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Hurling Through The Ages

The ancient sport of hurling is steeped in legend, dating back to the arrival of the nomadic Celts in 600BC. Played by mythical heroes, noblemen and warriors it has survived it's often threatened existence and thrives today where it is enjoyed universally. By Joe Murphy and Gary Murphy

TO LOVE IRISH SPORT, IS TO LOVE IRELAND. The Irish are extremely passionate about their sport, and the national games of hurling and Gaelic football are often a matter of life and death to the many players and supporters dedicated to the game. It is a little known fact that amidst all the various forms of what we now know as hockey and in as many countries across the globe--the Gaelic game of hurling is the fastest land sport in the world, it's pace exceeded only by ice hockey. Hurling is also one of the oldest games in the world and Ireland's national sporting pastime. With many similarities to hockey hurling is played on grass with a small ball known as a sliothav and a wooden stick, the caman or hurley. However, hurling is a sport that is unparalleled in terms of the sheer speed and skill required to play the game. The top yearly honor in hurling is to covet the All Ireland and National League Hurling titles. The former honor, culminating a long series of intensive elimination matches, involves only teams from Ireland itself. The final takes place at the Irish Mecca for Gaelic games, Dublin's Croke Park and it is an event that attracts thousands of people to the capital. The National League is international, with teams participating from all parts of the world, including North America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Asia, mainland Europe and the UK, areas where regional and club units are now well established. Tracing the success of the game is a less arduous task than establishing the origins of the game. The net of the Irish Diaspora is cast far and wide, and where the Irish have ventured or have been compelled to emigrate, they have brought with them their traditions and culture, and the ancient art of hurling has been no exception.

The origins of Gaelic games predate recorded history, the first written record of the game appears as late as the 5th century where the games are mentioned in Ireland's ancient Brehon Laws. The tradition of hurling however, has been immortalized for centuries in Celtic mythology. Every Irish child is acquainted with the legend of Cuchulainn, with which the game of hurling is synonymous. The legend tells the tale of Setanta, the nephew of King Conchobair Mac Neasa of Ulster, who bayed to death with a hurl the ferocious hound guarding a feast thrown by Culainn. Amazed by the skill of Setanta, Culainn was also saddened by the death of his hound. Setanta vowed to guard Culainn's home until such an animal could once again be found, and thus became known as Cuchulainn,'the hound of Culainn'.

Throughout history, hurling has endured a series of battles for its very survival. History reveals very little about the origin of the game, one theory suggests that it was played by the nomadic Celts who landed in Ireland around 600 BC. In ancient times, the game was played between neighboring villages, often in the form of a violent battle involving hundreds of hurlers. Alternative accounts suggest that hurling was a form of a local tournament designed to test a man's valor and skill. Still testing skills today, the game can sometimes get violent and has now been fully regulated and standardized.

The first attempt at regulating the game presents itself in the Brehon laws, however an attempt to suppress the game arose under the guise of the 1366 Statutes of Kilkenny. The Kilkenny Statutes were passed to prevent the Angle-Normans from assimilating Irish sports and customs and in addition to banning hurling also forbade cross-cultural marriages with the native Irish. However, both natives and invader alike were unable to resist the allure of the game, and hurling continued to thrive precisely because of its popularity with the Normans. The general hostility towards hurling stemmed from an inherent suspicion that hurling groomed the Irish for battle. The Galway Statutes of 1527 almost succeeded where the Kilkenny precedent had not, extolling the outright prohibition of the game which regularly assumed a violent, battlefield countenance. Hurling was temporarily revived and enjoyed something of a Golden Age during the 18th century, supported as it was by the landed and Baron classes. However, as the century drew to a close, the revival started to dwindle; the gentry withdrew their support as the Irish land crisis took hold, but the single most devastating factor affecting the sport was the Great Famine that struck Ireland during the 19th century. In addition to the millions who died, many were forced to emigrate. The mass emigration that the famine wrought also accounts for the games popularity in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the millions of Irish sought refuge when hard times befell them.

Despite the tragic implications of the famine, hurling enjoyed a Ilew lease of life. As Ireland attempted to rise from the ashes of poverty and despair, there were a series of successful efforts to revive Irish culture and identity and hurling was part of this driving force. Foreign visitors to Ireland in the 17th and Isth centuries noted that hurling and football occupied an important place in the social life of Irish communities and whilst the famine had a devastating impact on Ireland's social structure, the revival of hurling and football helped to heal many of the wounds the famine had inflicted on Irish society. In 1884, Michael Cusack met with a group of nationalists in Loughrea, County Galway to establish a national organization for Irish athletes and to revive hurling. The result was the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Initially a grassroots organization, the GAA focused on the development of Irish national games and has grown to become one of the most powerful organizations in Ireland. The GAA is more than a sporting organization. Although it remains dedicated to promoting the games of hurling and football, the Association also supports activities which enrich the culture of the nation and furthers Gaelic ideals. Rule 4 of the official guide of the GAA states: "The Association shall actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, song and other aspects of Irish culture." The GAA endeavors to strengthen pride in the communities it serves and has played a significant part in the revival of Irish sports, culture and heritage.

The foundation of the GAA marked a new era for hurlng as the game flourished under the new attempts at regulation. The British government later made several attempts to prevent the game being played, most notably during the years of bitter conflict that led to the formation of the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland. In 1918 the British banned hurling, suspecting that some of the toughest Irish independence fighters came from the ranks of hurlers. But neither famine nor force could undermine the spirit of the Gaelic games. One of the roughest sports in the world, the injury graph among players is high. Thus far, both sports, hurling and Gaelic football have not gone professional, yet it somehow seems wrong to classify either game as amateur. Players from Ireland's top local and county teams train as hard as any other sports professionals, often travelling long distances to do so. The rewards are not financial, hurling is played for honor and excitement. Hurling itself stems from the Gaelic word ioman, meaning 'driving' or 'urging' of which there is abundance in the sport, and so the game contains within itself its own momentum and raison d'etre.

The hub for hurling in this country is New York's Gaelic Park, located at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. Throngs of Irish-Americans-men, women and children--converge on the park on Sundays, the traditional day for important Gaelic sports. Hurling and Gaelic football games organized by the American division of the Gaelic Athletic Association, take place, as in Ireland, during the spring, summer and fall months. All across America, from New York to Seattle, from Boston to San Diego and Miami, Gaelic games continue to thrive. Hurling is no longer exclusive to the isle of Ireland, no longer a specialty of the Irish native. Hurling remains one of the most exciting sports in the world--once chronicled as a distinct Irish pastime, it is now enjoying a global revival, yet another Golden Age.

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