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A History of Hurling

Hurling (Irish: Iománaíocht/Iomáint)

One of Ireland’s native Gaelic games

A field team game of ancient Gaelic origin, administered today by the Gaelic Athletic Association GAA and is one of the most popular sports played on the island of Ireland. The game of Hurling has prehistoric origins and has been played in Ireland for at least 3,000 years

The Oldest and Fastest Field Game in the World

In historical texts the earliest reference to hurling appears to have been made about 1272 BC at the battle of Moytura, near Cong in County Mayo. The Firbolgs were rulers of Ireland and were protecting their place in a battle against the Tuatha de Danaan. While preparing for battle, the Firbolgs challenged the invaders to a hurling contest in which teams of 27-a-side took part. The Firbolgs won the contest but lost the battle. Even the legal system of the time, the Brehon Laws, took account of the existence and popularity of hurling. The Laws provided for compensation for injuries arising out of participation in the game of hurling. It was also a punishable crime under the Brehon Laws to deliberately strike another with a burley. There are many references to the game of hurling in the centuries before the birth of Christ. There is evidence that hurling was an essential part of life for young men preparing to be warriors. This gives rise to some of the legends of early Irish history which are still being caught to schoolchildren. The most famous warrior of all was Cuchulainn who, as the boy Setanta, engaged in great deeds of hurling. The legend is based around the period of the birth of Christ and is contained in early writings, including what is known as the Book of Leinster.

Tales of his exploits are taught to this day. When he was only eight years old, Setanta left his home in Cooley to join his uncle King Conor MacNessa at his palace in Enihain Macha, where boys were taught the skills of hurling and of war. On the long journey he amused himself by hurling his bronze ball long distances and then throwing his hurley after it so that it struck the ball in mid-air. On arrival in Emhain Macha he took part in a game of hurling in which he single-han dedly defeated 150 boys. He earned the name Cüchulainn when he killed the savage hound owned by the blacksmith Cülann by hurling his ball into the hound’s throat. So popular was the game that it spread to England and Scotland. In Ireland, while the natives continued to play, the invaders too became fascinated by the game. The authorities became concerned about it, considering it a threat to security. The Statute of Kilkenny of 1336 banned the playing of the game. The ban had little effect and 200 years later, in the Statute of Galway of 1537, the playing of hurling was again banned.

In later centuries the rulers and landowners adopted a more accommodating approach. The landowners actually organised games between teams comprising their tenants. Local rivalries grew and large sums of money were wagered on the outcome. Two forms of the game were noted; a summer game, from which today’s game evolved, and a winter game which resembled hockey this style seems to have lost popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Hurling was commonly played in Dublin, the rest of Leinster and Munster. There is some evidence of the game in the north of the country while there also are references to games between parishes in Galway including areas in the north of the county which would now be regarded traditionally as football strongholds. A number of newspaper reports in the middle of the eighteenth century mentioned games between the provinces of Leinster and Munster, as well, as games between counties. At the end of that century, however, a change was taking place which would have a major effect on hurling.


In the 1790s

A growing sense of nationalism among the Irish people and the formation of the United Irishmen led to an increase in political tension. The landowners, generally English and Protestant began to fear large gatherings and withdrew support from the game. The Rising of 1798 deepened divisions and the Act of Union, which made Ireland part of the United Kingdom, also changed the way of life. Barony hurling, which was organised by landlords and comprised teams made up of their tenants, came to an end in the early part of the nineteenth century. The Great Famine 1846/49 had an even more devastating effect on the people of Ireland and the ancient game. For within 10 years half of the population of Ireland had either starved or had left the island. In the 1880s Hurling would see a new revival in the name of Michael Cusack.

Michael Cusack was born in 1847 in Carron, County Clare. He was born during one of the worst years of the famine, which is commonly known as ‘Black ’47. Michael would have grown up playing hurling, but he also played other sports through his teaching career including, handball, shot putt, rugby and cricket. When Michael Cusack moved to Dublin, in 1877, to open his academy preparing Irish students for the Civil Service examinations, sport throughout Ireland was the preserve of the middle and ascended classes. Within Cusack’s academy sport was central with students who were encouraged to participate in rugby, cricket, rowing and weight-throwing.

In the early 1880’s Cusack then turned his attentions to Irish indigenous sports. In 1882 he attended the first meeting of the Dublin Hurling Club, formed ‘for the purpose of taking steps to re-establish the national game of hurling’. The weekly games of hurling, in the Phoenix Park, became so popular that, in 1883, Cusack had sufficient numbers to found ‘Cusack’s Academy Hurling Club’ which, in turn, led to the establishment of the Metropolitan Hurling Club. On Easter Monday 1884 the Metropolitans played Killiomor, in Galway. The game had to be stopped on numerous occasions as the two teams were playing to different rules. It was this clash of styles that convinced Cusack that not only did the rules of the games need to be standardised but that a body must be established to govern Irish sports. Cusack was also a journalist and he used the nationalist press of the day to further his cause for the creation of a body to organise and govern athletics in Ireland.

On October 11 1884 an article, written by Cusack, called ‘A word about Irish Athletics’ appeared in the United Ireland and The Irishman. These articles were supported a week later by a letter from Maurice Davin, one of three Tipperary brothers, who had dominated athletics for over a decade and who gave his full support to the October 11 articles. A week later Cusack submitted a signed letter to both papers announcing that a meeting would take place in Hayes’s Commercial Hotel, Thurles on November 1 1884. On this historic date Cusack convened the first meeting of the ‘Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of national Pastimes’. Maurice Davin was elected President, Cusack, Wyse-Power and McKay were elected Secretaries and it was agreed that Archbishop Croke, Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt would be asked to become Patrons.

Today the GAA is the biggest amateur sporting association in the world with over 2,500 clubs with over 300 of these clubs outside of Ireland.
The game of hurling today is known as the oldest,fastest and the most skilful field game in the world.