Oppressive laws fail to eradicate hurling…

Kilkenny All Ireland champions 1947

By John Fitzgerald

The Norman warrior Geoffrey FitzThomas, having been caught in the company of hurlers, and playing the illegal game (The infamous Statutes of Kilkenny had banned it) was subjected to a grueling “interview” by his captors.

Though willing to confess to his crime, however, FitzThomas was unable, or unwilling, to divulge the names of the native Irish men with whom he had hurled. He pleaded, even after days of torture on the rack and “dancing” on hot coals that the men had never identified themselves to him by name.

This may have been the truth, as any hurler in his right mind knew that the authorities were keeping a keen eye on Anglo Normans suspected of hurling sympathies. The only rule to be observed on the hurling field in those days was Don’t get Caught. The sportsmen would have been acutely aware that FitzThomas risked being lifted by King Edward’s Thought Police.

Other prisoners and detainees had to shield their ears from the loud shrieks of pain and panic-stricken terror emitting from FitzThomas’s cell. When torture appeared not to be working, his tormenters resorted to a little gentle persuasion. The rack men exited the scene for a while to allow a wonderfully pleasant fellow with a dandy accent to extract information by kindness.

This charmer promised the fatigued and emotionally shattered prisoner, who was aching all over from his torment, that if he would just scribble out the names of the other hurlers, the court would deal more leniently with him, or there might even be a chance of a pardon.

And throughout his time in detention, prior to the court hearing, he could enjoy the rare privilege of conjugal visits in the dungeon from his wife or girlfriend…if he would only spill the beans on those dreadful stick-and-ball men.

But Geoffrey still insisted he knew nothing about the hurlers…their names, whereabouts, anything. The charmer’s uncontaminated smirk turned to a frown. He pranced out of the cell and back in stepped the rack men to give the unlawful sportsman another stretch.

In court, Geoffrey gave an undertaking to the judge not to hurl again, claiming that he just couldn’t help himself when he beheld the great skill of the lads out hurling in the fields, meadows, and laneways as he rode his stallion home from work in the evenings. One thing had led to another, and he had fallen under the spell of the strange foreign game.

The judge scowled: “If the law allowed”, he intoned, “I would, without hesitation, be sending you to the gallows. Howsoever, I can tell you now that you will be flogged to within an inch of your miserable life, which gratifies me more than you could know or believ.”

The unfortunate Norman thrill-seeker was sentenced to forty lashes and two years imprisonment with hard labour…for hurling! Unfortunately, there was no local media in those days to offer a more complete report of the case.

The Statutes of Kilkenny failed to eradicate hurling, which continued to flourish countrywide. But in 1527 the Galway Statutes reinforced the hurling ban, making it difficult for fans to enjoy what the legislators deemed a violent and war-like pastime.

The sport underwent a revival in the 18th century but experienced a considerable setback in the first part of the 19th century with famine and mass emigration stalking the land. Then, the founding of the GAA in 1884 guaranteed its future as a national sport that had endured the test of time and helped to define what it meant to be Irish.

Days of glory lay ahead…

To be continued…

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