Hair balls combed from hurling’s ancient history

They say getting over a loss in sport requires perspective.
Hair balls combed from hurling’s ancient history

Although Cork’s minor hurlers are preparing for their first All-Ireland final since 2001, their senior counterparts’ recent defeat

to Waterford remains a fresh disappointment. 800 years is quite a chunk of perspective. Anyone wishing to acquire it need only visit a fascinating new exhibition in Cork City, one that contains a hurling ball eight centuries old.

Doubt the antiquity of this artefact? Clodagh Doyle, curator of this exhibition, can put us straight.

“We have always known that hurling was an ancient Irish game,” she notes. “Radio carbon dating revealed that the earliest ball was 800 years old. They are the evidence of our hurling heritage.”

Named ‘Hair Hurling Balls: Earliest Artefacts of Our National Game’, the exhibition opens today in Cork Public Museum, which is situated in Fitzgerald’s Park. The exhibition will be officially opened this evening at 6pm by Lord Mayor of Cork, Tony Fitzgerald.

Daniel Breen, acting curator at Cork Public Museum, emphasises the appropriateness of this initiative: “Cork has such a long and deep-rooted history with hurling and this exhibition will serve to highlight this strong connection with one of our best loved national games. We have timed the opening to coincide with the run up to the All-Ireland final and the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh.”

‘Hair Hurling Balls’ is based on five years of research carried out by Clodagh Doyle, assistant keeper at the National Museum of Ireland Country Life, which is based in Castlebar, Co Mayo. Her exhibition, first mounted in Castlebar in 2013, showcases the predecessor of the modern leather-covered sliotar. Following its initial appearance, the exhibition has travelled to Croke Park’s GAA Museum, Galway City Museum, and Tipperary County Museum.

Now comes Cork’s turn. The 14 balls on show are made of matted cow hair with a plaited horsehair covering. All were found through hand-cutting turf in bogs over the past 100 years or so. The first one was discovered in Kerry in 1910, with the most recent find coming in Mayo in 2010.

“We haven’t found examples all over Ireland,” Doyle clarifies.

“Unless there was bog nearby, the balls simply didn’t survive. But the fact that we found one in East Sligo and one in North Mayo implies that hurling was played all over the country and not just in Munster, where the rest of the balls turned up.

“The most fascinating aspect of the research was when the dates started coming back. The balls are all 400 to 800 years old… Way before the GAA was founded.

“We haven’t yet had one from Co Cork. So we’re hoping that bringing our exhibition to Cork City might jog the memory of someone who has a hair ball behind a dresser.”

Likewise on view is an ancient hurl found in Derries Bog in Co Offaly. “That stick is 500 years old and made of alder,” Doyle adds. “Interestingly, it looks very like the hurls we have on show from the 1880s and the 1890s. But it was not made from ash. I guess people made hurls with whatever wood was to hand.”

This exhibition is not just about the past. Doyle contacted many contemporary hurlers and camogie players for artefacts.

Among these items is a sliotar signed by the All Ireland-winning Wexford camogie panel of this decade. Appropriately, given Galway’s presence in the upcoming senior final, there is a hurley made and signed by the Canning brothers of Portumna.

“We are sure that a real treat for all Cork hurling fans has been provided,” Breen stresses.

“It will run for a whole year, till August 2018. Admission is free and nobody interested in the game should miss out on it. We have supplemented the exhibition with artefacts and images specifically to do with Cork’s hurling history.”

Cork Public Museum is open Tuesday to Friday, 10am-4pm, on Saturday, 11am-4pm, and on Sunday (May to September) 2pm-4pm.

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