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The History of Hurling

Below is a short, concise and very readable History of Hurling..
Hurling is older than the recorded history of Ireland. It predates Christianity and some believe it has Greek origins dating back more than 3,000 years. It came to Ireland with the migrating Celts. Hurling is related to the game of shinty that is played in Scotland, and is also similar to cammag on the Isle of Man and bandy that was played formerly in England and Wales.

From early Irish mythology the first recorded reference to hurling dates to the Battle of Moytura, near Cong in County Mayo (in the West of Ireland) in 1272 BC between the native Fir Bolg and the invading Tuatha De Danann. When both sides were preparing for battle they decided to have a hurling contest on the eve of battle, between twenty-seven of the best players from each side. Both sides fought a bloody match and in the end when they were bruised and broken the match finished with the Fir Bolg victorious who then slew the Tuatha De Danann.

The tale of the Táin Bó Cúailgne tells of the hero Cú Chulainn playing hurling at Emain Macha as the boy Setanta, where he went to join the Red Branch Knights, his journey commemorated in the All Ireland Poc Fada Championships today. HURLING STICKSSimilar tales are told about Fionn Mac Cumhail and his legendary warrior band, the Fianna. The earliest written references to the sport in Brehon Law date from the fifth century and recorded references to hurling appear in many places down through the centuries.

Hurling was played in the early Modern era (17th & 18th centuries) by teams representing neighbouring villages. Villages would play games involving hundreds of players, which would last several hours at a time or possibly even days. Sometimes games were arranged to settle disputes although more often than not were just for entertainment.

The Eighteenth Century is frequently referred to as "The Golden Age of Hurling." This was when members of the Anglo-Irish landed gentry kept teams of players on their estates and challenged each other to matches for the amusement of their tenants. One of the oldest records of Hurling from this era is a poem in Irish (as Gaelige) circa 1750 from the Cooley Peninsula when Irish was widely spoke on the Peninsula, from a townland named Bavan in Omeath "The Hurling match of Bavan Meadow" (Omeath lost its last remaining native Irish speakers in the 1960’s).  

Iomáin Léana an Bhábhúin
"The Hurling Match of Bavan Meadow", by Niall Óg Mac Murchaidh.

Bhí sé feara deag de scafairí Ómeith
Is iad ag iomáin ar léana an Bhábhúin,
Ó mhullaigh an mheáin lae go cromadh dubh do ghréin,
'S char chuir siad ar aon taobh an báire.
Gach branán barrúil éachtach a' baineadh leis an liathroid,
Ag imeacht mar bheadh gaoth rua Mhárta ann;
'S níl aon ríon faoin ghréin a cífeadh orthu radharc
Nach dtuitfeadh in aon sméideadh i ngrá leo.

Bhí ógfhear gasta stuama d'aicme d'fhíor-fhuil Ruairc ann,
Ba scáfnta mo ghruagach ar léana;
Bhí mac an tí seo thuas ann, is dá rachaidís chun tuatacht,
Ar dheis no ar chlé go mbuailfeadh sé an liathróid.
Nuair a thógtaí an balla uathu leanaidís fear a fhuadaigh,
'S níorbh fhollain 'thiocfadh uathu don réim sin;
Ba aolbhinn's ba suáilceach bheith ar chnoc na Tulcha an uairsin
Ag amharc ar mo chuid buachaill á dtréanáil.

Bhí ógfhear de chlanna Néill ann - 'chóir a bheith i dtús an scéil seo
Ba ch'iste bhuailfeadh an liathróid i mbéal báire;
Is Ó Casalaigh na dhiaidh ní ba dual ó fhréamh.
Is an balla leis 'sna beanna a bhfágáil.
Bhí sár-mhac Chuarta ar léim ann a bhuailfeadh poc in am feidhme
Is a rachadh amach cúl éaga le rása;
Siud Ó hIr ina aghaidh mar Oscar in am ghéibhinn,
Is bhuailfeadh ‘steach sa léana gan spás é. 

(Continued on next page).


Iomáin Léana an Bhábhúin (Contd.)

Bhí dís de mhuintir Mhéarlaigh ann comh cliste leis na héanlaith,
Is an balla leo 'sna néalta in airde;
Ó Dufaigh beag leis féin ann go scafánta i mbéal éaga,
Is ní bhfuighe a dhá leithéid go Bail' Shláine.
Bhí cúpla d'fheara éachtach de shliocht Eochaidh ar a'léana
Do bharánta maith daingean chun spairne,
Beirt eile teacht 'na naghaidh go ró-chliste leis a'liathróid,
De mhaithe agus de thogha mhuintir'Ágain.

Ach tuirseach libh na scéala heagmhadh chugainn go déanach,
Gur theastaigh Paitsí an tsléibhe óna pháirtí?
'S nach ar dhruid sé sé láá déag tar éis iomáána an léana,
Nuair a goineadh ag an éag uainn ár spairní.
An macaomh geanúil tréitheach, a raibh carthanacht is méin ann,
Fearúlacht, féile agus áille;
Bhí grá na bhfear go léir air, bhí aoibh an laig 's an tréin leis,
Is ba scathán ban is maighdean ar clár é.

Bhí an chúis go maith go léir nó go gcluinfidh sibh na scéala,
Mar sheasaigh Paitsí an tsléibhe ins an Bábhún;
Theilg sé de a léine, is d'fhiafraigh sé go neamh-chladhartha -
"Cá háit ar ghaibh an liathróid nó an báire?"
Duirt mise nach arbh'fheidir dúinn castáil lena chéile,
Mar heagmhadh 'n lá ag fearthainn's ag baistí;
Ar seisean "Scor dod théama 's dá ainneoin a bhfuil in Éirinn
Ní bhfuigfidh mise an léana gan sásamh".
(Collection of the Songs of Dundalk and its Hinterland) - Seamas Mac Seain, 1981.

(A popular English version of the poem makes reference to “Football” instead of Hurling even though the poem title hasn’t been lost in the translation!)

One of the first modern attempts to standardize the game with a formal, written set of rules came with the foundation of the Irish Hurling Union at Trinity College Dublin in 1879. Its aim was… "To draw up a code of rules for all clubs in the union and to foster that manly and noble game of hurling in this, its native country”

The Real Revival...

An article appeared in the United Ireland of 11th October 1884 under a heading “A word about Irish Athletics”. It was unsigned but later revealed to be from the pen of Michael Cusack. Its message was simple: the national pastimes of the people were an essential element to a successful nation. Part of it went as follows…

“Voluntary neglect of such pastimes is a sure sign national decay and approaching dissolution. The strength and energy of a race are largely dependant on the national pastimes for a development of a spirit of courage and endurance … The corrupting influences which have been for several years devastating the sporting grounds of our cities and towns are fast spreading to our rural population.”

Michael Cusack believed that foreign laws were hostile to the Irish people and caused them to abandon their native pastimes. And when an attempt was made to revive those pastimes it did not originate with those who were sympathetic towards Ireland and the Irish people.

In the following week’s issue of the United Ireland Maurice Davin (a respected Irish athlete) replied to Michael Cusack’s article when he called for the publication of a rule book on Irish games. He concluded by saying that he would willingly lend a hand to any movement involving the revival and encouragement of Irish games. On the 25th October Michael Cusack replied to Maurice Davin’s piece in the United Ireland and this time he signed his name to the article. The two men, inspired by each others enthusiasm, acted immediately and on the 27th October a circular was sent out calling for a meeting at 2pm on 1st November in the Commercial Hotel (Hayes Hotel), Thurles “to take steps for the formation of a Gaelic Association for the preservation and cultivation of the national pastimes and for providing amusements for the Irish people during their leisure hours”.

On the 1st of November 1884 the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) was founded and turned around a trend of terminal decline by organizing the game around a common set of written rules.

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.

As hurling entered the new millennium, it has remained as one of Ireland's most popular sports and the inauguration of the Christy Ring Cup and Nicky Rackard Cup gave a new dimension to the hurling championships for counties not as strong as those in the top tier and the opportunity to play in the hallowed grounds of Croke Park.

Although hurling is second to Gaelic football in terms of numbers playing the sport, it remains truly at favourite in the hearts of Irish people and a symbol of their heritage.

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