THE PLUCK OF THE IRISH: Ireland's national sport of hurling takes center stage at Croke Park.
Failte Ireland
“Dawn-E-gawl! Dawn-E-gawl!” People are chanting this all around me inside Croke Park, a modern, 82,300-seat stadium, as we watch very pale men in very short shorts play Ireland’s national sport: hurling. I’m here on the advice of Peter MacCann, the ­general manager of the swanky Merrion hotel. “If you want to really understand Ireland,” MacCann tells me, “you have to see hurling. It’s the fastest game in the world.”

TASTES OF THE TOWN: Irish food gets an upgrade at L'Ecrivain.
Ronan Lang
He’s right about the pace. It’s so breakneck, in fact, that it takes me until halftime to grasp the basics, which are, roughly: On a field more than twice the size of a football field, a bunch of guys with curved sticks try to hit a rubbery, baseball-sized ball either into a soccer-style net or through some goalposts. Meanwhile, a bunch of other guys with curved sticks whack at whoever has the ball or bodycheck them to the ground. It’s hectic. It’s violent. It’s fantastic.

It’s also not for profit. Admission fees go to the Gaelic Athletic Association, which funnels money back into developing the sport through youth leagues and building stadiums like Croke Park, the biggest in Ireland and the fourth-largest in Europe. The American capitalist in me wonders: Who would agree to be hit with a stick gratis in front of thousands of paying customers?

MacCann offers an explanation. The game, more than 2,000 years old and once a means of settling disputes, is played “for pride in your county and love of the sport.”

Okay, but whom to root for? Today’s match is between the counties of Donegal and Roscommon. I go for Donegal (“Dawn-E-gawl!”) only because I know the Irish ballad “Mary from Dungloe.” It begins, “Oh, then fare ye well, sweet Donegal.”

Fare ye well, indeed. The final scoreboard reads: “Donegal 3-20, Roscommon 3-16.” I think that means Donegal won.

In two old carriage houses behind a row of the red-brick, Georgian buildings that are an iconic part of center-city Dublin sits L’Ecrivain Restaurant, a fine-dining, ­Michelin-starred restaurant that’s been serving local dishes since 1989. Here, I ask an awkward question of executive chef and co-owner Derry Clarke: Why are people so leery of the, ahem, cuisine of Ireland? “Irish food has had a bit of a … reputation,” Clarke says diplomatically. “Ireland was a poor country for a very long time. So here, food was a fuel, not a passion or an enjoyment. That’s changed.”