Hurling is an Irish ball game with characteristics of soccer, hockey, and baseball. Players each wield a bat similar to a hockey stick, called the hurley, which they use to hit a small ball called a sliotar. The object of the sport is to pass the ball through the opponents’ goal at the end of the field to score points.
This cultural Irish sport may have ties back for 3 millennia,* which would make it predate even the ancient Olympic Games. Some of these records reveal that during the Middle Ages, the sport was used as a means to settle disputes between villages. Sometimes entire villages played together, bringing the player count into the hundreds. These large-scale games were likely reminiscent of medieval mob football sports. However, it should be noted that this variation was not the norm; teams typically hovered around 15 players each.
*See Origins and History
Origins and History
Both hurling and the related Scottish sport shinty likely originate from a common ancestral Gaelic sport, which many sources claim was played as early as 1200 BC. However, such writings do not reference any primary sources such as early literary or archaeological evidence, making it difficult to verify the claim. As it stands, hurling’s earliest literary evidence lies in the 5th century AD, referenced in Irish law. The sport has remained in practice at some level until this day, and its modern rendition is now one of the most popular spectator sports in Ireland.
How to Play
Not enough information is available to piece together the rules of the ancient Gaelic predecessor to hurling, so differences between the modern version and variations practiced in past centuries are unknown. As such, the rules for the modern version of the game are summarized below.
Two teams of 15 players each face each other on a rectangular field. Each team is comprised of 6 offensive players, 6 defensive, 2 midfield, and 1 goalkeeper. At each end of the field there are two poles planted about 20 feet apart with a bar connected between them about 8 feet off the ground (forming an H-shape). The objective of each team is to pass the ball between the two posts on the opponents’ side. Passing the ball above the horizontal bar earns the team 1 point, and passing it below the bar earns 3. Whichever team scores the most points over both 25–35 minute halves wins.
The players maneuver the ball primarily with a bat called a hurley, which is used to pick the ball up off the ground, handle it in the air, and strike it in a manner similar to baseball. The hurley is similar to the hockey stick in shape, though the end is more paddle-like and is typically wrapped be a metal band. Players can also grab the ball with a free hand, but only while it is airborne – it can’t be picked up off the ground. With the ball in hand, the player is allowed to take only 4 steps before they must stop to transfer it. The player can drop kick the ball, place it in another player’s hand, or strike it with the hurley. The ball can only be handled by hand twice before touching the ground. Once it has made contact with the ground, it can be grabbed by hand again.
Rouse, P. (2015). Sport and Ireland: A history. Oxford: Oxford University Press history.
Day, C., & O’Neill, M. (2006). Ireland. London: Cadogan Guides.
King, S. J. (1998). The clash of the ash in foreign fields: Hurling abroad. Boherclough, Cashel, Co. Tipperary: S.J. King.