Hurling or Hurling the Silver Ball (Cornish: Hurlian), is an outdoor team game of Celtic origin played only in Cornwall in the United Kingdom. It is played with a small silver ball. Hyrlîan is not to be confused with iománaíocht or iomáint an Irish game of Gaelic origin which in the English language is also known as hurling. There are profound differences between the two sports. Cornish hurling is a ball throwing carrying game akin to rugby. Irish Hurling is more a forerunner of modern hockey played with a hurley stick (in Irish a camán) used to propel a ball called a sliotar.
Once played widely in Cornwall, the game has similarities to other traditional football or inter parish 'mob' games, but certain attributes make this version unique to Cornwall. It is considered by many to be Cornwall's national game along with Cornish wrestling. An old saying in the Cornish language goes; "hyrlîan yw gen gwaré nyi" which translated into English means, "Hurling is our sport"
Although the custom attracts fewer spectators, the annual hurling matches at St. Columb Major have the same status in the Cornish calendar as the 'Obby 'Oss festival at Padstow and the Furry Dance at Helston in that all three are unique customs that have survived unchanged and have taken place annually since before records began.
The ball for hurling is made of sterling silver which is hammered into two hemispheres and then bound around a core of applewood which is held together with a band of silver. The band hold screws or nails which hold the ball together. Normally a motto would appear on the band, such as "Town and country – Do your best!". In St Columb the ball was crafted for many years by John Turver, although in the last decade the ball has been made by local craftsman Colin Rescorla. The winner of the ball has the right to keep it, but must have a new one made in its place for the next game. The price of a new ball is secret but is said to be around £1000. The traditional inscription on the ball was "St Columb Major and Minor / Do your best / In one of your parishes / I must rest."
- Size and weight
- Hurling balls on public display
There are examples of hurling balls on public display at Truro Museum, Lanhydrock House, St Columb Major Post Office and St. Columb Major Town Hall. Many are also held in private hands. One held at Penzance Museum is thought to be very old and bears the following inscription in Kernewek (the Cornish language):
Paul Tuz whek Gwaro Tek heb ate buz Henwis. 1704
The first two words signify "Men of Paul", i.e., the owners of the ball. The last seven words may be translated literally (retaining the word order of the engraving) into English as "sweet play fair without hate to be called", which may be roughly translated as: "Fair play is good play."
Although the origins of hurling are unknown, one theory from Irish mythology is that the game derives from the Irish game of hurling and was brought back to Britain after the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century. Another comes from the legend of Setanta, nephew to the King of Ulster, who is said to have played a game of Irish hurling using a bronze stick and silver ball. No evidence exists to support these two theories. In Brittany, Normandy and Picardy a comparable game is known as La Soule or Choule. The earliest recorded game of Soule comes from Cornwall. Court records from 1283 show an entry in the plea rolls (No. 111) providing details of legal action taken when a man called Roger was accused of killing a fellow Soule player with a stone. (Medieval Cornwall by L. E. Elliot-Binns). One instance is recorded of a match between twenty-one Irish players from County Wexford and an equal number of Cornish players which was witnessed by King George I (1660–1727). Hurling is very similar to the game of cnapan; a Celtic form of medieval football played until the nineteenth century in the southwestern counties of Wales, especially Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire. George Owen of Henllys (1552–1613) believed Cnapan was played by the ancient Britons. There is circumstantial evidence to support this claim. The Cornish, Welsh and Bretons of Brittany are historically descended from Romano-Britons who inhabited the Roman province of Britannia before the Anglo-Saxons incursions from the 5th century. Considering the clear similarities between Hyrlîan, Cnapan and La Soule, the common Brythonic languages, shared culture and ancestry it is likely these three sports evolved from the same game. The Romans are known to have played a ball game containing physical aspects of these sports called Harpastum. There is no hard evidence Harpastum continued to be played in Europe after the Western Roman Empire fell into decline although an alternative form was revived as Calcio Fiorentino during the renaissance in 16th century Tuscany. The Orkney 'Ba' Game', which has been played on Christmas Eve and Hogmanay every year since the mid 19th century, has some similarity to Cornish Hurling.
Little is recorded of the sport until about the 16th century when contests were generally between groups of men from two parishes. At this point there were two forms of the game, according to Carew's Survey of Cornwall (1602). "Hurling to goals" was played on a pitch similar to that of modern-day football, and had many strict rules, similar to those of football and rugby; this was common in the east of the county. "Hurling to country", however, was often played over large areas of countryside and despite its name also involved goals; this was common in the west of the county. This had few rules and was more similar to the St Columb game of modern times (see below). Inter-parish matches died out towards the end of the 18th century but matches between different sections of the same township continued. At St Ives those named Tom, Will and John formed a team to play against those with other names on the Monday after Quadragesima. At Truro a team of married men played against a team of bachelors, and at Helston the men of two particular streets played against the men of the others. The field of the St Ives game has been changed twice, first to the beach, and in 1939 to the public park.
- Terminology (as used primarily in St Columb Major) includes:
- Deal – to pass the ball.
- Call up – takes place before the game starts when the previous winner holds up the ball, declaring victory for his side. The ball is 'called up' for a second time at 8:00 p.m. by the new winner.
- Throw up – is the start of the game. A man chosen by the previous winner mounts a step-ladder and throws the ball into the crowd.
- Winner of the Ball – is the hurler that goals the ball for his side (or carries it over the parish boundary in the St Columb game).
- Silver Beer – is beer served after the game, from gallon jugs with the ball in the jug.
- Stand – to tackle.
- Shuffle the ball – to hide the ball. (Generally frowned upon – unless done in jest.)
Modern survival of the game
Up until the 19th century the game was still relatively common, with many Cornish towns and villages holding a match on feast and fair days, and games between St Columb Major and Newquay survived into the early 1900s. The town of Helston used to hold a hurl following the 'beating of the bounds', but the tradition there died out in the early 20th century.
St. Columb Major (twice yearly)
The traditional St. Columb hurling matches take place on Shrove Tuesday and the second Saturday following. The usually rough game is played on the streets and in the surrounding countryside, between the Townsmen and Countrymen of the parish, with the shops in the town barricading their windows and doors to protect from accidental damage, which sometimes occurs. The aim of the game is to place the ball in respective goals that are set about two miles (3 km) apart, or take it across the Parish boundary. The objective is to control possession by running with the ball, passing, throwing, snatching and tackling.
The game starts with the throw-up in Market Square at 4:30 pm: a person chosen by the previous 'winner of the ball' climbs a stepladder and throws the ball to the crowd, usually followed by a large scrum.
Game play in the town normally lasts no longer than one hour; this period is non-competitive and the two teams are largely irrelevant: townsmen 'deal' the ball to countrymen and vice versa, whilst the tackles and scrums that occur are generally for amusement only. Play often stops for spectators to touch the ball, said to bring luck or fertility, or slows to allow younger players to participate.
At some point, usually after 45–60 minutes, a hurler or group of team-mates make a 'break' towards their goal or part of the parish boundary. The ball might go anywhere in the parish: sometimes play keeps to roads, though often hurlers go through fields, rivers, woods and farmyards, scrambling over hedges and ditches. In this latter stage of the match the two sides strive for possession, and the actual "Town against Country" hurling takes place. Sometimes hurls are won by a team effort, but occasionally a single hurler may attain the ball in the town and manage to run all the way to the goal or boundary without being caught by any of the opposition.
The 'winner of the ball' (the hurler that goals the ball or carries it over the boundary) is carried on the shoulders of two team-mates back to Market Square, while the victorious side sing the traditional hurling song. Here he declares "Town Ball" or "Country Ball".
At 8:00 pm, the winner returns to Market Square to call up the ball again. This is followed by a visit to each of the public houses of the town, where the ball is immersed in gallon jugs filled with beer. Each gallon will be called up and the 'silver beer' (as it is known), is shared amongst all those present.
- Field of play. The game takes place mainly in streets still open to traffic (although police advise motorists not to drive through). The game can also extend onto private property including gardens and fields and sometimes through houses or pubs. The game can stop at any time so that members of the watching crowd can handle the ball. Touching the ball is said to be lucky and can bring good health and fertility. The parish of St. Columb Major is the world's largest pitch for any ball game, with an area of about 20 square miles (52 km2).
- Goals and winning. There are two goals but no goal-keepers. The goals are made of granite. The Town Goal is the base of an old Celtic cross and the Country Goal is a shallow stone trough. To win, the team must carry the ball to its own goal, or carry the ball out of the parish, which can be up to 3 miles (4.8 km). As soon as the ball is goaled or carried out of the parish, the game finishes.
- Rules. There is no referee, no official written rules and no organizing committee. The two teams have unequal numbers. The Town team has the larger team since the town has grown larger in size. Before the 1940s the Countrymen were stronger in numbers due to the number of people who were employed in agriculture.
St. Ives (annually)
The annual St. Ives hurling match happens on Feast Monday each February (the feast is on the Sunday nearest to February 3). The game starts at 10.30am when the silver ball is thrown from the wall of the Parish Church by the Mayor to the crowd below on the beach. The ball is passed from one to another on the beach and then up into the streets of St. Ives. The person in possession of the ball when the clock strikes noon takes it to the Mayor at the Guildhall and receives the traditional reward of five shillings. At one time the game was played by the men of the village. These days it is played by the children.
Bodmin (roughly every 5 years)
It is a little-known fact that Hurling survives as a traditional as part of Beating the bounds at Bodmin, commencing at the close of the 'Beat'. The game is organised by the Rotary Club of Bodmin and was last played in 2010. The game is started by the Mayor of Bodmin throwing a silver ball into a body of water known as the "Salting Pool". There are no teams and the hurl follows a set route. The aim is to carry the ball from the "Salting Pool" via the old A30, along Callywith Road, then through Castle Street, Church Square and Honey Street, to finish at the Turret Clock in Fore Street. The participant carrying the ball when it reaches the turret clock receives a £10 reward from the Mayor. The next Bodmin Hurl will follow the next beating the bounds, which is unlikely to take place until 2015.
The Hurlers stone circles
On Craddock Moor, near Minions, are "The Hurlers". These consist of three separate Bronze Age stone circles with thirteen, seventeen and nine surviving stones. Local tradition maintains that they are men turned to stone for profaning the Lords Day by taking part in a hurling match. The arrangement of the stones led to the name and was recorded as far back as 1584 by John Norden.
Early written evidence of hurling in Cornwall
- The Cornish-men they are stronge, hardye and nymble, so are their exercises violent, two especially, Wrastling and Hurling, sharpe and seuere actiuties; and in neither of theis doth any Countrye exceede or equall them. The firste is violent, but the seconde is daungerous: The firste is acted in two sortes, by Holdster (as they called it) and by the Coller; the seconde likewise two ways, as Hurling to goales, and Hurling to the Countrye.
According to the law, or when the ball to throw;
And drive it to the gole, in squadrons forth they goe;
And to avoid the troupes (their forces that forlay);
Through dykes and rivers make, in the rubustious play;
- 1602, in his survey of Cornwall historian Richard Carew writes about Cornish hurling. It is interesting to note the rule about no forward passing. This rule only applied to one of the two historic forms of hurling, and still applies to the modern sport of Rugby
- That the hurler must deal no foreball, or throw it to any partner standing nearer the goal than himself. In dealing the ball, if any of the adverse party can catch it flying ... the property of it is thereby transferred to the catching party; and so assailants become defendants, and defendant assailants.
- 1648, at Penryn: following a Royalist uprising to support the King, the victorious Parliamentarians passed through the town in a triumphant manner with three soldiers, bearing on the points of three swords (carried upright), three silver balls used in hurling.
- 1654, at Hyde Park, London: The Lord Protector, (Oliver Cromwell) however, was present on that May-day, and appeared keenly to enjoy the sports, as we learn from another source. In company with many of his Privy Council he watched a great hurling match by fifty Cornish gentlemen against fifty others. 'The ball they played withal was silver, and designed for that party which did win the goal.' Report in the Moderate Intell. 26 Apr.-4 May 1654
- 1705 (13 August), at Camborne, from the parish burials register:
- William Trevarthen buried in the church. A margin note in the churchwardens accounts explains "Being disstroid to a hurling with Redruth men at the high dounes the 10th day of August".
- 1707, the Cornish saying "hyrlîan yw gen gwaré nyi" ("Hurling is our sport") appears in print for the first time in Archaeologia Britannica, by Edward Lhuyd.
- Archaeologia Britannica, by Edward Lhuyd.
- Hurling at St Columb in the 21st century (BBC website)
- Holloway, John, ed. (1987) The Oxford Book of Local Verses. Oxford U. P.; p. 63
- Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports By Tony Collins, John Martin, Wray Vamplew (page 169)
- Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society. V. T. Vibert. 1851. p. 78.
- Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries, by Robert Crego
- The ‘Yellow Bellies’ and the Hurling Men of Cornwall
- Jarvie, Grant (1999). Sport in the making of Celtic cultures. Sport and nation. London: Leicester University Press. pp. 58 and 73. ISBN 0-7185-0129-2. Retrieved 7 February 2011.
- Collins, Tony; Martin, John; Vamplew, Wray (2005). Encyclopedia of traditional British rural sports. Sports reference. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge. pp. 66–67. ISBN 0-415-35224-X. Retrieved 7 February 2011.
- Tony Collins, John Martin, Wray Vamplew (2005). Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports. Psychology Press. Retrieved 23 December 2013.
- Charlotte Russell (2005). "The Anglo-Saxon Influence on Romano-Britain: Research past and present". Durham Anthropology Journal, Vol 13(1),ISSN 1742-2930. Retrieved 23 December 2013.
- Bruce, Michael (2004) A Scottish Miscellany. Lomond Books. ISBN 1-84204-065-0. P. 160.
- Hole, C. 1949, English Sports and Pastimes, Batsford Books, pp.55-57. 
- Carew (1602) The Survey of Cornwall
- Rabey A. I. (1984) The Silver Ball: the story of hurling at St Columb
- Rotary Club of Bodmin Beating the Bounds at Bodmin
- Hutton, Ronald (1996). Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford University Press. p. 163. Retrieved 2007-08-18.
- 2010 Bodmin Hurl Rules, Rotary Club of Bodmin, 2 April 2010.
- Westwood, Jennifer (1985) Albion. A Guide to Legendary Britain. London: Grafton Books. ISBN 0-246-11789-3. p. 21.
- Drayton, Michael (1612), "Poly-Olbion: A Chronologic Description of Great Britain", (The first edition, song, page 7)
- West Penwith Resources – Penzance: Past and Present (Millett 3)
- Forestry | British History Online
- Carew, Sir Richard (1602) The Survey of Cornwall; ed. with an introduction by F. E. Halliday. London: Andrew Melrose, 1953; reissued in 1969 by Adams & Dart, London ISBN 0-238-78941-1. pp. 147–149.
- Greenaway, R. D. (1926) Cornish Hurling: the Popular Origins of a Magical Ritual. (Reprinted 2004 by Oakmagic, Monmouth) ISBN 1-904330-62-2
- Rabey, Ivan (1972) Hurling at St. Columb and in Cornwall Padstow: Lodenek Press ISBN 0-902899-11-2
- Hornby, Hugh (2008) *Hornby Uppies and Downies: the Extraordinary Football Games of Britain Swindon : English Heritage ISBN 1-905624-64-6 (contains section on Cornish Hurling)
- St Columb Hurling Photographs
- Film of St Ives Feast and the Silver ball Hurling 2013
- Film of St Columb Hurling 2007
- Hurling at St Columb in the 21st Century BBC, Where I Live – Cornwall.
- List of winners at the St. Columb Hurling, 1950–2005
- Popular Romances of the West of England: Customs of Ancient Days ...
- Images of Richard Carew's work on hurling
- Town enjoys hurling event. BBC News 24 February 2004.