History of hurling

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Ancient animal hair balls, part of the exhibition on the History of Hurling, Cork Public Museum

The history of hurling is long and often unclear, stretching back over three millennia. References to stick-and-ball games are found in Irish mythology. The game is thought to be related to the games of shinty that is played primarily in Scotland, cammag on the Isle of Man and bandy that was played formerly in England and Wales.

Prehistoric and early historic Ireland[edit]

Hurling is older than the recorded history of Ireland.[1][unreliable source?] It is thought to predate Christianity, having come to Ireland with the Celts.[2][unreliable source?] It has been a distinct Irish pastime for at least 2000 years.[3][unreliable source?] The earliest written references to the sport in Brehon law date from the fifth century.[2]

The tale of the Táin Bó Cuailgne (drawing on earlier legends) describes the hero Cúchulainn playing hurling at Emain Macha. Similar tales are told about Fionn Mac Cumhail and the Fianna, his legendary warrior band.[citation needed]

Meallbreatha describes punishments for injuring a player in several games, most of which resemble hurling.

The Seanchás Mór commentaries on the Brehon Law state that the son of a (local king) could have his hurley hooped in bronze, while others could only use copper. It was illegal to confiscate a hurley.

13th century[edit]

Statute of Kilkenny forbids hurling due to excessive violence, stating further that the English settlers of the Pale would be better served to practice archery and fencing in order to repel the attacks of the Gaelic Clans.[4]

15th century[edit]

A 15th-century grave slab survives in Inishowen, County Donegal dedicated to the memory of a Scottish gallowglass warrior named Manas Mac Mhoiresdean of Iona. The slab displays carvings of a claymore, a caman, for playing Shinty, as opposed to Hurling and a sliotar.[5]

16th century[edit]

1527: Statute recorded in Galway City: "At no time to use ne occupy ye hurling of ye litill balle with the hookie sticks or staves, nor use no hand balle to play without the walls, but only the great foot balle."[6]

1587: Lord Chancellor William Gerrarde complains that English settlers of the Munster Plantation are speaking Irish and playing hurling.[citation needed]

17th Century[edit]

The first detailed description of the game comes from an English visitor, John Dunton, in 1698, who compared it with the English game of Pall-mall. Teams of 10, 12 or 20 players would hit or carry a ball of animal hair with curved sticks, the aim being to pass it through a hoop in the opponents' area. The first to do so wins. This was often played as a challenge match between different parishes or baronies, and was frequently attended with injuries taken in good part.[7]

18th century[edit]

At this time there were two distinct versions of a game of ball and stick. In the northern part of Ireland, it was called camán (English: commons), and played in the winter. A hard wooden ball, or crag, was struck with a narrow wooden stick, but could not be handled (as in modern shinty). In the southern parts the game was called iomán or báire and played in summer. The ball, or sliothar was made of animal hair, and could be handled or carried on a wider stick (hurl) than used in the north.[8] The northern game was one of the common people, but the southern game was largely organized by the landlords who provided the hurling greens, picked the teams, typically of 21, and competed against each other for wagers. The game would often be part of much larger entertainment such as fairs and other competitions, and the gentry even participated with their own teams. Crowds of up to 10,000 attended.[7] This region was conveniently supplied with dry level terrain and many ash trees, which became the favoured wood for hurls.[8] The Eighteenth Century has been referred to as "The Golden Age of Hurling."[7]

As previously described, the game ended with one goal, so could last a few minutes or several hours. However, it was common to have a set of up to 3 games, 2 goals deciding, not necessarily on the same day. The hoop was not at the end of the field and could be approached from either side to score. The báire team typically stood in 3 rows of 7, the front being known as the phalanx or an bulc, heavy men who had different sticks and had different rules of play (similar to hockey in not being allowed to carry the ball or raise the stick high). Effectively they acted as a scrum (cromaiscín), gaining ground with the ball through main force. The second row were known as whips or fuadaigh, and the final row of backs included the captain. These rows had lighter sticks and were permitted to lift them high and carry, but not handle the ball. There was no formal goalkeeper, but this was obviously a major task of the captain. The whips were there to capture any ball which came free, and the backs to deal with any opponent breaking through. One-on-one wrestling was permitted.[7]

The captain was the person who chose the team, and had absolute control over who played where. He was often from the gentry who provided the facilities, so had genuine power over people. A dismissal for dangerous play was effectively a lifetime ban. The two captains acted as joint umpires, though occasionally a third person would be called to adjudicate where they could not agree. This gentlemanly control of the situation meant that injuries seemed to be less common and less serious than in previous times.[7]

19th century[edit]

Political and social changes including the Act of Union 1801 and Great Famine produced a decline in sporting activity and a rift between the landowners and the people so that the game was no longer supported by the gentry.[7][8] Both versions of the game largely died out, surviving in three pockets around Cork city, south-east County Galway, and north of Wexford.[8]

In 1884 the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed to promote or revive traditional Irish sports. Michael Cusack simplified the game with which he was familiar from childhood in County Clare and thus laid the modern rules based on the iomán version of the game. (Cusack's own efforts to bring teams together from different areas had foundered on lack of agreement of rules.)[8][9] "Not surprisingly, this new game never caught on in the old 'commons' area, with the Glens of Antrim being the only major exception."[8]

Cusack promoted the game as part of Irish nationalism, and founded the Celtic Times to promote both.[9]

20th century[edit]

Shamrock Hurling Club team, Waterford Co. Champions, 1915-16.

The 20th century saw greater organisation in Hurling and Gaelic Football. The all-Ireland Hurling championship came into existence along with the provincial championships. Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary dominated hurling in the 20th century with each of these counties winning more than 20 All-Ireland titles each. Wexford, Waterford, Clare, Limerick, Offaly, Dublin, and Galway were also strong hurling counties during the 20th century.

  • Micheál Murphy (of the Blackrock club) is the first hurler to wear a helmet - wearing it to protect a skull injury in a 1969 Fitzgibbon Cup for UCC.[10]

21st century[edit]

As hurling entered the new millennium, it remains Ireland's second most popular sport. An extended qualifier system resulted in a longer All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship, but Cork and Kilkenny have come to dominate the championship (they have won six of the seven All-Irelands so far played) and some argue that the All-Ireland has become less competitive. Pay-for-play remains controversial and the Gaelic Players Association continues to grow in strength. The inauguration of the Christy Ring Cup and Nicky Rackard Cup gave new championships and an opportunity to play in Croke Park to the weaker county teams.


  1. ^ "A Brief History of Hurling". 2007-09-27. Archived from the original on 2011-06-21. Retrieved 2010-05-03.
  2. ^ a b Humphries, Tom (5 October 2003). "Sticks and thrones". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
  3. ^ "The history and practice of Irish hurling". Modern Brewery Age. 2002.
  4. ^ Seamus J. King, "A History of Hurling," pages 6-8.
  5. ^ Roger Hutchinson, "Camanachd! The Story of Shinty," pages 27, 28.
  6. ^ Seamus J. King, "A History of Hurling," page 8.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Canny, Liam (1981). "The Irish Game of Hurling". Folk Life. 19 (1): 95–103.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Whelan, Kevin (1993). "The Geography of Hurling". History Ireland. 1 (1): 27–31.
  9. ^ a b Dolan, Paddy; Connolly, John (March 2009). "The civilizing of hurling in Ireland". Sport in Society. 12 (2): 196–211.
  10. ^ McEvoy, Enda; Kieran Shannon; Dave Hannigan; PJ Cunningham; Malachy Clerkin; Pat Nugent (4 January 2009). "125 Most Influential People In GAA History". Sunday Tribune. Archived from the original on 9 August 2009. Retrieved 20 January 2009.

Further reading[edit]