Irish Hurling | Is it Crazier than Quidditch?

In Irish mythology, hurling was the sport of the Tuatha de Denann. It is still played in Ireland today, and is reputed to be the fastest and oldest field sport in the world. It is certainly the only sport I can think of which is more dangerous, and crazier, than Quidditch! Hardly surprising then, that the Irish won the Quidditch World Championship…

Sadly, Quidditch isn’t a real sport, but hurling is. Here’s what happened when film of the game was shown to American spectators…

Hilarious, right? I can certainly understand their reactions. It’s fast, it’s furious, and emotions run very high indeed.

Although the game had been played for many hundreds of years, perhaps even longer if the tales of mythology are to be believed, the rules of the game were only formalised in the latter part of the C19th by the Gaelic Athletic Association.

It was amalgamated from two variations of the sport played in different areas of Ireland.

In the north, the game was played similarly to Scottish shinty, with a narrow stick and a hard ball, with the action mainly taking place on the ground… no, we ARE talking hurling here, not Quidditch, I promise you!

The second variation was known as Leinster hurling. The stick was broader, and the ball was softer. Players could pick up the ball, catch it, and strike it with their stick. Thus, more of the action took place off the ground.

Here are the rules, according to the GAA;

“Hurling is played on a pitch that can be up to 145m long and 90m long. The goalposts are similar to those used on a rugby pitch, with the crossbar lower than in rugby and slightly higher than a soccer one.

“You may strike the ball on the ground, or in the air. Unlike hockey, you may pick up the ball with your hurley and carry it for not more than four steps in the hand. After those steps you may bounce the ball on the hurley and back to the hand, but you are forbidden to catch the ball more than twice. To get around this, one of the skills is running with the ball balanced on the hurley. To score, you put the ball over the crossbar with the hurley or under the crossbar and into the net by the hurley for a goal, the latter being the equivalent of three points.”

Here are the top 5 hurling goals of last year.

Each team is made up of 15 players. The stick, or hurley, is also called camán in Irish. It is curved outwards at the end, to provide the striking surface. The ball, or sliotar, is similar in size to a hockey ball but has raised ridges. I have played hockey in my youth, and believe me, that’s where the similarity ends. I’ve never played hurling, because I don’t have a death wish.

In Irish mythology, the Tuatha de Denann were said to have played hurling with their enemies, the Fir Bolg, before the Battle of Moytura commenced, according to an ancient text known as the Cath Maighe Tuireadh. The only surviving copy of this text dates to the C13th.

According to Lady Gregory in her book, ‘Of Gods and Fighting Men, this is what happened;

“It was on a Midsummer day they began the battle.
Three times nine hurlers of the Tuatha de Danaan went
out against three times nine hurlers of the Firbolgs, and
they were beaten, and every one of them was killed.”

So the Fir Bolg won the game, but unfortunately for them, went on to lose the battle. In some versions, they actually played with the heads of their enemies, instead of a ball.

There are other legends referencing hurling, too.

Midir, son of the Dagda of the Tuatha de Denann was said to have lost an eye in a hurling match, which Dian Cecht replaced for him. The story goes that he was watching a group of youths play hurling at Bru na Boinne (Newgrange) with Oengus mac Óg, when a fight broke out amongst the youngsters. Midir went to sort it out, but was  accidentally hit on the head by a hurley thrown in the heat of the moment.

Diarmuit mac Cerbaill, who became High King at Tara in AD560, ordered the young Prince Curnan of Connacht executed for accidentally killing a man during the playing of a hurling match.

But it is Ireland’s most well loved hero, Cuchullain, who is responsible  for bringing the ancient game of hurling into the spotlight. When he was only seven years old, the age at which fostering was most common, he went to live with his uncle, King Conor mac Nessa, at Emain Macha (Navan Fort). Along the way, he entertained himself by hurling his bronze sliotar great distances, and then throwing his hurly after it, so that it met the ball in mid air.

When he arrived, he joined in a hurling match, in which he single-handedly defeated 150 other boys. He is most famous, however, for killing one of Cullen’s fierce guard dogs by smashing his hurling ball into its face… what a way to go! Cullen was understandably distraught at the demise of his favourite hound, so Cuchullain offered to serve in it’s place, which is how he obtained his name; Cuchullain means ‘hound of Cullen’.

23 thoughts on “Irish Hurling | Is it Crazier than Quidditch?

  1. i would definitely like to see this game – I think I’d love it. It has some similarities to lacrosse, which is my favorite sport, and some to field hockey. When is the hurling season?

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  2. Awesome post, Ali! I agree, it’s a super violent sport. Probably worse than quidditch, I reckon. 🙂 That youtube video was a great touch also. I think I’ll stick with park walking and chasing Allegro. 🙂

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  3. I really didn’t know hurling had that ancient history Ali. Certainly the formation of the GAA (and also the football & rugby bodies) brought some sort of order and regulation to what had previously been Sunday afternoon faction wars. My Dad was a keen hurler in his younger days down in Cork 🙂

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    1. Was he? Wow! Did you ever go to watch him play? My dad’s sport was scuba-diving, he never took me. I have heard that eventually, instead of communities cattle-raiding each other, whole villages turned out to play hurling instead. How far back it goes, though, who can say? While i love to think of the Denann and the Fir Bolgs competing before battle, as always with the mythology, its hard to know if there is some fact in it, or purely fantasy.

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  4. I love the reactions to hurling from people who’ve never seen it before. It must look unworldly to them. Of course, we could demythologise it by showing them children learning how to play it, when the sliotar travels approximately four feet and at strolling miles an hour and bruised shins are the badge of honour for any young player, but then how would we impress everyone?!

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  5. When the rugby camped at Croke Park after Lansdowne Road was abandoned (so sad – fantastic venue) I remember the ho-ha about an English game at the home of the most Irish of Sports but what a venue. Better than the Aviva, I’d suggest (not that I’ve been, just the feedback). Lovely informative post and good to know of its bloody thirsty roots.

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    1. Cheers Geoffle! My hubbie is big into rugby. Supporys Leinster even though we now live in Ulstet. He coaches youths, and both my sons play. Both boys grew up playing the Irish sports, GAA football, handball and hurling, but now my youngest just plays a bit of GAA football. I think that will go when he has to make his choices next year.

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      1. Hubbie has taste. I played from 10 to 39 and still miss the cut and thrust. Now I spend as much time watching as possible. And I’d have supported Leinster if only because of BO’D.

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          1. My career ended with successive Achilles injuries; too fast for my ankles to keep up. I have very fond memories of watching films back from South Africa in 1974 when Willie John led the Lions to a 3-0 win and Fergus Slattery with his tangle of hair was my hero. I didn’t understand much about Aparthied but had I I would have been torn wanting to watch and knowing I shouldn’t. I took my dad to SA in 1997 to watch the Lions (for his 70th) and we had an evening with the players mingling amongst us. Happy times.

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  6. “and they were beaten, and every one of them was killed.” Hmm… Charming times.

    In fact, I’m reminded of Ōllamaliztli – the Aztec version of racquetball, which also served as proxy for warfare, and saw the losing team (or their captain) decapitated. As with your version, it is said that the heads of slain enemies were used as balls on occasion.

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    1. Savage lot, weren’t they? But maybe better than all out battle. Although in denann v for bolg, the Denann clearly refused to accept the result, so they all went to war anyway. Which turned out not quite so well for the FB!

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