Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Give it a Hurl: The Sport of Hurling

By THL Colyne Stewart (May AS XXXVII)


Hurling is an ancient Irish-Gaelic game whose history is lost to myth. Some legends relate how the Celtic peoples who settled Ireland brought the game with them from Egypt. (The argument for this theory is in the article by Lady Elisabetta Maldestro, see sources.) Others assert that the game was played by the fey (faerie) folk of Ireland at least as far back as 1272 BCE. Legends tell of the Battle of Moytura, where the Tuatha de Danaan played the Fir Bolg. The Fir Bolg won, slaying the Tuatha in the process. (Indeed, fights and battles often broke out during or after hurling matches.

The great Irish hero Cuchulainn was a renowned hurler. As a boy, then called Setanta, he was a prodigy on the field, scoring many goals and allowing none. At the age of five he traveled to his uncle’s, King Conor Mac Neasa of Ulster, to join the Boy’s Corp. To pass the time he would through his ball and stick ahead of him, running and catching them before they hit the ground. Once at his uncle’s court he astounded all with his prowess and skill at the game.

During one game his uncle invited him to dine with him at the home of Culainn. Setanta agreed to come, but not until the game was done.

King Conor went on without him and as night drew near, forgot about him. When Culainn asked if all the guests had arrived, Conor said they had. Culainn then released his great hound to guard his house.

When Setanta arrived at Culainn’s he was attacked by the dog. Quickly, he shot his ball down the dog’s throat. As it choked he grabbed it by the legs and cracked its head open on the ground.

Culainn and his guests ran outside to find Setanta standing over the corpse of the dog. Culainn was grieved to have lost his dog, and to make amends Setanta said he would guard the house until a new dog could be found. He then received the name of Cuchulainn—Hound of Culainn.

(Cuchulainn is sometimes said to be the son of the Irish god, Lugh. This is interesting as Lugh is also associated with games. Amongst other things, he is credited with creating the game Fitchneal.)


The first written account of hurling is in the Brehon Laws of either the 5th, 7th or 8th Centuries (sources differ). The Laws set out hurling as a manner of warfare by which to settle disputes. These games could have hundreds of players and were often violent. The Laws actually set out the compensation owed to the family of a man killed at hurling.

Eventually the game became a bit more civil (a bit) and became a sport instead of ‘warfare’. Proper matches were known as fianchluiche, while casual games were ruidilse cluche.

Many, many times events and circumstances have attempted to kill hurling, but it has proven to be a very tenacious sport.

In 1366 the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed to prevent the Anglo-Normans from picking up Irish habits and culture. That meant no hurling (or ‘hokie’ as it was there called). The Irish instead turned to Gaelic Football.

Hurling was revived in the 18th Century where it was popular up to the time of the Great Famine.

Standing on the brink of oblivion, hurling was finally rescued for good in 1884 with the forming of the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA). The GAA established leagues and tournaments and is still in operation today.

Over the years, hurling is credited as being the parent-sport of shinty (Scotland), gold (Scotland), ice bandy (Scandinavia and some former Russian states), field and ice hockey (Canada) and bandy (Wales).


You do not need a lot of equipment to play hurling. Each player must have a hurley (or camn), which is a curved stick not unlike a field hockey stick. The blade is usually bigger than a hockey stick, and the handle length is up to the individual player.

You also need a ball, or sliothar. Medieval sliothars were either bronze, leather wrapped wood or hair covered with rope or wood. (Setanta’s sliothar was bronze, and his hurley was silver.) Sliothar were about the size of a ball for street hockey.

Playing Field

Since in Period games could have hundreds of players, there was no standard size of playing field. In modern hurling pitches are 137 m by 82 m. In the 1887 rules they were 200 yards by 150 yards.


In modern hurling there are fifteen players per team on the field at a time. They are positioned thusly:

Right Cornerback                Full-back                               Left Cornerback
Right Half-back                    Center Half-back                  Left Half-back
Midfielder                              Midfielder
Right Half-forward               Center Half-forward            Left Half-Forward
Right Corner-Forward         Full-forward                          Left Corner-Forward

Since it is often hard to get thirty SCAdians to stop and play a game, you can easily play with less, as long as both teams are equal in size.

Rules of Play

These rules are not the modern GAA rules, but are based on what we know of the Medieval rules, and on the rules of Clan na Bheithir (an SCA clan who know a great deal about hurling).

Equal sized teams of up to 15 players per side. Each side should be easily recognizable from each other (shirts vs. no-shirts, woaded vs. unwoaded, etc.).

At least one referee is a good idea. Modern games have a referee, two linemen and four umpires.

I’d recommend having a chirurgeon or other first aid provider on hand in case of injury. Hurling is a physical game and players can get hurt. Bumps and bruises are unavoidable.

Clan na Bheithir plays a 60 minute game with a 10 minute break between halves.
A goal is scored by hitting the sliothar through the goal. The goals seem to vary in size from the width of a standard hockey net to 10 feet wide.

The ball can be hit with the hurley and any part of your body except your hands.

The goalie can pick up the sliothar if within 10 feet of his goal. Play then stops and the goalie has 15 seconds to put the ball back into play with his hurley.

A sliothar hit out of bounds is hit back into play by a member of the team that didn’t knock it out. It is played from the point where it went out of bounds. If the sliothar goes out over the end-line (on either side of a goal) it is hit back in from the closest corner.

Protective gear is left up to the individual player, but can be nothing that might harm another player.

Physical contact is permitted, but only on a player in possession of the sliothar. You can never hit a player with your hurley, nor trip, grab onto or push a player from behind.

Players can bounce the ball off their hurley or foot and into their hand. They can then carry the ball for four steps but must then drop it or hit it into play. You can carry the sliothar on your hurley for as long as you are able.


Picking up or throwing the sliothar with hands. Most rules say that you can hit the sliothar with your hand if it is in the air, but you can never throw it.
Intentional tripping; grabbing players or their hurleys.
Wrestling, jostling and body checking is allowed, as long as the target player has possession of the sliothar, and the attacker keeps one foot on the ground.

Resolution of a Foul

The referee halts play, then declares the foul. If the foul was on the ball (like carrying it incorrectly or throwing it), the sliothar is put back into play by a member of the grieved team where the foul occurred.

If it was a personal foul (grabbing a hurley, hitting someone not in possession, etc.) a member of the grieved team gets a penalty shot on goal from 14 yards (40 feet) away. The offending team may place two defenders before their goalie but all other players from both teams must stay at least 14 yards away until the sliothar is played.

Once the sliothar is in play (in either type of foul) play resumes as normal.


Lady Elisabetta Maldestro, “A Brief History of Hurling”, The Mudpuppy, 1998.

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