The fastest game on grass will return to Fenway Park this fall for the first time in more than 60 years when teams from Galway and Dublin are scheduled to face off in the ancient Irish sport of hurling.
And what is hurling, you might ask? It has been described as a warlike ballgame played on foot with ax-shaped wooden sticks. Imagine full-contact baseball fused with elements of ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and American football.
Players jump acrobatically to make bare-handed catches and whack the ball out of the air with a slugging power that would impress David Ortiz.
“It’s such a unique game. People who haven’t seen it are just bowled over by it,” said Dessie Farrell, chief executive of the Gaelic Players Association, as he stood Tuesday in the spongy outfield at Fenway Park after a news conference. “Some say it dates back to prehistoric times. It is so fast and so physically intense.”
The exhibition match will be held Nov. 22, the day after Fenway Park is set to host a football game between the University of Notre Dame and Boston College. The reconfigured stadium will allow organizers to shoehorn a hurling pitch into the snug ballpark, although it will be smaller than fields in Ireland and will necessitate rule changes.
The event will be part of an Irish festival that will include food, dancing, music, and a performance by the Celtic punk band the Dropkick Murphys. John W. Henry, the principal owner of Fenway Park and the Red Sox, also owns The Boston Globe. Tickets for the match at Fenway Park will go on sale at noon Thursday
Ireland’s Gaelic game has retained a purity lost long ago in the billion-dollar business of modern sports. When 83,000 fans pack Dublin’s Croke Park stadium for the All-Ireland hurling final, they are cheering for unpaid amateurs.
The players are young men employed as teachers, police officers, and construction workers. There are no million-dollar contracts, no blockbuster trades, no high-stakes college drafts.
“You play because you love the game,” said David Collins, a 31-year-old Galway defender who trains for hurling before and after his shift each day as a software developer for Hewlett-Packard. “We take pride in the county we play for. Its passion and love for the jersey.”
Hurling has not been played at Fenway Park since 1954, when legendary hurler Christy Ring led Cork against a squad of New England all stars. The return of the game represents a coup for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who grew up listening to radio broadcasts of Gaelic sports with his parents, who emigrated from Ireland.
Walsh’s roots and relatives remain in Galway, and on Tuesday, the mayor joked that he would do his “best to remain neutral for the match, but I certainly can’t say that for the rest of my family.” He recalled going with his late father to see Galway play in the All-Ireland quarterfinals in 1999 at Croke Park.
“Hurling is one of the greatest games in the world,” Walsh said.
Players use a hurley, which is a curved, wooden stick with a flat end made from an ash tree. With the stick, they smack a leather, baseball-like sphere called a sliotar. Teams earn three points by scoring in a soccer-like net defended by a goalie. For a single point, players can blast the sliotar through uprights above the net, scoring what looks like a field goal in American football.
Because of the tight confines at Fenway Park, Galway and Dublin will play a modified version of the game called Super 11’s. Each team will have 11 players, instead of the standard 15. Scoring will be limited to the three-point goals. Single-point shots at the uprights will not count.
In 2013, a similar hurling match was held in South Bend at Notre Dame’s lacrosse stadium. The event drew a capacity crowd of roughly 5,000, according to Farrell, chief executive of the Gaelic Players Association. Organizers hope to draw 20,000 or more spectators in Boston.
“Both teams will put on a spectacle here at Fenway in November that will be well worth coming to watch, I promise you that,” Farrell said.