Europe's oldest field game

Hurling is one of the fastest and most skilful field games in the world. It is an ancient Gaelic sport, played long before the arrival of Christianity, and recognised by experts as being Europe’s oldest field game. The earliest written record of the game is contained in the Brehon Laws of the fifth century.
The stick, or ‘hurley’ (called camán in Irish) is curved outwards at the end, to provide the striking surface. The ball or ‘sliothar’ is similar in size to a hockey ball but has raised ridges. Hurling is played on a pitch approximately 137 metres long and 82 metres wide. The goalposts are the same shape as on a rugby pitch, with the crossbar lower than a rugby one and slightly higher than a soccer one.
Rules of the Game
The player may strike the ball on the ground, or in the air. Unlike hockey, you may pick up the ball with your hurley and carry it for not more than four steps in the hand. After those steps you may bounce the ball on the hurley and back to the hand, but you are forbidden to catch the ball more than twice. To get around this, one of the skills is running with the ball balanced on the hurley. To score, you put the ball over the crossbar with the hurley or under the crossbar and into the net by the hurley for a goal, the latter being the equivalent of three points.
Each team consists of fifteen players, lining out as follows: one goalkeeper, three full backs, three half backs, two midfielders, three half forwards and three full forwards. Teams are allowed a maximum of three substitutes in a game. Players may switch positions on the field of play as much as they wish but this is usually on the instructions of team officials.
Officials for a game comprise of a referee, two linesmen (to indicate when the ball leaves the field of play at the side and to mark ‘65’ yard frees when the ball is deflected wide) and four umpires (to signal scores, assist the referee in controlling the games, and to assist linesmen in positioning ‘65’ yard frees.
A goal is signalled by raising a green flag, placed to the left of the goal. A point is signalled by raising a white flag, placed to the right of goal. A ‘65’ is signalled by the umpire raising his outside arm. A square ball, when a player scores having arrived in the ‘square’ prior to receiving the ball, is signalled by pointing at the small parallelogram.
Famous Players
Hurling has always been a sport rich with famous players though the decades. Arguably the most famous player ever has been Christy Ring of Cork. His 24-year career earned him a reputation as the greatest hurler of all time. Ring already had three All Ireland medals when classic solo run goals in the 1944 Munster final and 1946 All Ireland final established him as one of the greatest players in the game. His display in the 1951 Munster final when he switched to midfield is rated by many as the best ever.
Ciaran Barr from the Rossa club in Belfast was acknowledged as being one of the best hurlers that Ulster has ever produced. He was the first hurler from Ulster to win an All Star award, and led his club and his county (Antrim) to All Ireland finals in the same year – 1989. In recent years, Geoffrey McGonagle from Derry has been one of the most outstanding hurlers in the whole of Ireland, and has inspired his county to a number of Ulster titles since 2000.
Famous Teams
Cork and Kilkenny have dominated the All Ireland Senior and Minor Championships since their beginning, and have inevitably produced some magnificent teams who have dominated for long periods of time. A strong case for the most successful team ever could be made for the Cork team of the early 1940s who won four All Ireland titles in a row, the only team ever to have achieved this feat. They impressively defeated their opponents in each of the finals by at least ten points.
Hurling in Ulster
Hurling in the province of Ulster is concentrated in four main areas: the glens of Antrim, the Ards peninsula, West Belfast, and South Derry. The Ulster Senior Hurling Championship for county teams is contested in May and June of each year, and the winner has came from Derry, Down or Antrim since its inception fourteen years ago. No Ulster team has ever won an All Ireland Senior title; although Antrim has came close on two occasions – in 1943 and 1989 when they were defeated in the final on both occasions by Cork and Tipperary respectively.
The future for Ulster hurling?
Ulster has traditionally been the weakest of the four provinces in Ireland, with an All Ireland title at any level of county hurling (senior, minor, under-21) always proving elusive down the years. The club competitions have proved fruitful on occasion though, with Loughgiel winning the All Ireland senior club title in 1983, and other teams such as Rossa and Dunloy reaching the final. The short term forecast is unfortunately pessimistic as far as All Ireland county success is concerned, although the regrading of the tournament in 2005 should ensure some degree of success for Ulster’s best sides, such as Antrim, Derry and Down.
© Cathal Coyle 2005