The History 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 years in Ireland with the first literary reference dating back to 1272 BC.

The earliest surviving references to hurling are found in 7th and 8th century AD Irish laws,  which describe various sporting injuries that should be compensated. Hurling is also mentioned in the 11th/ 12th century Leabhar na hUidre, while further descriptions are to be found in 13th/14th century romantic tale Cath Mhaigh Tuireadh Chunga. This latter account  details a very bloody hurling game between the Tuatha De Danna and the Fir Bolg that was  played at Moytura, Co. Mayo. This mythical match supposedly took place in 1072 BC! (the Bronze Age)

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 hurley. 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 taught to schoolchildren.

Hurling is often referenced in Irish myths and legends, the most famous of which has to be the early account found in the Táin Bo Cuailgne, a legendary tale from early Irish literature, which describes the exploits of the Ulster hero Cú Chullainn, (literally Hound of Cullen) 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.

Such stories often portray Hurling as a form of martial training and proficiency on the Hurling field was equated with skill in battle. Throughout the countryside, Hurling thrived as a wild and often violent practice with few set rules. One 17th century account describes the game as being played on a plain about 200-300 yards long, with victory going to the first team to drive the ball through the goal of the opponent.

The game was outlawed in the 12th century after the occupation by the Normans,  Hurling continues to feature in Later Medieval Gaelic Irish and English sources, with the latter generally disapproving. It is hard to believe it now but in the 14th century that bastion of the modern game, Killkenny, attempted to ban hurling. This occurred in 1367 when the infamous Statutes of Kilkenny declared ‘do not, henceforth, use the plays which men call horlings, with great sticks and a ball upon the ground, from which great evils and maims have arisen’. Despite threats of fines and imprisonment, this law failed  miserably and the black-and-amber-clad men of Kilkenny would become one of hurling’s powerhouses.

The ban had little effect and 200 years later, in the Statute of Galway of 1537, the  playing of hurling was again banned.  These statutes, which were enacted in 1527, stated that people should  ‘At no time to use ne occupy ye hurling of ye litill balle with the hookie sticks or staves.’  Thankfully, as in Kilkenny these laws seem to have had little lasting effect.

Indeed, the game appears to have been widely played in the latter middle ages. In the far  north of the country, for example, a 15th century Galloglass’s grave slab from Co. Donegal clearly depicts a sword, hurley and sliotar. Similarly in the south of the country, hurling was so prevalent, that the Lord Chancellor William Gerrarde was forced to reprimand the English settlers of the Munster Plantation for playing the game in 1587. In the post-medieval period hurling continued to prosper, often under the patronage of  the Anglo-Irish gentry. These matches drew large crowds and many colourful accounts of  these games survive.

For example, in 1792, ‘a hurling match took place in the Phoenix Park’, Dublin in front of a vast ‘concourse of spectators’, with ‘much agility and athletic contention, until  the spectators forced into the playing ground’. Similarly in 1827, a game at Callan, Co. Kilkenny is described thus, ‘It was a good game.  The sticks were being brandished like swords. Hurling is a war-like game. The west side won the first match and the east the second. You could hear the sticks striking the ball from one end of the Green to the other’ (diaries of Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin).

Photo from


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.

By the time of the Great Famine of 1846 – 49, Hurling had declined dramatically and was in danger of dying out completely but for a number of strongholds. However, Dublin Castle itself admitted that by the late 1850s, Hurling was being played all over Munster and records of the game survive in Donegal and Down and Kilkenny and Longford.

There was much variation in the forms of the stick and ball games played in Ireland. There was the cross country scuaib in Clare and South Galway. The Camán (anglicized to commons) game was played due north of the Dublin Galway railway line and epicentred in Ulster’s communal heartlands. There was also the Iomán form of the Hurling that was regulated by the Killimor Daly rules of south Galway and the more obscure local rules drafted by James Maher of Tipperary before the famine.

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.

Michael Cusack had realised the need for common regulations and this inspired much of his thinking with regard to the formation of the GAA. In order to preserve the game of Hurling, Cusack had begun writing about its revival in 1882 in a newspaper The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News and in 1884 the GAA was founded to restore the Gaelic pastimes of old.

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.

The 19th century saw a new version of Hurling, or hurley as it was referred to, become popular within the upper classes. A defining ten year period for Hurling was before the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884. By 1879, there were at least six hurley clubs among the gentry in Dublin, and the Irish Hurley Union was founded in Trinity College. It was exclusively an upper-class preserve and bore little relation to traditional concepts of the game. During this period, the various forms of the game all metamorphosed into the first nationally codified sport of Hurling, which was in essence, the summer game of Leinster and the South. Camán, the ground Hurling winter game which according to mid-nineteenth century accounts had been more widespread and popular within Ireland than its younger Hurling sibling, was to fade away, even in Ulster where it had been played for generations.

Since the foundation of the GAA in 1884 and the introduction of a formal set of rules, the game of Hurling has evolved to the game we see today. The original core concept of man-on man (or woman-on-woman) contests for the ball within the defined framework of a positional game has been added to and eroded to varying degrees over time.

The physical conditioning of the modern player has allowed him to move quickly into space to gain possession of the ball, in many cases uncontested, while a focus on maintaining possession has resulted in the movement of the ball in a more designed manner, giving clear advantage to a team mate. This latter trend has also resulted in the reduction in frequency of use of many of the less controllable skills of both games, for example, the overhead strike in Hurling, as the use of these may often lead to a more equal contest or the loss of possession altogether. The focus on maintaining possession once you have it has antagonistically resulted in the adoption of defensive tactics designed to concentrate players in front of the scoring area or around the ball when not in possession.

While there is much debate about the value of such tactics to both games, modern coaches seek to position their players against opponents they perceive to have advantages over – whether in the contest or once in possession – maintaining the dramatic combat or duel concept of the games. All the while tactical innovation is sought from far and wide to overcome those of their opponents, and improve their team’s chances of winning.

Today the GAA is the biggest amateur sporting association in the world with over 2,500 clubs with over 800 of these clubs outside of Ireland. The game of hurling today is known as the oldest,fastest and the most skillful  field game in the world.



Further reading on the history of hurling

O’ Sullivan, A. (1998) Warriors, Legends and Heroes – the archaeology of hurling, in Archaeology Ireland, Autumn 1998

O’ Maolfabhail, A. (1973) Caman: 2000 years of hurling in Ireland. Dundalk

King, S. J. (2005) A history of hurling. Dublin