Ancient Hurling Legend
GAA FACT; Hurling is one of the oldest games in the world.
Ancient Irish tales testify to its long history, tales such as the ‘Tain Bo Cuilnge’ date back to pre Christian times. By the mid nineteenth century, when some of the internationally developed games like soccer and rugby consisted of bands of men running wildly around a field following a ball, hurling was already a highly organized game for more than one hundred years. But even by then, the fastest field game in the world had had a long history stretching back to pre history times.
Tain Bo Cuilnge
The story of the Red Branch Knights is one of Ireland’s oldest and greatest sagas, and its principle hero Cuchulainn. One of the earliest tales of Cuchulainn, from the early centuries long before it was written down, is that of his first hurling match. It was on the field of Eamhain Mhaca, where his uncle, King Conor Mac Nessa had his residence, not far from the modern Armagh city.
The young Setanta (Cuchulainn original name) was only five years old at the time arrived at his uncles to find a group of youths playing hurling on the green. In a translation of The Book of Leinster, Professor Cecile O’Rahilly’s account states,
‘ He went to the place of assembly where the youths were. There were thrice fifty youths led by Follomain mac Conchobuir at their games on the green of Emain. The little boy went onto the playing field into their midst and caught the ball between his legs when they cast it…………. Not one of the youths managed to get a grasp or astroke or a blow or a shot at it. And he carried the ball away from them over the goal.’
In another story the great hero received his name when returning to the home of Culain following a hurling game he killed his hosts massive wolfhound guard dog with his hurley and vowed in return to guard his hosts house until a new guard dog could be trained, thus becoming known as Cuchulainn or the hound of Culain.
Earliest Hurling References and Development
Legends apart, there are many references to hurling in the long history of Ireland. The Book of Leinster, written in 1152, gives an account of a hurling match between the peoples known as the Fir Bolg and the Tuathna De Danann which can be dated back to 1272 BC.
In the fourteenth century the Normans became so alarmed by the assimilation of their colonists with Irish ways that, among their statues, the playing of hurling was banned on pain of fines and imprisonment. This Statue of Kilkenny passed in 1367 didn’t stop the Kilkenny men!!!! A similar ban was issued in the Galway Statue of 1537, with the same result, thank God!
By the seventeenth century hurling had become a prominent sport, patronized by landlords and aristocracy. This period became known as the Golden Age of Hurling and lasted until the early years of the nineteenth century. Teams were organized from the tenants of landowners and large wagers were placed on the results. Teams lined out in a pre-determined, highly organized manner and subject to strict rules. A goal was scored by carrying a ball across a line between a willow sally stuck in the ground forming a loop.
The game thrived during this period but with the rise of the United Irishmen at the end of the eighteenth century, distrust developed between the landowners and the common people and as a result the relationship that had helped hurling develop faded away. The Great Famine in the 1840’s added to the decline of the game and it looked like by the 1860’s the game would fade away completely. Despite this the revival in Irish identity and culture in the 1880’s led to a change in fortunes and the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association. The rest, as they say, is history and you can see our GAA History Timeline for the story from this period on.