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The Irish sport of hurling is, to my mind, the most beautiful, skilful game in the world. Arguably the oldest field game in the world, it is a thrilling, concentrated competition based on skill, athletic ability and courage.
Hurling is a game with ancient roots in our culture which extend into the murky pre-literary era with many mythological references. Our archetypal warrior-hero Cu Culinn was said to excel at the sport of hurling and there is a famous story about how his hurling skill saved him from a certain death when confronted by the hound of Ulster. He struck the ball with exceptional accuracy into the mouth of the hound, killing him instantly.
Another famous mythological account tells of a prehistoric hurling match between the original fairy-like inhabitants of Ireland, the Fir Bolg, and the human Tuath De Danann while they prepared for battle in 1272 B.C.
These mythological accounts are supplemented by more definite references to hurling in the Brehon laws ( the ancient Gaelic system of law) from the 7th and 8th centuries. and medieval references to hurling including the statutes of Kilkenny ( 1337) and Galway ( 1527), which were British attempts to ban hurling.
All of these sources point to an anarchic but recognisable game, played with a ball and stick, with different versions in different parts of the country and very much associated with the native Gaelic Irish culture. Indeed the statutes of both Galway and Kilkenny were made largely to discourage British settlers from “going native” and adopting Irish customs.
By the 1700’s the British had stopped trying to ban hurling and the game soared in popularity, often under the patronage of landlords. In 1827 a diarist reported from Dublin..
“The sticks were being brandished like swords. Hurling is a war-like game. The west side won the first match and the east the second. You could hear the sticks striking the ball from one end of the Green to the other’
Despite the war-like references above, hurling should not be confused with faction fighting which featured the stout blackthorn stick known as a shillelagh and was a far more violent affair. For those interested, I will be adding a blog post on that fascinating topic shortly.
Hurling fell into decline in the 19th century. Irish culture was more broadly suppressed following the failed rebellion of 1798. The increasing economic hardship, poverty and famine of the 19th century led to its decline and hurling survived only in isolated pockets by the time of the national revival of the late 19th century.
The games greatest days were ahead of it however and the game was properly defined and codified by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884, along with its sister game Gaelic football. The games have gone from strength and the games have drawn huge crowds during the summer months when the best players perform in the All Ireland championships.
In its modern incarnation, it is played by teams of 15 players, with a hurley made from ash that goes to your waist. The ball is about the size of a baseball, is called a sliothar and consists of cork wrapped in leather. Two types of score are possible; a goal and a pint. A goal is the section underneath the crossbar with netting and is awarded three points. One point is awarded if you hit the upright section over the goal between the tall vertical posts. It is played by men but an adapted version known as camoige is played by women.
Despite playing in front of crowds of up to 90,000 people, the players are all strictly amateur. All players are affiliated to local clubs and the best club players are selected to play for their county. While it is the counties who contest the spectacular All Ireland championship series, it is the club game that is the beating heart of the GAA. They form a focal point for both rural and urban areas and most Irish kids play either hurling or football at least for a time.
I personally love the game of hurling. It is the fastest, most aesthetically pleasing of sports and always played in a wonderful spirit. It has drive, passion and intensity. The feeling of a hurley and sliothar is also very pleasant. The pleasing smack of the sliothar against the ball and the visceral thrill of watching the sliothar move on impact is a real pleasure. Just hitting a ball back and forth with a friend is a nice social activity.
When I am travel directing with Trafalgar, I always like to bring groups to Malzards pub in Stoneyford, Kilkenny. Here patrons can try out a little hurling and get a feel for the game followed by a few points and some music. If you do want to check out any of our tours and great deals for 2021 check out
If you do want to visit Ireland, my personal recommendation is the Irish Experience, a nine day tour which ambles through the countryside and includes all the major highlights at a nice leisurely pace.
If you do get to Ireland, it is going to be a very special summer assuming we can get back to normal life here and elsewhere also.
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