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A fifteen-a-side team game played with sticks and ball, with a long-established pedigree in Irish history and culture. In Gaelic, the hurling stick is known as the caman, and the ball as the sliothar. Points can be scored by driving the ball into the opposition's goal either under (three points) or over (one point) a crossbar. The Irish Annals include a description of a hurling contest in the context of territorial battles and conquest in the 13th century bc, and the sport recurred in tales of heroic endeavour over the subsequent two thousand years. Colonizing Anglo-Norman Christians did not succeed in curbing the enthusiasm for the game, even when (in the 14th century ad) regional parliaments decreed that hurling be banned on common land. The game sustained a strong cultural hold in rural villages, games sometimes being played, literally, between neighbouring rival villages with three hundred a side starting a contest on the common boundary, the winner being the side to hurl the ball ‘home’ to their own village landmark. The Anglo-Irish gentry was attracted to the game, particularly in the 18th century, keeping estate-based teams and organizing wager-linked matches and contests.

The more modern, formalized version of hurling was stimulated by the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884, included by Archbishop Croke as one of the ‘racy of the soil…Irish sports and pastimes’ that could be revived and promoted as a vital element in the nationalist movement. County-based clubs were formed, and an All-Ireland championship established. The number of players was reduced, from twenty-one in 1884 to fifteen in 1913. Hurling also contributed to the profile of Irish culture and nationalism on the east coast of the USA, where the Irish Athletic Club of Boston was founded in 1879, with the goal of promoting ‘the preservation of the national games, sports and pastimes of Ireland’ among the first-generation Irish immigrants of Boston (Paul Darby, ‘Gaelic Games and the Irish Immigrant Experience in Boston’, in Alan Bairner, ed., Sport and the Irish: Histories, Identities, Issues, 2005). Irish immigrants also promoted the game in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina.

In 2009, the 125th anniversary of the GAA, the association could claim hurling, often described too as a violent or brutal variant of hockey, as ‘Europe's oldest field game’. The game is played by men—*camogie is the women's version of the sport—and has continued mainly on an amateur basis (though with increasing controversies concerning payment for players): the sport has thus provided a robust basis for the articulation of both regional identity and national culture, and continues to be among the two or three most popular participation sports among Irish males. In February 2009, the GAA's investment in the game among US university/college students, stimulated by the formation of a Californian Collegiate Gaelic Athletic Association, led to a hurling match between Stanford and UC Berkeley Universities. Larry Beil, of ABC Channel 7 News, covering one of these Californian matches, introduced it thus: ‘It's like lacrosse, and rugby, with a little bit of soccer thrown in, and then some baseball too’. The multiple skills of throwing, running, kicking, and driving with the hurling stick continued to attract new enthusiasts, as well as reaffirm a distinctive Irish sporting culture.


Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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