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Sunday 17 February 2019

Lay of the Land: Hurling proves a good game can't be kept down

(stock photo)
(stock photo)

Fiona O'Connell

Many kids in this country town hug hurling or camogie sticks instead of mobile phones to their heart. For it's a rare week that a placard declaring "Hon the girls/boys!" isn't hitched up in the car park where the lovingly tended statue of hurling great Ollie Walsh is perpetually poised.

Forget 'To be or not to be' ­­- the real question is who won 2B - or any of the other divisions within which 17 hurling matches took place last month as part of the Allianz Hurling League.

What was striking was not just that every county in Ireland was competing in the league, but also two from England, with Warwickshire and London playing against Roscommon and Kildare respectively.

So much for the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366, which aimed to put an end to a game that even then was an integral part of Irish life, and one that many a settler also loved to watch or play.

The ban on hurling applied to both conquerors and conquered, with the statute demanding that "the said land of Ireland use not henceforth the games which men call hurling, with great clubs and ball upon the ground, but they apply and accustom themselves to use and throw lances, and other gentle games which pertain to arms".

Both native and Anglo Norman fans were flogged publicly for wielding a hurley, or placed in stocks and pummelled with rotten vegetables or the contents of chamber pots. Those who walked taller after being arrested for hurling did so less from hubris and more as a result of a literal stretch on the rack.

Not surprisingly, many who were caught red-handed swore they were only using the hurley to hit a few rats in the name of pest control or for a fervent spot of self-flagellation. First offenders were warned that a repeat offence would result in a more ferocious flogging or longer jail term, while serial hurlers were threatened with transportation for life.

Even observers of the game faced the charge of "having conspired with persons unknown to hurl, against the wishes of His Majesty". In the decades that followed the enactment of the law, many natives and settlers alike were locked up for the heinous crime of hurling.

Yet the Statutes of Kilkenny failed to make hurling history - so much so that Galway, the county of the defending champions, reinforced the ban in 1527.

But still hurling held its grip. The sport underwent a revival in the 18th Century, before floundering during the 19th Century, thanks to famine and mass emigration.

However, the founding of the GAA in 1884 secured its future as a national sport. Till today, when the All Ireland Hurling Final is rated in second position after only the Olympic Games in CNN's top 10 sporting events to see live.

The sport is still savoured well beyond these shores, just as it was when the Statutes tried to silence it.

Proving that the expression "You can't keep a good man [or woman] down" absolutely applies to a great game.

Sunday Independent

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