Hurlers on the rack!

A hurler on the rack

By John Fitzgerald

Hurling had been played in Ireland for centuries. The 5th century Brehon Laws mentioned it, and the legend of Cuchulainn enshrined it as a game of great skill and sportsmanship. Its actual origin is still a mystery, but one theory is that Celtic tribes that arrived in Ireland in the remote past may have adapted the game from a similar sport depicted in the cave drawings of ancient Egypt.

Whatever its origins, the game had become an integral part of Irish life that many a settler also loved to watch or play.

In a county destined to become the home of hurling in later times, many an Irish and Anglo-Norman youth was flogged publicly or imprisoned for wielding a hurley. Other men were placed in the stocks in their native towns or villages to have rotten fruit and vegetables, or the contents of chamber pots, thrown at them.

Thoughts of sporting injuries never entered the heads of medieval Kilkenny hurlers. They were too preoccupied with the far greater risk of permanent injury inflicted on the whipping post or the rack. It was said at the time that men arrested for hurling walked taller upon their release: The rack, they claimed, had added a few inches to their height.

Men spotted, or caught, hurling, often denied the offence, swearing that they were using the camans for non-sporting purposes such as pest control or self-flagellation. “I was only after rats with the stick, yer honour, and I don’t know where the ball came from” and “I was beating myself up for the Holy Souls” became tired and somewhat clichéd refrains in the hallowed halls of justice. Sometimes these or similar pleas convinced their lordships, sometimes not.

Seven centuries before men like DJ Carey, Lory Meagher, and Eddie Keher became household names; Kilkenny County witnessed hundreds of floggings and criminal convictions for the offence of hitting a ball with a hurley. And there was no local radio from which a Barrie Henriques or a Sue Nunn (or a Johnny Barry for that matter) could lament the unfairness of it all.

Frowning judges warned first offenders that a repeat hurling-related transgression would merit a more severe flogging or longer jail term, or even, in the case of obsessional or serial hurlers, transportation for life. Men not directly involved in hurling might still be charged with conspiracy to hurl.

In the decades following the enactment of the law, quite a few Irishmen and settlers were consigned to prison for hurling, or for “having conspired with persons unknown to hurl, against the wishes of His Majesty.”

In 1367, a typical trembling defendant heard the chilling words from the bench of Kilkenny Court: “You have been found guilty of the nefarious and detestable crime of striking a ball with a stick in the manner peculiar to the Irish!”

The Court was told that the Norman gentleman in question, Geoffrey FitzThomas, had fallen in with what the prosecution described as “bad company”…a group of Kilkenny hurlers. Though conscious of the gravity of his crime, he had hurled secretly with locals at pre-arranged venues.

Even his wife knew nothing of his clandestine activity. But members of a cavalry regiment spotted him hurling with the Kilkenny lads in a field on the outskirts of the future City. He was taken into custody and interrogated. His co-conspirators escaped over ditches into a nearby forest.

After more than forty-eight hours of the traditional good cop-bad-cop routine, numerous kicks and punches, and a bit of stretching on the rack, Geoffrey made a full confession.

He admitted being in the company of known Kilkenny hurlers on the day the cavaliers observed him; being in possession of an illegal instrument, a hurley; and to having pucked a ball repeatedly into a goal and over the bar Irish style in the course of his involvement in the highly subversive activity…To be continued…

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