History of Hurling

This is the only one-volume history of Ireland’s most distinctive sport. The book traces the mythological origins of hurling in the Irish annals, summarises its variable progress in medieval and early modern times, and focuses on the golden age of the pre-codifies game in the eighteenth century.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the last hundred years or so since the foundation of the G.A.A. in 1884. Starting with the emergence of the famous Cork-Tipperary rivalry, it notes the arrival of the game’s third ‘big power’, Kilkenny, in the early years of the twentieth century.

The dominance of these three counties was unshaken for generations, despite the great teams produced by Limerick in the 1930s and ‘40s and by Wexford in the 1950s. But the period since 1980 has seen the emergence of Galway, Offaly and – in 1995 – Clare as major forces in the modern game.

The book also deals with tributary issues such as the geography of hurling, the rules of the game and hurling styles. It covers minor, junior and schools hurling and has a substantial statistical section.

Generously illustrated with sixty-four pages of photographs – some of them very rare – this is the essential modern survey of Ireland’s ancient game.

Hardcover: 355 pages
ISBN: 0-7171 2190 2
Published: 1996
Publisher: Gill & Macmillan
Availability: Available in most good bookstores


‘Seamus King in 355 pages has encapsulated so well and in such a readable fashion, his own feeling for the game he loves so well and the great eras, the great teams, the great personalities, come leaping out at us from the pages in a refreshing and inviting manner.’

‘The treasure of this book is in the material not extant in living memory. Calamities like the Famine and the American Invasion marked the ebb and flow of the game’s development. King has gathered in the testimony from a huge variety of sources.

‘The excellence of the research throughout is matched by the digging which has produced some memorable photographs. . . .’

‘The History of Hurling stands as a fitting tribute to Ireland’s national game.’

‘It is a tremendous effort, showing minute attention to detail and research, and the combined application produces a most authoritative read on the game of hurling.’

‘This is a book that advertises diligent research and love of subject on every page.’

‘A History of Hurling is an important work and valuable addition to hurling literature. You will read it for pleasure and information. You will keep is as a book of reference. It is to be recommended.’



Review of "A History of Hurling" by Rev Seamus Ryan, P.P. Ballyfermot (former Limerick and Cappamore Hurler) Tipperary G.A.A. Yearbook 1997 (pp 126-128)

Full text:
Fast on the heels of two books by Tipperary hurlers Babs Keating and Nicky English comes another book from a Tipperary man. 'A History of Hurling', by Seam us King.

As the title indicates, this is a much more ambitious undertaking, requiring years of patient research. The author brings good credentials to the task: a native of Lorrha, a lifetime involvement with the GAA in Tipperary, author of a number of books on the GAA, including Tipperary's Hurling Story, 1935-84.

The book falls into three broad sections: 

(1) The early chapters trace the story of hurling from mythological lore down to the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884. A further chapter deals with the evolution of the rules of the game over the centuries down to the present day.

(2) The main part of the book is devoted to telling the story of the revival of hurling following 1884, and the development of the game since then.

Very often the narrative centres around the team which dominated a particular era or decade, usually Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny. Limerick and Wexford had their hours of glory in the thirties and fifties. Further chapters tell the story of county teams who have made the breakthrough to winning an All Ireland in more recent times: Offaly and Galway and of course, Clare. The book was gone to press before Wexford's win in 1996.

(3) the final section is a kind of mixed bag. A chapter is devoted to the other hurling competitions besides the senior All Ireland. A chapter on the "geography" of hurling asks why hurling is limited to such a small area of the country. Two further chapters deal with hurling styles and the future of the game.

A number of Appendices cover the results of all major competitions over more than a century, providing the list of winning teams in most cases. I can see many people trawling through this statistical section over the years to settle a dispute, or just to find out how many All Irelands a particular county player had won.

I liked best the opening section on the history of hurling prior to the 20th century, and the gradual evolution of the rules of the game. If I have any criticism of this well-researched book, it would be a desire for more information on the early history of hurling. In recent times there has been no dearth of information on the history of hurling and hurlers of the present century; one thinks of the work done by people like Raymund Smith and Brendan Fullam. But only Brother O'Caithnia has delved into the early origins of hurling, and his monumental work has not been available outside the Irish language (Sceal na hlomana). Certainly what Seamus King offers us in these early chapters whetted my appetite for more.

The old mythological tales of the Fianna and Cú Chulainn indicate that hurling in some form goes back thousands of years. It is fascinating to think that some form of hurling was already practiced here long before the Celts arrived on the shores of Ireland. The famous Statute of Kilkenny in 1366 banning "the games which men call hurlings" was passed in order to wean the Norman settlers away from the customary pastimes of the Irish Gael, in this case from a game from which (according to the Statute) "great evils and injuries have arisen." They are exhorted to apply themselves to archery and the throwing of spears and other such gentle games!

The author quotes from many sources to show that hurling was alive and flourishing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The landlords played an important role organising and supporting teams of their tenants to play against a team of a rival landlord. The games were well attended and there was heavy wagering, which often led to tensions and violence, As the political relationship between landlord and tenant soured in the 19th century, the landlord patronage of hurling ceased, leading to a decline in the game.

Even though the basic ingredients of hurling were always the same, a caman, a sliotar, and the desire to get the ball into the opposite goal, yet hurling as we know it today is a very different game from what is was in the 18th century or early 19th century. The number of players was often far bigger than today (sometimes as many as fifty) and the ball was much bigger and heavier. In the early days no points were recognised. Even when points were introduced, a goal had no equivalent in points. In early times the goal was much narrower, no wider than the narrow goal used in ice-hockey today, but without any bar. The ball could not be struck through the goal, but had to be carried through it. Goalkeepers Were unnecessary, and points were unknown. The first team to score a goal usually won the game. There was no such thing as a referee; the captains were responsible for controlling the play and the conduct of the players.

There was a time in the evolution of the game when handling the ball was strictly forbidden. There was a great deal o' ground hurling, yet the weight and size of the ball would have made it a much slower game than the game we have known in this century.

There was a great deal more physical contact. jostling and wrestling an opponent were not excluded. The early rules, in so far as they existed, permitted the assailant to wrestle the opponent in possession, and this may have been common up to 1886.

No wonder that the author remarks on the many similarities to be found between this form of hurling and the rules of modern rugby! There may have been an even greater likeness to American Football, since there is evidence in some of the contemporary accounts of a kind of scrum or phalanx formed by the heavier men on the team, with the ball then being passed back quarter-back style, and then delivered out to the swifter lighter athletes on the wing. The playing field was much wider and longer in those days.

I mentioned ice-hockey. Unlike field hockey, it is a game dstinguished by a great deal of body-charging and hip-to-hip contact. There is a belief among some (not mentioned by the author) that ice-hockey as played in Canada and the United States today may well have its remote origins in the kind of hurling once played on the plains of Ireland. I mentioned that the early games did not allow the handling of the ball. During the 19th century many Irish people migrated to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. They may have brought their game of hurling with them. In the' absence of suitable terrain, they played their game on the ice, and this was one of the major influences on the eventual evolution of ice-hockey as it is played today.

The second section of the book begins with the story of the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association, and the key roles played by Michael Cusack of Clare (resident in Dublin), Maurice Davin of Carrick-on-Suir, and Archbishop Croke of Thurles.

He goes on the tell the story of early All-Irelands, which were all club or parish based, and only grew into full county selections over a few decades.

In the early years only a few teams contested'the All Irelands, e.g. three in 1892 and 1893, and four in 1894. The final in 1895 between Tipp (Tubberadora) and Kilkenny (Tullaroan) was the first All Ireland to be played at Jones' Road, later to become Croke Park. Tubberadora is a small area in the parish of Boherlahan; one hundred years later (1996) Boherlahan won the Co. Tipp. Hurling Championship. No doubt the parish will be very eager to emulate the great achievements of those Tubberadora men of 100 years ago and the three great All Irelands they won for Tipperary.

Seamus King's book goes on to range over a century of hurling, concentrating on the senior hurling championship and the counties and outstanding players who graced this major competition. For any keen follower of the GAA over the years it makes compelling reading. The author is at his best when dealing with Tipperary's triumphs; it is easy to see that he has an inside track and speaks with great affection and esteem of the great teams and heroes of his native county.

But he is generous too in his appraisal of the great teams and great hurlers of other counties. Of Christy Ring he says that he is accepted as the greatest hurler ever, and that his likes will not be seen again. Not all Limerick people would agree! With some justification they might propose Mick Mackey as the more complete hurler and sportsman with a dash and elan uniquely his own. Of course Christy Ring had the advantage of a much longer playing career spanning twenty four years from 1939 to 1963. But he wasn't approaching his 51st birthday in the Munster final of 1961 as the book states in one of its rare misprints (page 144). If true,it might help to explain Tipp's easy victory in Limerick on a day which saw the biggest attendance ever at a hurling match outside Croke Park (62,000).

Of course Christy Ring's name and fame would have been further enhanced by the voice of Micheal O'Hehir who began broadcasting in the very year that Christy Ring embarked on his long inter-county career with Cork.

Micheal is mentioned a few times in passing in the book, but his recent death and the tributes paid to him remind us of the pride of place this great man should occupy in any history of the GAA and particularly of hurling which was his first love. The popularity of hurling today must owe so much to Micheal and the excitement he generated in the heart of many a youngster listening to the Radio and Tele­vision over half a century.

Seamus King finished his book with interesting chapters on the "geography of hurling" and hurling styles, and a final chapter on the "future of hurling" in an age that has seen the creeping profession-alism of all sport. All three chapters make compelling reading. The book is generously illustrated with 64 pages of photographs ranging over a century of the game, further enhancing a book that is attractively produced. I trust there will be a paper-back edition in due course to help make the book more widely known.

Further editions might note that the victorious Limerick captain of the Munster final of 1980 is Sean Foley and not Joe McKenna as stated in the caption to the photograph. A Kerry neighbour in BalIyfermot, tells me that Ned Barrett of BalIyduff (who appears in the early series of photographs) did accomplish the unique feat of winning an All Ireland hurling medal and an Olympic gold medal. He was an all round sportsman, competing in the Olympics in many events; wrestling, shot-put, discus and javelin. But it was not in these that he won the gold medal, but with the United Kingdom tug-of-war team!

The author is to be complimented for the extraordinary amount of research he has put into this book. It is a fascinating account of the story of hurling. Despite the inevitable detail of many names and scores, the writing is never dull. For me it evoked many memories especially of the fifties when I had the honour of playing against the great teams of that era, Wexford and the Rackard brothers (Billly has now added a book to the burgeoning library of hurling memories), a great Cork team won 3 All-lrelands in a row, and one of there greatest of Tipperary teams in the making.

Elsewhere in the book the author discusses the different styles of close-in free taking of the experts on those teams: Nicky Rackard, Christy Ring and Paddy Kenny. It was pretty scary facing any of them when they lined up and you sensed they were going for a goal. But Paddy Kenny was the most lethal. In those days the backs lined the goal-line; Paddy threw the ball so far ahead of him that he seemed just a few yards beyond the square when striking. It was a time for praying that it would not come my way!

I enjoyed this book immensely. It will make a great Christmas read for any lover of the caman, and especially those of a vintage that saw many of the games so vividly recalled in this book.

I regret to end in a more negative vein. The book was launched in Croke Park last November. There was a great gathering of hurlers and lovers of hurling from all over the country. I have often been to Croke Park but never to the inner sanctum before, and I looked forward to the occasion. After the launch of the book and the speeches, I and those who came with me were,looking forward to a traditional warming cup of tea and a sandwich before heading out again into the grey November night. It may have been the land of the camán, but it certainly was not the land of the cupán! Not a bite to eat, not even a biscuit.

Seamus King, you have written well of hurling, and you deserved better of the H.Q. If I might finish with a 'quote from your own book:

"Hurling is the oldest recorded fieldgame. It is a link with our heroic past, part of our cultural heritage and part of what we are. It is a strong and virile game, a game worth going a long way to see, and one that is well worth preserving. It is as much a part of our heritage as our language and our music .... "

Part of that proud heritage is a great tradition of warmth, and welcome and hospitality. They were sorely missing in a place where we had every right to be expect them on that November evening.

Seamus, you spoke well on the night, and we were proud of you. Your own Tipperary people will be proud that one of their own has written the history of hurling, a game to which your native county has made its own distinctive contribution. I hope that many will have the same enjoyment in reading the book as I had.