A History of Hurling: Our National Game 

Talk given at hurling seminar in Muckross Schoolhouse, Killarney on April 26, 2014


This the title I have been given for this talk but it's such a broad subject that I have to limit myself to a selection of significant developments in the course of that history, developments which changed its course. And, even though most of you are interested in the cut and thrust of the modern game and the prospects of your favourite county in the 2014 championship, I believe you may be also interested in how we got to this stage.

The game is arguably the oldest field game in the world and as such is a national treasure and should be protected and preserved in the same way as World Heritage Sites of cultural and physical significance are identified and protected by UNESCO.

Michael Cusack was one of the first to recognise the decline in the game of hurling and the need to protect it in the 1880s. He may have been late coming to the realisation but once he did he made a huge effort to revive a dying game.

The earliest recorded reference to the game of hurling stretches back to the Battle of Moytura in 1272 B.C. No information exists on the kind of game played at that time or if it had any similarity to the modern game. The earliest references we have come from Medieval sources but they are not specific to hurling. They refer to field games of the stick and ball variety and probably contain within them the origins of hurling.


What do the sources tell us about the field games played?

The Táin Bó Cúailnge saga refers to the exploits of Cuchulainn on his way to Emain.  He uses a lorg áne, which means a 'driving-stick', which has many similarities to the shepherd's staff. Later it is referred to as a cammán. It appears as if any kind of timber could be used for the driving-stick or cammán.

Balls are often mentioned in the medieval sources and the materials used were wood, leather and hair. A curious practice of removing the brains of slain opponents, mixing them with lime to harden them, and forming balls for use in games is a regular feature of the saga literature.

The settings for medieval field games were usually the neighbouring greens of a fort or enclosure. Assemblies and fairs were also frequent settings for the games. Strands were also used and Ventry features in one account.

The game that Cuchulainn played is described as cluichi puill, or the hole game. The hero stands at one end of the field defending a hole into which the boys attempt to cast or strike their 'thrice-fifty' balls. Reads more like golf than hurling.

The duration or completion of a field game is never stated. In some cases it appears that the game lasted until a goal was scored. But that had its drawbacks as one 'driving contest' mentioned lasted an agonising three days and nights, as neither side was able to score a goal.

The game was predominantly played by young men and boys. When a boy was fostered between the ages of seven and fourteen years he was provided with a cammán. References to games suggest numbers as high as 100-150 playing, or maybe as many as turned up. Cuchulainn comes up against 150 opponents.

Finally, the game was well protected by the laws. Injuries received in games could not be prosecuted. However, hurlers sometimes annoyed the public. St. Fechín of Fore was disturbed at his prayers by the noise of children 'driving' on the nearby green. Frustrated, the saint approaches the boys, telling them to go and drown themselves in the lake, whereupon their souls would be free to ascend to heaven!

Some kind of  hurling game developed from the medieval  and by the eighteenth century it had taken some recognised shape. However, our knowledge of the game is not very specific. The game was adopted by the plantation owners towards the end of the seventeenth century and they gave it the leadership and protection it required. An example is the Cosby family in Co. Laois.


A Hurling Landlord

The Cosbys were an Elizabethan family that settled in Stradbally, Co. Laois in 1563.  The first of the line was notorious for his cruelty to the Irish. A descendant of his was Dudley Cosby, who died in 1729. His son, Pole, wrote thus about him in his autobiography: ‘He danced on the ropes as well as any rope dancer that ever was. He was a fine tennis and five player, a most extraordinary fine hurler and very fond of all those things, and practised them very much when he was young and able.’

Dudley Cosby and Nicholas Purcell of Loughmore would have been contemporaries, and the distance between Stradbally and Templemore is not very great. It is conceivable that they had a contest between their estate teams, with a hefty wager on the winner!

This period is known as the Golden Age of Hurling, which may come as a surprise to many, but it didn't last and its decline was rapid


Decline in Hurling

Hurling began to decline towards the end of the 18th century and gathered pace during the following century. The cause of this decline had to do with the changing relationship between the landlords and the people, which led to the former abandoning their patronage of the game.  There were a number of reasons for this development.

It was part of a European phenomenon of the abandonment of popular culture by the nobility.  One commentator describes it thus: ‘The nobles were adopting more ‘polished’ manners, a new and more self-conscious style of behaviour, modelled on the courtesy books . . . Noblemen were learning to exercise self-control, to behave with a studied nonchalance, to cultivate a sense of style and to move in a dignified manner as if engaging in a formal dance . . . Noblemen stopped eating in the great halls with their retainers and withdrew into separate dining-rooms . . .  They stopped wrestling with their peasants, as they used to do in Lombardy, and they stopped killing bulls in public as they used to do in Spain. The noblemen learned to speak and write ‘correctly’ according to formal rules and to avoid technical terms and the dialect words used by craftsmen and peasants.’

Mixing with retainers in a game of hurling was no longer possible; even riding up and down the playing field wielding a whip during the game,  keeping the yokels in check. was no longer the done thing. Placing wagers and sharing the barrel of ale after the game would be completely detrimental to the new image.

Another reason for the change was that such gatherings for games of hurling, as advertised in the newspapers, might be suspected of seditious undertones in the changing political climate of the last years of the century,  This had come about as a result of Whiteboy activity and later the United Irishmen and the Rising of 1798.  The developments in Wexford and the south-east destroyed the political relationship between landlord and tenant and they also led to the great slaughter of thousands of men of hurling age.  The Act of Union and the Napoleonic Wars altered the way of life of many landlords, turning them into absentees and bringing to an end the great days of barony hurling and landlord patronage.


Further Decline in 19th Century

The decline mentioned above continued into the 19th century.  There was the continued withdrawal by the landlords from social involvement with their tenants and the common people, covering the areas of language, manners, attitudes and pastimes.  The expanding  population began to seem a threat to the security of the landlords.

Another factor was the spread of Sunday observance.  Gradually the Catholic Church adopted the sabbatarianism of the Protestant churches and began to frown on games on Sunday as something frivolous and a waste of time as well as being occasions for drunkenness, debauchery and sin. As a result the clergy, who might have taken on the leadership role abandoned by the landlords, left the people to fend for themselves.

The Great Famine was a disaster for the national pastimes. The decline in national morale and the destruction of rural society in many areas caused a dramatic decline in traditional pastimes.  Twenty years after the event, one commentator recalled the effect of the Famine on the ordinary people: ‘Their ancient sports and pastimes everywhere disappeared and in many parts . . . have never returned.  The outdoor games, the hurling match . . . are seen no more.’

Emigration added to the plight of the game so that by the last quarter of the century hurling had almost disappeared.  This was one commentator’s description of the state of the game in 1883: ‘The most of the hurlers are now beyond the Atlantic wave and the remainder go whistling vacantly around the roads at home. Our schoolboys have permanently settled down to cricket, and our farmers’ sons no longer interest themselves in the rounding of the boss or the feel of the hockey.’


The Popularity of Cricket

In his letter accepting the invitation to become a patron of the new Gaelic Athletic Association, Archbishop Croke  expressed his fear of the spread of ‘such foreign and fantastic field sports’ as lawn tennis, polo, croquet, cricket and the like’ in Irish life. For him these imports were taking over from ‘our own grand national sports.’

In his book on cricket in Tipperary, Patrick Bracken, provides plenty of evidence that Croke’s fears were not fanciful but that cricket was the leading sport in terms of playing numbers from the late 1860s to the early 1880s. The spread of cricket was to be halted by the Land Wars, the absence of a league structure but most importantly by the foundation of the G.A.A.

The first cricket club was formed at Carrick-on-Suir in 1834 and it was followed by other clubs in Nenagh, Clonmel, Templemore and Cahir. At this stage the game was very much a minority one between British settlers, landlords and the army, but it was to become much more popular from the 1860s onwards.

Bracken shows that Tipperary had at least 29 teams in 1868 and the number was to reach 43 by the middle of the 1870s. Schools took up the game and many of the rural teams were typically tenant-farmer based. This successful development of the game was to be halted by the efforts of the Gaelic Athletic Association to restore ‘our own grand national sports’ and the introduction of the G.A.A. ‘ban’ in 1902 was to be the death knell of cricket.

The Perilous State of Hurling

Michael Cusack was the man who better recognised the perilous state of the game of hurling than anyone else at the end of the 19th century. Born into an Irish-speaking family in Carron, Co. Clare in September 1847, he grew up to be a strong athletic young man and played most of the sports of the day.  He became a teacher in Dublin and later opened his own school, the Civil Service Academy in Gardiner’s Place. He was to make an impression on the young James Joyce, appearing as ‘the football fellow in the knickerbockers’, in Stephen Hero, as ‘Michael Cusack the Gael’ in The Portrait of the Artist, caricatured with the figure ‘The Citizen’ in Ulysses and referred to as ‘Sir Micholas de Cusack’ in Finnegan’s Wake.

From his participation in Irish athletics he came to deplore the exclusiveness which debarred workmen from competing.  As a result of meeting Pat Nally, a leading nationalist and athlete, Cusack set out to reform Irish athletics.  Later, he was to turn his mind to hurling. ‘In my dreams I was living with the men of Erin of pre-christian times.  In spirit I hunted and fished with Fionn’s invincible hosts from Antrim to Kerry. I hurled with the Fianna of sixteen centuries ago from Tara to Killarney. I resolved to bring back the hurling.’

In December 1882 he founded the Dublin Hurling Club. Hurling, of a sort, had been played in Dublin for some time.  There was even and Irish Hurley Union in the city which had at least 14 clubs.  But Hurley was not Hurling. It was a refined version of the ancient Irish game that persisted in scattered area throughout the country.

Increasingly, Cusack came to the conclusion that Hurley was no substitute for the real thing. His first effort to revive true Irish Hurling by founding the Dublin Hurling Club, failed. His second attempts, with the Academy Hurling Club and the Metropolitan Club, were more successful.  The Metropolitans became a great success and Cusack, who had formed the club ‘to test the pulse of the nation’ stepped up his mission to revive the hurling.

Cusack was a late comer to hurling, even though he would have been familiar with the game from his birthplace in Carron in north Clare. However, by the time he came to teach in Blackrock College in 1874, he had become an avid fan of cricket. He wrote once that cricket helped to pass away the dark days of winter by dreaming of the wonderful six that he had hit in mid-summer, and of feeling pride at having walked to the crease, the forlorn hope of their parish, before saving the day with a memorable performance.

He wrote of the advisability of setting up cricket clubs in every parish in Ireland. For Cusack this was not simply a matter of boys getting exercise to enhance their health – it was a matter of ideology. He wrote in July 1882: 'You may be certain that the boy who can play cricket well will not, in after years, lose his head and get flurried in the face of danger.'

His second love was rugby and following the setting up of his Academy to prepare students for taking civil service and other public examinations in 1877, he founded the Academy Football Club and affiliated it to the Irish Rugby Football Union for the 1879-80 season. Cusack was club secretary, trainer and played in the forwards. In a review of the first year he referred to himself as 'a sterling lover of the game.' He continued to play rugby until 1882.

Cusack was very much the all-rounder, playing handball and rowing as well. He also took part in athletic events and was successful at weight-throwing.


Bring back the Hurling

By the beginning of the 1880s Michael Cusack had also embarked on a career in journalism, as a letter-writer, reporter, columnist, editor, owner and historian. He produced an enormous body of work, most of it of a brilliant quality.

He wrote columns in the Home Rule journal, The Shamrock. As late as the autumn of 1882 he was offering boys advice on how to clean a cricket bat using linseed oil and how to store it for winter..
By the time winter had passed, however, cricket was gone from Cusack's column to be replaced by a plea for the revival of the game her termed Ireland's 'national pastime' – the game of hurling'.

I'm not going into the reasons for Cusack's Damacine conversion except to say that it may have been influenced by the changing political and scoial climate of the Ireland of the early eighties. Specific reasons put forward include the Industrial Exhibition of Irish goods in 1882, which suggested a new economic future for Ireland. A second was the launch of the Irish-language publication, the Gaelic Journal, by the Gaelic Union, of which Cusack had become a central figure. This led then to the establishment of a hurling club by Cusack in December 1882.


The Metropolitans v Killimor

One of the few places in the country where the game of hurling had survived was Killimor in south Galway.  The earliest set of hurling rules to have been adopted was at a meeting of the Killimor club in February 1885, even though there is a good argument that they were in existence since 1869. When Killimor heard of the revival of hurling by Cusack's Metropolitan Club, they issued a challenge to play them. A cup was put up by the people of the town and the Fair Green in Ballinasloe was chosen as the venue.

An advertisement in the Western Star screamed: ‘Hurling! Hurling! Revival of the National Game’.
The match was arranged for Easter Monday, April 13, 1884. The Midland Railway issued return tickets to the Metropolitan players and their friends to Ballinasloe at single fares, which was revolutionary at the time.

Before the game started the Killimor captain, F. W. Lynch, and the Metropolitan captain, Michael Cusack, settled the rules of the match.  They agreed to play for four half-hours, no tripping or wrestling to be allowed. The winners were to be the team that scored the greater number of goals during the period. 

The match wasn’t a great success. A big crowd turned up, which constantly encroached onto the pitch. In spite of the agreed set of rules, the game was a disappointment and it came to a premature end when Killimor scored a goal. 
According to the report in the Western Star ‘Mr. Cusack lost all heart in the business, and before the second goal was played off stated that his men were not able for the task, but hinted in the blandest manner possible that his opponent’s play was too rough, which not one but himself evidently could see, even most of his own men wished to play out but to no use. . . . Mr. Cusack could not be induced to go on, evidently thinking that it would look better before the public to draw off than be beaten badly. . .. ‘ The Galway men claimed victory and this was honoured by bonfires and lights all the way from Ballinasloe to Killimor.


The Need to Control Irish Athletics

Following his experience at Ballinasloe Cusack came to realise the need to standardize the rules of play if hurling were to be revived.  During the months following the game Cusack argued the need for a new body to govern Irish athletics and wrest them from the control of the Amateur Athletic Association of England. He also saw the need for support from leaders of church and state. In   anonymous (but clearly from Cusack’s pen) articles in the United Ireland and the Irishman on October 11, 1884, entitled ‘A Word on Irish Athletics’ he argued the point that the social and political development of a nation depended on the cultivation and preservation of its games.  Irish athletics were in the hands of people of anti-Irish outlook, who excluded the ordinary person from the sport. Since the best athletes in the country were nationalists, they should take control of their own affairs.


Maurice Davin

One of the people who responded to the article was Maurice Davin of Carrick-on-Suir.  He agreed with the views expressed in the article, stated that Irish football and hurling deserved public support and was willing to help any development to revive both games under new rules.
Davin, who was a farmer, was Ireland’s most famous athlete at the time. A ‘big reachy man’, black haired with a full auburn beard, he stood over six foot tall and weighed 15 stone.  He had dominated Irish athletics during the 1870s.

Born in 1842 his first love was boxing but he soon abandoned that in favour of rowing on the river Suir and taking part in regattas. At the age of 29 years he began to devote his spare time to weight-throwing, which included shot putting, hammer-throwing and slinging the weights.

His brothers, Tom and Pat, also excelled in athletics and in the ten years between 1873 and 1882 between them they won a total of 26 Irish national titles and in each event that they contested they set new record figures with one exception.  They also represented Ireland in athletic meets with England and Maurice was a victor on a number of occasions.  His standing in Ireland as an outstanding athlete had the added prestige that came from having defeated Englishmen.

In his reply to Cusack’s ‘Word’, Davin called for proper rules for football and hurling – ‘I would not care to see either game now as the rules stand at present’ – and noted that there was still a strong residual love of traditional forms of athletics: ‘for one bystander who takes off his coat to run a footrace, forty strip to throw weights or try a jump of some kind.’


The Choice of Thurles

When Michael Cusack decided to call a meeting for the revival of Gaelic pastimes his first choice wasn’t Thurles. Early on he decided against holding it in Dublin and considered Cork as a possible venue.  Then Loughrea became his preferred choice.  He had got to know of the strong hurling tradition in south-east Galway from his early teaching days in Lough Cultra school not far from Gort.  An indication of the persistence of the game there was the existence of a set of rules, the Killimor Rules, which dated back to 1869.  On the basis of the strength of the game in the area Cusack brought his Metropolitan team to Ballinasloe for a challenge with the local side.

During this visit he got to know the sterling qualities of the Bishop of Clonfert, Dr. Patrick Duggan. Later, in August 1884, when the idea of the new organisation was forming in his mind, he realised that its success would depend on powerful patrons.

Dr. Duggan was then 71 years of age and had already offered his resignation to the Pope because of his rather poor health.  However, he was delighted to hear of the founding of the association and promised to do all he could to promote its success. But, he declined to act as patron and advised Cusack to ask Dr. Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, ‘a fine Gael, young, vigorous and energetic’ to become the first patron of the new body.  And so, Cusack came to Thurles and the rest is history.

I am not going to talk about the foundation meeting saince most of that information is reasonably well-known.


A Brash and Opinionated Man

Michael Cusack was the man mostly responsible for the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association. Without him the Association would never have come into existence. Once he ‘discovered’ hurling at the end of 1882 his mission became to re-establish the national game.
His ‘conversion’ to the game was unheralded and complete.

He was a well-known and prominent figure around Dublin through his sporting endeavours and also through the success of his Academy in Gardiner Place, which he set up in 1877.  This became an immediate success in preparing boys for the civil service.  Interestingly, in the light of later events, one of his students was Thomas St. George McCarthy.

But Cusack was more than a successful sportsman and educator. According to historian, Paul Rouse, he ’had already cultivated an idiosyncratic appearance that allowed him to stand out from the crowd. He walked through the city in heavy working boots, a blackthorn stick swinging from his arm, and with a heavy frieze coat covering his heavy-set, broad-shouldered frame.  His full black beard was beginning to streak with grey. Overall, he was remarkably proud and self-conscious of his appearance, which seems not so much to have been a mark of eccentricity but a statement of defiance.  He gloried in the idea of his distinctiveness, the idea that he was a singular man, of singular beliefs. And he used the rapidly developing world of the Dublin press to broadcast these beliefs.’

Cusack was also a noted journalist and contributed to papers on a wide range of issues.  He used the press to propagate his opinions on athletics and also to promote the revival of hurling.  Once the G.A.A. was founded he used his journalistic skills to build a momentum in favour of the new association.

The founding of the G.A.A. was the high point, the outstanding achievement of Michael Cusack’s life. Unfortunately everything was downhill after that. An opinionated and combative individual he was incapable of diplomacy and in his personal and journalistic statements preferred the bludgeon to the sword.

He fell out with Archbishop Croke and Michael Davitt and alienated virtually every section of the G.A.A. within eighteen months of its foundation.  Eventually he succeeded in having himself ejected for the organisation. Following his ejection the owner of the United Ireland, which had been a major platform for Cusack’s view, William O’Brien, dispensed with his services.

Following this setback Cusack founded the Celtic Times in January 1887. The masthead read ‘Let native industries, literature, arts and pastimes flourish.’ The paper covered every aspect of Irish life but the new Gaelic Athletic Association was its major focus.  Sports coverage was a new phenomenon and the Celtic Times carried many match reports from around the country. Cusack also used its columns to attack those he regarded as the enemies of the association and those who had caused him to be ejected. Unfortunately the paper lacked backers and folded in January 1888.

Cusack’s final sixteen years are rather sad. He earned a precarious existence from journalism and teaching, in contrast to the £1,500 a year he was reputed to be earning at the time of the foundation of the G.A.A.. His wife, Margaret Wood, died from TB in 1890 and one of his daughters, Mary aged  8 years, a month later. The rest of the children were scattered to relatives and two of his sons to an orphanage in Glasnevin. Perhaps to overcome his frustration Cusack occasionally went on heavy drinking bouts.  He was also prone to anti-semitism.  He died suddenly on the 28th of November, 1906 and is buried in Glasnevin cemetery.


The Democratisation of Sport

The main business of the new association was the revival of hurling and the invention of Gaelic football. Even more important was the democratisation of the new sport. Prior to the foundation of the G.A.A. participation in sport was elitist, a pastime for the upper and leisured classes.  In fact many sports denied participation to anyone who worked with his hands.  All this was to change and change utterly with the opening up of athletics, hurling, football, handball, rounders, etc to all comers. The humblest man in society had an equal right with the landlord to participate.

No wonder then that the G.A.A., in Cusack’s description, ‘spread like a prairie fire’. The Irish national pastimes were opened up to the massive ranks of the previously disenfranchised.  This led to the huge proliferation in the formation of clubs soon after the foundation of the G.A.A.


Big Sports Meetings

During the early years the G.A.A. was essentially an athletic body, promoting big sports meeting throughout the country. The first of these was in Clonmel in February 1885 and following that there was a succession of very successful and well-attended meetings around the country. Field events, which weren’t given the same recognition under AAA and IAAA rules, came into their own. The competitive aspect of these meetings appealed to people as local heroes came into their own and received the recognition denied them in the past. There was enormous enthusiasm, because the great majority of those participating were doing so for the first time.


The Parish Rule

One of the great strengths of the early association was the Parish Rule, under which players were confined to their parishes for playing purposes. The parish was a unit its inhabitants could identify with.  This territorial identification, as well as being a great bonding force for club teams in the early years, was to be strengthened when neighbouring parishes, and later counties, were pitted against each other.

Dr. Kevin Whelan has drawn attention to this phenomenon by quoting the painter Tony O’Malley, who contrasted the tribal-territorial element in Irish sport with English attitudes. ‘If neighbours were playing, like New Ross and Tullogher, there would be a real needle in it. When Carrickshock were playing I once heard an old man shouting, ‘Come on the men that bate the procters,’ and there was a tremor and a real fervour in his voice. It was a battle cry, with the hurleys as the swords, but with the same intensity.’ Whelan continues: ‘Similar forces of territoriality have been identified behind the success of cricket in the West Indies and rugby in the Welsh valleys.’

This territorial allegiance was reinforced by the adoption of club colours, often drawn from the old faction favours.  Clubs and counties have become so identified with their colours that one couldn’t imagine Cork without their red jerseys or Kilkenny in anything but their stripey black and amber.  The colours seem to tell one something about the team and give a shape and attitude to the players in them.  The same colours, while giving a feeling of identification to followers of the team, can also excite feelings of fear, antagonism and even hate in the minds of their opponents.

As well as some of the colours being inherited from the days of the faction fights, an occasional faction slogan has been carried over too. ‘If any man can, an Alley man can.’ ‘Squeeze ‘em up Moycarkey, and hang ‘em out to dry.’ Lingering animosities can sometimes surface in surprising ways: it is not unknown for an irate Wexford supporter to hurl abuse at Kilkenny, recalling an incident that occurred in Castlecomer to indignant United Irishmen in 1798: ‘Sure what good are they anyway? Didn’t they piss on the powder in ’98?’


First Inter-County Hurling Match

Inter-county matches didn’t take place until 1886 and one of the first was played in the Phoenix Park between North Tipperary and South Galway on February 16, It reflected the advent of authoritative rules for hurling and that the games could now be organised at a wider level. Prior to this time all hurling rules were local and prevented the game being organised outside a local area, unless there was agreement between the two teams on the rules.
(The match is regarded in some quarters as the first unofficial All-Ireland final. At any rate the cup is the oldest G.A.A. trophy and is to be found in Lár na Páirce, Thurles.)


The Rules of the Game

Before the game between North Tipperary and South Galway could take place in the Phoenix Park in February, 1886, the teams had to meet and agree a set of rules. Similarly when Cusack took his Metropolitans to Ballinasloe the previous February, the sides had to settle on the rules for the encounter and we saw that Cusack was none too pleased at the way Killimor interpreted the rules.
Massive variants of the rules of the game were in existence and the only set of rules written down were the so-called Killimor Rules of 1869.

We don't have very accurate information on the nature of the game played before the foundation of the G.A.A. We do know that when landlord played landlord during the 18th century, whoever conceded venue was given the position of referee and he rode on horseback by the side of the contest, breaking up any fights with his whip.

One of the first things the new association had to do was to agree on a set of rules for the game and Maurice Davin was given the task. This decision was taken at the second meeting at Cork on December 27, 1884 when a motion in Bracken's name was adopted requesting the president and honorary secretaries to draft the new rules.

It is generally accepted that Davin was the draftsman. He was a recognised expert on the rules of track and field athletics but his main concern was to extablish definite rules for the traditional Irish sports of weight-throwing and jumping and the field games of hurling and football.

The speed with which Davin produced the rules was a reflection on his suitability for the task. As Seamus Ó Riain says in his biography, 'Davin was well-equipped by temperament, experience and interest to undertake the task. He had supported the call for a code of rules to govern Irish athletics while still actively participating in competition and the rules of the Carrick-on-Suir Amateur Athletic, Cricket and Football Club, of which he was chairman, reflect his insistence on the maintenance of order and control in all its activities.'

In drafting his set of rules Davin came down on the side of simplicity, confining his set to just twelve. He was criticised for being short in detail but the simpler they were the greater chance they had of being accepted. They were adopted at the next meeting of the association at Thurles on January 17, 1885:

1. The ground shall, when convenient, be 200 yards long by 150 yards broad or as near that size as can be got.

2. There shall be boundary lines all around the ground at a distance of at least five yards from the fence.

3. The goal shall be two upright posts twenty feet apart with a crossbar ten feet from the ground. A goal is won when the ball is driven between the posts and under the crossbar.

4. The ball is not to be lifted off the ground with the hand when in play.

5. There shall not be less that fourteen or more than twenty-one players a side in regular matches.

6. There shall be an umpire for each side and a referee who will decide in cases where the umpires disagree. The referee keeps the time and throws up the ball at the commencement of each goal.

7. The time of play shall be one hour and twenty minutes, Sides to be changed at half-time.

8. Before commencing play hurlers shall draw up in two lines in the centre of the field opposite to each other and catch hands or hurleys across, then separate. The referee then throws the ball along the ground between the players or up high over their heads.

9. No player is to catch, trip or push from behind. Penalty, disqualification to the offender and a free puck to the opposite side.

10. No player is to bring his hurley intentionally in contact with the person of another player.

11. If the ball is driven over the sidelines it shall be thrown in towards the middle of the ground by the referee or one of the umpires, but if it rebounds on to the ground it shall be considered in play.

12. If the ball is driven over the end lines and not through the goal the player who is defending the goal shall have a free puck from the goal. No player of the opposite side to approach nearer than twenty yards until the ball is struck.The other players to stand on the goal line, but if the ball is driven over the line by a player whose goal it is, the opposite side shall have a free puck on the ground twenty yards out from the goalposts. Players whose goal it is to stand on the goal line until the ball is struck.

13. N.B Hitting both right and left is allowable.

In the course of time the new rules brought order and control into an unruly game. Their dissemination and acceptance were facilitated by a number of positive factors. They were published without delay in the national newspapers. They were also printed in booklet form and became available to clubs for a small price. Davin and Cusack attended games explaining the rules and seeing to their enforcement.

Seamus Ó Riain gives another reason: ' Club officials sought clarification of the rules in letters to Cusack ot to the newspapers, which created a lively debate as to the merits of some of the measures adopted.'

One of the big advantages of the rules was that they were not set in stone. Provision was made for changes at the annual convention in the light of the experience to be gained.


Implementation of the Rules

Some of the early games of hurling were prone to violence and pitch invasions. The decisions of referees were often contested. Teams occasionally walked off the field in disagreement with decisions. Since all games were played on Sundays, to accommodate the vast number of players who were workers and it was their only day off in the week, the claim was made that the ‘Lord’s Day’ was being desecrated for the benefit of publicans only! There was even the suggestion that games were reviving faction-fighting.

One of the most unusual of the new rules was that wrestling was permitted. Two players came into contact and immediately got into a physical tussle. Only one fall was allowed. If the players attempted a second fall on the same occasion, the referee intervened. While the players were wrestling in remainder of their teammates got on with the game.


The Hurling Counties

Twelve teams entered the first All-Ireland hurling and football championships in 1887. These teams included Clare, Waterford, Kilkenny, Cork, Galway, Wexford, Limerick, Tipperary and Dublin, most of the counties we assosiate with hurling today.

Not all the teams played in that championship. Waterford were unable to field a team. Cork didn't take part because of a dispute in their county final between St. Finnbarrs and the Nationals. Dublin looked for a postponement of their game with Tipperary because a number of their players were on holidays but the application was refused. Limerick were drawn to play Meath, but the latter didn't field and they were drawn against Kilkenny, after the latter got a walkover from Cork . However, two Limerick teams arrived for the fixture. Menbers of the Central Council couldn't sort the matter out and Kilkenny were given a walkover.

Omissions from that list are Offaly, Laois and Antrim.

What I want to concentrate on in this talk now is the strength of the game of hurling within these counties. The nine that entered the first All-Ireland, and the three others mentioned, would be referred to today as the hurling counties. However, the strength of the game in these places varies substantially as we are only too well-aware.

Before I deal with the three strong counties, I want to make some comments on the other hurling counties. In no apparent order I am going to start with Wexford.

There is a romance about Wexford hurling which commenced with the glorious years of the fifties and got a further injection with their All-Ireland win in 1996. They have made an impact on the hurling world much greater than the number of All-Irelands won


Larger than Life Wexford

The names of the players who won the first All-Ireland for Wexford in 1910 are inscribed in stone in Castlebridge cemetery.  The county hasn’t won many All-Irelands – five in all since then, 1955, 1956, 1960, 1968 and 1996 – and are way behind the big three, Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary, on the hurling roll of honour, but the impact the county has made in its hurling victories is much greater that the number of honours achieved.

The huge impact made by the county is best illustrated by the drawing power of the team. In the 1955 final against Galway, 72,854 turned up, the eighth largest attendance at a final. In the league final the same year against Tipperary, the attendance of 45,902 constitutes a record.  The record for a hurling All-Ireland, 84,856, was set in 1954, when Wexford went down to Cork, and the second biggest crowd on record, 83,096, attended the 1956 final when Wexford beat Cork.  The fourth and fifth largest crowds were in 1960, when Wexford beat Tipperary, and 1962, when Tipperary defeated Wexford.

The Wexford team of the fifties had something special to offer. Physically they were big men, but allied to their size was a high level of skill. They were noted sportsmen, renowned  for performances that sometimes approached chivalry.  Many of them revealed qualities of leadership that set them apart from the rank and file of humanity.  There was a romance, an energy and an excitement about them that made them larger than life. They appeared to step out of the pages of a heroic past of myths and legends.

Wexford hurling dominated the mid-fifties. In Leinster they challenged Kilkenny for supremacy by winning their first three-in-a-row title 1954-56. They appeared in three All-Irelands during the same years winning two in 1955 and 1956. There was a universal welcome for their victory over Galway in the 1955 final, not because of any anti-Galway feeling but rather because of a belief that after so many disappointments and near-misses, Wexford hurling deserved its day in the sun. The homecoming for the heroes lasted a week in the county.

The All-Ireland champions followed up by defeating Kilkenny in the Oireachtas final. Wexford players, nine in all,  backboned Leinster in defeating Munster in the Railway Cup final on St. Patrick’s Day 1956 before a record crowd of 46,000 spectators. Sensationally they came back from 15 points in arrears at the interval to defeat Tipperary in the league final in May. The 1956 All-Ireland final was postponed for three weeks because of an outbreak of polio, otherwise the attendance might have beaten the 1954 record. Wexford overcame Cork in a tremendous game. At one vital stage of the game Christy Ring raced to goal for a certain score but his shot was stopped by Wexford keeper, Art Foley, cleared up the field where is eventually arrived to Nicky Rackard, who finished it to the Cork net. Ring, who was going for his ninth medal, was so impressed at the tremendous save that he shook Foley’s hand, After the game Wexford were not to be outdone in their appreciation of Ring’s brilliant performance.  Ring was seized by Bobbie Rackard and Nick O’Donnell and carried shoulder high from the field, a memorable event in a day of memories.

The greatness of Wexford was recognised abroad the following June when they travelled to New York to play Cork in the Polo Grounds.  Over 30,000 turned up at the venue to see them register another victory, defeating Cork by 7-15 to 5-5.

The problem for Wexford has been that they haven't reached such heights again, with the exception of 1968 and we got  a brief glimpse under Liam Griffin in 1996. They have reverted to their pre-fifties days, when they won one All-Ireland. However, because they set the bar of achievement so high during these golden days, it has become the norm for Wexford hurling and the county is constantly failing to live up to it.


The fate of Limerick has been similar

The thirties are remembered as the period of Limerick’s greatest hurling era  During this period Limerick played in five All-Irelands, winning three. Two of these victories were over Kilkenny, as also were two defeats.

Limerick Dominate the National League

Limerick reigned supreme in the National League.  In fact the great Kilkenny-Limerick rivalry could be said to have started with the National League final of 1932-33, which the Noresiders won decisively by 3-8 to 1-3. Following this defeat Limerick were to record five consecutive victories, while Kilkenny had none.

In the last of these in 1937, Limerick ran riot against Cork, winning by 11-6 to 5-1. Cork, with Jack Lynch as captain, conceded four goals in a devastating eight-minute spell in the first half and thereafter ‘were swept aside in a tidal wave of green shirts.’

Limerick are the only county to win five National Hurling League titles in successive years. Four players participated in all five finals, Mick Kennedy (Young Ireland) captain, 1934, Timmy Ryan (Ahane) captain, 1935, 1936, Mick Mackey (Ahane) captain, 1937, 1938, Jim Roche (Croom).

Jubilee Champions

Limerick won the 1934 final which was referred to as the Jubilee All-Ireland as the G.A.A. celebrated fifty years in existence. Instead of meeting Kilkenny, their opponents were Dublin, who had beaten Kilkenny in a replayed Leinster final. Limerick had to overcome Clare, Cork, Waterford and Galway to reach the final. Limerick trained as never before for the final and came to Croke Park in the peak of condition. Dublin proved a formidable opposition and came from five points down, levelling the game with a last-minute goal. For the replay Limerick invited the Cork trainer, Jim Barry, to help them in their preparation. The sides were level at half-time and Dublin went into a three-point lead during the second half.  However, great play by John Mackey turned the tide in Limerick’s favour, and great goals by Dave Clohessy – four in all – ensured a Limerick victory by 5-2 to 2-6.

An elated Limerick captain, Timmy Ryan, received the cup from Dr. Harty, the patron of the G.A.A.
Never was a demonstration of such size seen in Limerick as the one that greeted the hurling heroes on their return to the city the following evening, when an estimated 30,000 people crowded the route from the railway station to the Imperial Hotel in Catherine Street.


A Bandage on the Good Knee

Before the 1936 championship Limerick did a tour of the United States, their exploits on the hurling field attracting great interest across the Atlantic. The team played three games, winning the magnificent Reeves Trophy ‘the most expensive and artistic ever presented for international Gaelic competition.’ In their final game they won the Limerick Club Cup.  The sports writers gave the game the usual colour treatment: ‘It is no game for a fellow with a dash of lavender in his makeup.  A good hurler must be at all times ready to stop, pick his head up from the field of battle, slap it back into position and resume the fray without once taking one eye off the player he’s assigned to watch and the other of the enemy’s goal.’

Limerick had a bye to the Munster final and they were in super form against Tipperary at Thurles on August 2, winning easily by 8-5 to 4-6. This game was Mick Mackey’s first as captain and it inspired him to a leader’s role in which he scored 5-3, some of the goals being gems of the rarest kind. Mackey had injured one of his knees on the American tour and expected to be a target for some of the Tipperary players.  To mislead his opponents, he put a bandage on the good knee before taking the field!

Limerick were superb against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final, winning by 5-6 to 1-5, and limiting their opponents to a single point in the second half. A record crowd of 51,235, even beating the record for the football final, was present for the game.


Outstanding Ahane

Five of this great Limerick team, John and Mick Mackey, Timmy Ryan, Paddy Scanlan and Jackie Power, came from Ahane, one of the greatest forces in club hurling at the time. Between 1931 and 1948 the club won fifteen county Limerick senior hurling championships, and to this must be added five football championships between 1935 and 1939.  The Mackey brothers figured in all of them, a grand total of twenty medals each.  The club participated in many tournaments also: it has been said that they built more churches than any club in history.  Commentatorss have claimed that this involvement in tournament hurling was detrimental to their inter-county record and that but for it they would have won more All-Irelands.

This was a period of triumph for Limerick but it is book-ended by long periods of failure. Prior to the thirties Limerick had three All-Irelands to their credit, the first coming in 1897, when Kilfinane defeated Tullaroan. Limerick then won two in a short period of time beteen 1918 and 1921, when captain Bob McConkey became the first winner to receive the McCarthy Cup. Then came the great period of the thirties to be followed defeat rather than sucess during the folowing decades, with the exception of 1973.

I haven't time to talk at any length of the successes of the other hurling counties. Galway won their first in 1923 and then succeeded three times in the eighties, but it has been a barren period since then.

Dublin have six All-Irelands to their credit but the last one was 1938 and their last appearance was in 1961. There has been a resurgence of the game in the city in the last number of years but not enough meaningful success to promise a bright future.

Waterford made their first final appearance in 1938, won  for the first time in 1948 and had a second victory in 1959. They had a team capable of challenging the best in the years 1957 to 1965. They returned again as a force in the late nineties and into the noughties but they haven't made the breakthrough required to recognise them as a strong hurling force.

Offaly arrived in 1980 and won four All-Irelands over two decades but the game appears to have reverted to the kind of challenge the county offered before the breakthrough

Clare in an interesting case. They came in the mid-nineties with great excitement and expectation, winning two All-Irelands, and should possibly have won three. They haven't disappeared into the sunset, won the All-Ireland last year and are one of the strongest contenders for All-Ireland honours currently.

I come finally to the three counties that have won 90 of the 126 All-Irelands played, Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary. The strength of the game in these counties is reflected in the fact that they have won All-Irelands in every decade since the first All-Ireland.


The Strong Hurling Counties

There is one exception, Kilkenny, who didn't win their first All-Ireland until 1904 but then made up for the delay by winning seven between then and 1913. One of the reasons for the long delay was cricket.

Acording to Michael O'Dwyer, who has done a study of the game in the county, cricket was by far the most popular game in the county not much more than a hundred years ago. Hurling was nowhere. Cricket had spread beyond the big houses to be played in every town and village, by labourers and peasantry alike. At its peak in 1896, there were 50 teams in Kilkenny, even though the G.A.A. was well up and running.

By contrast, in a county that would one day dominate the game, hurling was in a decrepit state. In 1887 an envoy despatched by Michael Cusack's journal noted that the game of hurling in the city drew no spectators, 'proving what little hold the G.A.A, has taken in Kilkenny'.  Worse than the lack of spectators however was the quality of play. 'The hurling of both teams was, we believe, the worst and most spiritless ever witnessed on an Irish hillside,' lamented the writer. 'It would break the heart of a Moycarkey or Galway Gael to witness such a contemptible perversion of the grand old dashing game.' Might I add that it would now break the hearts of the same people to see how good Kilkenny are today!

In contrast to Tipperary, where cricket was also strong and had been associated with the bigger towns, army garrisons and big houses, cricket in Kilkenny had put down roots in the general farming community and the nationalist appeal of Gaelic games was slower to catch on.

But hurling did catch on and once the county began to win it never got out of the habit. The result has been that since the first decade of the twentieth century, Kilkenny have won All-Irelands in every decade, with peaks of brilliance after the first great flourish, in the thirties, the seventies and the brilliant noughties.



Cork's success at the game can also be found in every decade. They had their first three-in-arow in the 1890s, a great period at the end of the twenties, the only four-in-a-row in the early forties, another three-in-a-row inthe mid-seventies and their successes have continued into the noughties.

Tipperary have also featured in every decade with Tubberadora's great achievement in the second-half of the 1890s, the three-in-a-row in the early fifties and the brillinat period during the sixties.

Success has dried up for the county in the last number of decades during which they have fallen well behind Kilkenny and Cork in the roll of honour though they have been successful twice in the noughties.


The Big Question is Why!

Why has hurling failed to spread to the other counties and who has its success been so prominent in the counties of Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary, who between them have won two-thirds of the All-Irelands played.

Traditional skills were already in existence

In Tipperary the presence of Archbishop Croke

National Movement and IRB more entwined with hurling

Importance of leadership, Big Mikey Stapleton, Tom Semple, Dan Breen

Quality of leadership, Sim Walton, Jamesy Kelleher

Number of senior clubs in county

Lack of county unity among clubs in Galway, Clare, Kerry.


Why didn't it Spread to other counties?

A highly skilled game needing endless practice

Traditional shills were honed on the crossroads where coaches figure today

Opulent farming class with leisure


Experience of dominance in other countries

Perhaps it's like the English Premiership that there are only a few meaningful contenders for top honours annually and that, as in the case of hurling,  Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary are regular contenders with an occasional new contender making an occasional appearance.

Italy Serie A football - Juventus 29, Inter Milan 18, AC Milan 18
Scotland football - Celtic and Rangers 99 titles combined
Spain football - Barcelona 22, Real Madrid 32, next 9.

US sports are quite democratic as they have a salary cap in each of the 3 major sports - baseball, football, basketball. 

Australia is the same.

Other sports like rugby league, rugby union, cricket, sailing, hockey tend to be dominated by a small number of teams but that's a function of those sports not really being played on a global basis