was a big boost to everybody who treasures the game and works hard to promote it.

SIMON: Alan Milton, director of communications for the Gaelic Athletic Association, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

MILTON: Thank you very much, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.