Unesco-recognised sport of hurling strikes an important note throughout Irish history

One of the legends of the game of hurling, Cork’s Christy Ring, in action at the Athletic Grounds in 1956.

The context in which hurling is played is what makes the story of the sport unique to Ireland, write Paul Rouse and Aidan O’Sullivan

Why is hurling so important to Ireland? After all, hitting a ball with a stick, in one form or another, is a universal act.

From baseball and hockey to the Basque game of jai alai and shinty and kura (the stick and ball game of the Berbers), the playing of modern stick-and-ball games span the world.

But the story of each of those games — for all that they share a common root activity — is made by the context in which they are played.

It is this context that makes the story of hurling unique to Ireland.

The interplay of myth and history, of geography and identity, of artifact and memory, has shaped the story of a game that is intimately associated with the history of Ireland for many centuries.

A way to look at this is through media.

If you search for hurling on the internet, you find it in YouTube clips and podcasts and tens of thousands of written stories detailing the modern life of the game.

The 21st century rendering of hurling sits on top of the half-century of TV coverage and the century of radio coverage. Before that, again, newspaper coverage — particularly from the last two decades of the 19th century when hurling was remade as part of the modern sports revolution — has been extensive.

That newspaper coverage actually extends back into the very beginning of the 1700s and the printing of the first newspapers in Ireland. And the reports tell stories of the game ferociously played in towns and rural areas across Ireland — and also in places where Irish emigrant communities formed: London, Paris, Boston, Toronto, and all parts in between.

But even before newspapers, the story of Ireland was recorded and inscribed in the written word in Ireland. In ancient Irish texts on handwritten manuscripts produced in Irish monasteries, dating from the 7th century to the 17th century, there is a link to a world that is immemorially old.

These manuscripts which record, through their stories and legends, the playing of a stick-and-ball game, which is understood as hurling.

More modern stars in action, such as Limerick’s Cian Lynch and Galway’s Conor Whelan this year. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

The most famous of these stories involved the ‘hurling’ of that immortal Irish hero, Cú Chulainn, the boy wonder unmatched in his, or any other, time. In the manuscripts, Cú Chulainn is celebrated for his heroism at Eamhain Mhacha in modern Co Armagh where he defeated 150 other boys in a match. He had previously shortened his journey to the match by striking a ball with his hurley in front of him and rushing to catch it before it hit the ground.

This is a story that has been told and retold across the centuries in Ireland.

Crucially, this was a story that inspired Michael Cusack and the founders of the Gaelic Athletic Association when they established an organisation in the 1880s to promote the game of hurling.

At that point, hurling was under immense threat in the wake of the Famine of the 1840s, and of the rising tide of the British Empire whose globalising culture (and in particular the rapid spread of its games of soccer, rugby, and cricket) threatened the very existence of hurling.

Hurling was pushed to the very margins of Irish life, but, repeatedly drawing of the mythology of hurling which stretched back 1,000 years, in the 1880s the founders of the GAA remade the game for a modern era.

This mingling of myth and history continues today. The story of Cú Chulainn is told in every school. And modern hurling clubs in various Irish counties are named after Cú Chulainn.

As well as stories extending back centuries, the artefacts of the game reveal its antiquity. Modern hurlers use equipment that is, of course, shaped by the present and fitted into the world in which we live. You can see from the way the hurley stick and balls and helmets are designed and presented, they are part of a recognisably modern culture.

But you can also see that this is a modern manifestation of something that extends across the centuries. As revealed in Clodagh Doyle’s exhibition Hair Hurling Balls: Earliest Artefacts of Our National Game, in the National Museum of Ireland, hurling balls have been carbon-dated to the second half of the 12th century.

At Unesco’s announcement are Culture Minister Josepha Madigan, GAA president John Horan, Camogie Association president Kathleen Woods, Limerick’s John Flynn, and Cork’s Aoife Murray Picture: Maxwells

Similarly, the modern stadiums of the GAA where hurling is played are emphatically part of a global world of organised sport. From the main stadium at Croke Park in Dublin to the necklace of local club grounds that bejewel the Irish countryside, there is a playing infrastructure that roots the game in the heart of Irish communities.

This is a playing infrastructure that extends back across the centuries. Old maps show how modern grounds have been built on spaces where people played hurling hundreds of years ago.

And before that again, the idea of ‘hurling greens’ surfaces time and again in Irish texts. These ‘hurling greens’ were essential to cultural life in the Irish medieval world.

If we take these three things — the stories which blend myth and history; the artefacts of the game; and the physical infrastructure of play — and we look at their place in Irish life across the centuries — linking past and present and stretching out into an unknowable future — it is perhaps obvious that hurling should become entwined with local and national identity.

This expression of identity through sport should not be perceived as something that is narrow or exclusive or superior — but it is real nonetheless.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at UCD and author of the book The Hurlers. Aidan O’Sullivan in Professor of archaeology at UCD

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