Ancient game of Protestant hurling no longer exists in modern Ireland
The phrase has been rankling with me like a hang nail since it was broadcast a few nights ago on RTE's 'Game On' sports radio programme.
The presenter had been talking to Ireland men's hockey captain David Harte who is rated the number one goalkeeper in the world. They discussed Harte's experiences playing at the Olympics for his country, and for clubs in Holland and India. At the end of the piece with the much-travelled Cork native, a text from a listener was read out - mischievously tongue in cheek - about how nice it was to hear something for a change on the programme about Protestant hurling.
There it is - Protestant hurling.
Before parsing, analysing and generally dissecting the throwaway phrase, let me put my cards on the table here. I come from proud Protestant stock and I have been on hockey pitches every season for the past half century, as player, umpire or reporter. Through the sport, I have made friends in many parts of Ireland and it has given me good excuse to go north of the border into the Six Counties during the Troubles as much as in the current peace. My parents played hockey. My siblings played hockey. My offspring play hockey. I believe it is a great game, demanding intricate skill, physical fitness and team strategy.
Though I went through a phase of believing that a disproportionate number of goalkeepers were Methodist, I have never otherwise associated hockey with religious practice or preference. It is the passion of Muslims in Pakistan, of Sikhs in India, of agnostics in Australia. Hockey is a global game, enjoyed by those of all faiths and of none.
However, in an Irish context, describing hockey as Protestant hurling makes some historic sense. The oldest hockey club on this island remaining in existence is the men's club in that former bastion of Anglicanism, Trinity College Dublin. In the 1880s it called itself a hurling club. Surviving photographs from the Victorian era suggest there was little if any difference between the sticks then used in hurling and in hockey.
However, Trinity was also a bastion of Unionism and, when hurling became overly associated with radical nationalism, the young gentlemen who played on the grass of College Green re-branded themselves as a hockey team. TCD later supplied many of the players who made up the Ireland side which won silver at the London Olympics of 1908, the only previous occasion on which the country took part in hockey at the Games until David Harte and his colleagues went to Rio de Janeiro.
Irish society was a much divided place in many ways for many decades, when inter-marriage was frowned on and mourners of one persuasion stayed outside the church for the funerals of friends from the other side. The sporting divisions were set in the ugly cement of the GAA's ban on foreign games. Though never exclusively Protestant - no more than Gaelic games were exclusively Roman Catholic - men's hockey was disproportionately Protestant throughout the 20th century.
Yet the majority of hockey players, in the 26 Counties at least, were always Catholic because of the popularity of the sport among women. The hockey which the 'Game On' listener sniggers at as Protestant hurling could just as fittingly be described as convent camogie, as evidenced to this day by the continued prosperity of Dublin clubs such as Loreto, Our Lady's and Muckross. The nuns of various orders were for long the game's greatest proponents on this island.
Society has changed radically. Inhibitions which used to affect contact between those of different religious backgrounds evaporate. No more hanging around outside the church at funerals. No more frowning at 'mixed' marriages. The sporting environment is also transformed. Hockey has modernised itself with the introduction of hi-tech pitches. The clubs which promote hockey on these immaculate surfaces are busy signing up recruits, with absolutely no consideration of where they come from, where they pray. This is the new Ireland. Protestant hurling and convent camogie are quaint concepts from a bygone age.