Recounting The Once Deadly Sport of Hurley


Written by George Fosty – SONAHR President

August 4, 2013 (ISN) – The earliest recorded reference of the game of hurley being played by the ancient tribes of Ireland and Britain dates from 1800 BC to 1300 BC. First recorded in the ancient Irish Annals, this once savage and violent sport would be played for centuries.

The Irish Annals are a body of work mixing Irish history with legend and mythology. The annals record in 1272 BC, that the strongest and most skilled warriors of theTuatha de Danann defeated their rivals, the Firbolgs, in a hurley match to the death at The First Battle of Moytura. There were twenty-seven men on each side and when the game was over, the casualties were afforded a funeral of honor and were buried together under a huge stack of rocks known as a cairn, an ancient equivalent of our modern day monuments and burial headstones.

At the Second Battle of Moytura, the Tuatha de Danann leader, Nuada, would be killed by the Formorians, another of the original inhabitants of Ireland. Celtic Sun God Lugh, one of the Danann warriors, would emerge as a hero having killed the Formorian warrior, Balor, by shooting a stone into the giant’s eye. Later becoming Danann leader and the last legendry Irish high king, Lugh would be honored in the ancient games of Lughnasadh (the Irish equivalent to the Olympic Games), an event still celebrated to this day.

Later, the Brehon Laws would declare the game of hurley as a form of Irish military service. The laws asserted, if a man was killed or injured by a hurley, either his surviving family or himself are eligible for life-long financial assistance. This could be considered the earliest example of a military disability or widow’s pension. Also stipulated in the laws, all sons of kings and chieftains were to be supplied with hurley sticks during the traditional period of fosterage with another noble family.

In 200 BC The Irish Annals recorded the childhood exploits of King Lowry Loingseach. Lowry, said to be mute, only uttered his first words after being hit with a stick during a hurley match. It is not known what he said but it is believed to be unrepeatable.

Around 100 BC, Cuchulain, an Ulster warrior, leader of The Red Branch Warriors and son of the Celtic Sun God Lugh and a human mother Dechtire, gained youthful fame on account of his hurling abilities. In one legendary incident, he single-handedly defeated one hundred and fifty warriors in a hurling match on the Field at Armagh.

Angered by their defeat, the men attacked Cuchulain, but he fought back killing fifty men with his bare hands before the others fled the field. Considered the greatest warrior of ancient Ulster, Cuchulain was known for his uncontrollable temper and physical deformities, such as having seven fingers on each hand and seven toes on each foot. He was said to go insane with uncontrollable rage and, during times of insanity, was reported as having seven pupils in each eye. On one occasion, he had reportedly carried the ball on the blade of his hurley stick a distance of nine miles in a repetitious motion of throwing the ball into the air and catching it on his blade before it could drop to the ground.

Cuchulain was the nephew of King Conchobar. At the age of seventeen, Cuchulain singularly defeated the forces of Maeve, warrior Queen of Connacht, when she tried and failed, in an attempt to capture Ulster. Tales of all kinds are told about him. At the age of twenty-seven Cuchulain, finally met his match when he was killed in an ambush. His attackers are said to have severed his head using the great warrior’s own hurley stick.

Hurley continued to be popular in Ireland but, according to the Irish texts, The Dun Cow 1100 AD, and The Book of Leinster 1160 AD, it was not until the 3rd century AD that the Irish had their next great hurley warrior. Fionn MacCumhail, popularly known as Finn MacCool, was the mythical leader of the fighting band Fianna Eireann. MacCool is said to be a descendant of the god Nuada, former king of the Tuatha De Danaan. MacCumhail’s most notable hurley accomplishment occurred when he defeated fifty men by scoring the decisive goal in a match at Tara. His reward for his deed was a kiss from King Cormac MacArt’s daughter – the woman he was to subsequently marry.

Even in the religious records of ancient Ireland one finds mention of hurley. Such is the example and story of the visit of Saint Colmcille to Tara. In the 5th Century Tara was reputed to have been a powerful and sacred place of gods and an entrance to the other world. During his time there, a Connacht prince used a hurley to kill a young boy. Although Saint Colmcille attempted to intervene, the prince was summarily executed on the spot, for such was the anger of those who had witnessed this savage act.

In 851 AD the Danes sacked Canterbury Cathedral on one of their many raids into England. In 950 AD the church was rebuilt. Among the new stained glass windows were six images depicting the timeline of man. Included in this grouping, was the image of a boy holding a curved hurley stick and ball. It is known as the Puerilitia, or Childhood, and is reflective proof of the impact of the sport among the European peasant classes.

By 1100 AD, the game had become a common sight throughout the British Isles. In Ireland it was still called hurley. In Wales, it was known as Bandy but in Scotland, having become the favorite pastime of the High King Alexander I, called “the Fierce”,the game was known as Shindy or Shinty (now know as Shinny). A name derived from the cry, “Shin t’ ye” (shin to you) that was shouted when players collided or hit one another with their sticks.

Shinty has similar origins and connections to hurley. In Scots Gaelic the game is known as Camanachd, whereas the Irish version was called Camanacht (the winter version of hurley). The similarities continue with the prominence of national heroes in the game. Where the Irish proclaim and exult such mighty warriors and players of the game as Cuchulain, the Scots have sagas that boast the heroic deeds and Shinty prowess of their own hero, Conal Gulban. However, unlike in Ireland, the Highland chieftains never resorted to using Shinty as a replacement, or a precursor, to warfare. Shinty was patronized purely for the love of the game.

The English social historian William Fitzstephen, in his 1175 AD work Description of the Most Noble City of London gave the first written mention of the sport being played in winter when he proclaimed:

Let us come to the Sports and Exercise . . . for the scholars of every school have their ball and bastion in their hands . . . When the great fenne or moore . . . is frozen, many young men play upon the yce, . . . some tye bones to their feete, and under their heels and shoving themselves by little picked staffe, doe slide as swiftly as a birde flieth in the air or an arrow out of a cross-bow. Sometimes two runne together with poles, and hitting one the other eyther one or both doe fall not without hurt. Some break their armes, some their legs, but youth desirous of glorie, in this sort excerciseth itselfe against the time of war.

The sport had become so popular in England by 1365 AD, that King Edward III, fearing its impact on military discipline, banned its play. He cited the excuse that it took time away from the practice of archery.

Earlier in 1348 AD, England had been ravaged by the Black Death resulting in the death of half the population. In terms of economics and politics the ramifications would be tremendous. Though the peasantry of England had been subject to a ‘tributary’ or’head tax’ made payable to the English Nobility, the 1215 AD Magna Carta has ensured that the exploitation of the peasantry was, in relation to other regions, limited. The Black Death changed this.

With fewer peasants to pay tribute, greater pressure fell on those remaining to produce and pay out more. Taxes were increased and enforcement efforts strengthened. With the judicial system devastated by the large loss of legal experts, regional interpretation of laws became the norm. Few cases moved through the judiciary and those which did often took years to adjudicate. Peasant rights were not of priority.

In 1381 AD tensions came to a head with the outbreak of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. Tyler, a roofer and farmer in County Kent, had been out in his field working on the day a local tax commissioner arrived at his home to collect the annual head tax. A dispute erupted between Tyler’s wife and the man over the age of Tyler’s daughter. The tax collector claimed the girl was fifteen and was thus eligible for taxation. The mother claimed otherwise. In an effort to prove the girl’s age the man forced the young girl to disrobe in order to examine the girl’s breasts and genitalia. He then proceeded to rape the young child. Hearing the screams of his wife and daughter, Tyler ran in from the field and killed the attacker by smashing in the man’s skull with a hammer. As word of Tyler’s actions spread, local farmers rallied to Tyler’s side.

Determined to resist any attempt at taxation, or prosecution by authorities, the peasantry organized themselves into a makeshift fighting force. Tyler and two priests from neighboring Essex county, John Ball and Jack Straw, were elected military leaders and a mob of disgruntled poor farmers and villagers assembling in force at Black-Heath, Kent, set out west towards the inland city of London.

The events that would transpire would go down in history as the “hurling time” a reference to the fact that among the assortment of weapons carried by the peasants were hurley sticks. It would be the first time in history that hockey sticks would be used as a weapon of warfare.

By the time Tyler and his followers had reached London they numbered over 100,000. Along the way the group seized Canterbury Cathedral, killed the Archbishop of Canterbury, burned dozens of homes of noblemen and destroyed the Savoy Palace. In addition, they raided the notorious prisons of Fleet and Newgate freeing all the prisoners.

Not satisfied with these successes they attacked and captured the Tower of London and sent a demand for an immediate audience with the 14-year old boy-king Richard II. Following a quickly arranged meeting with the King, in which Richard II agreed in principle to all of the demands presented, including the immediate abolishment of serfdom, Tyler and his followers retreated back to the Tower of London where they set about preparing additional demands for presentation. The next day, the two groups met at Smithfield, where Tyler, Ball, and Straw presented the King with new conditions. During the meeting, and on the orders of King Richard II, the Mayor of London attacked Tyler stabbing him in the throat and stomach. Tyler died a short time later. Ball and Straw were also killed. In the case of Jack Straw, his head was cut off and placed on the end of a horsemen’s lancet and was subsequently paraded through London before being hung by a rope from London Bridge. In the weeks that would follow, King Richard II would order the execution of 1500 peasant leaders. All reforms promised would also be revoked.

In 1385 AD the Cathedral of Gloucester was completed. Among the images placed in the cathedral’s stain glass windows was a depiction of a man swinging a hurley stick at a ball. Again the symbolism is unique given the date of its creation and the fact that two of the three main leaders of the Wat Tyler Rebellion were priests. Taken into context with the events of 1381 AD, the stain glass image serves not only as a subtle reminder and tribute to the “hurling time” but also as a form of social and political commentary.

Three years later, as the repression of the peasant classes continued in England, Richard II ordered the burning of all hurley sticks throughout the country. Those caught in possession of such items faced severe punishment and extension fines. Those found guilty of allowing the game to be played on their lands faced fines of twenty pounds and three years imprisonment. The move, believed by some to be an effort to limit the sport’s popularity, was instead an effort to eliminate as many potential weapons in the hands of the peasantry as possible and avoid another peasant revolt. It was only after the invention of firearms that this punitive law would be revoked.

In 1399 AD, at the age of 32, and following his marriage three years earlier to the 7 year old Isabella of Valois the daughter of Charles VI of France, Richard II was murdered becoming the first victim of the War of the Roses.

The Wat Tyler Rebellion is not the only reference to hurley being played in England during the fourteenth century. The English writer Thomas Rymer, in his 1740 AD work Foedera Conventiones, Litterae Et Cujuscunque Generis Acta Publica Inter Reges Angliae Et Alios Quosuis Imperatores, Reges, Pontifices, Principes Vel Communitates Ab Ingressu Gulielmi I In Angliam A.D 1066. Ad Nostra Usque Tempora. Volume 4, records a game played by the peasantry in 1363 AD utilizing a “crooked stick or curved club or playing mallet with which a small wooden ball is propelled forward.”

Today, at the Copenhagen Museum one can find a large silver flagon used for holding wine or other liquors. The flagon is believed to be of French origin and has been dated to the late 14th Century. The image on the flagon is quite revealing. It shows a headless man swinging a hurley stick. It is highly probable that this ceremonial flagon was part of the silverware at the wedding of King Richard II and Isabella of Valois as it appears to symbolize the death of Jack Straw. In his work Richard II, William Shakespeare sums up the life of the boy-king with the words: “Heaven hath a hand in these events.” When it comes to the game of Hurley and its amazing history, more appropriate words have never been spoken.

George Fosty is the author of the books: Splendid Is The Sun: The 5,000 Year History of Hockey, Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes 1895-1925, and Footie’s Black Book: A Guide To International Association Football. (World Cup Soccer 2010 Edition).