Following the All-Ireland Semi-final win over Clare, The Kilkenny hurlers will meet Limerick in the All Ireland Final. An apt time to remember the words of journalist Con Houlihan and his thoughts on Kilkenny hurling
The history of hurling is not free from irony: for generations the ancient game was patronised by the landlords. They kept teams of hurlers just as their counterparts in England kept teams of cricketers. These men were not professionals: they were drawn from the legion of farm workers who were then needed to cultivate the vast estates.
The Act of Union did great damage to hurling. Dublin was no longer the capital city. Many of the landlords went to England. The ancient game declined. This tendency was not entirely true: there were some few who remained behind but the Famine further weakened the game.
There were two kinds of hurling. One was called ‘mountain hurling’; the other was called ‘lowland hurling’. The former was played by men in the ‘idol times’, meaning between the end of October and the end of February. In those months there was not much work done on the land.
This kind of hurling was very like hockey: there was little or no lifting. Most of the time the ball was on the ground. It is easy to understand why: men needed their hands for working with the spade and the shovel and the scythe and the flail.
Lowland hurling was significantly different. Mountain hurling was played with a kind of stick you would see in hockey now; lowland hurling was played with a broad-bladed camán. This factor naturally made lifting a major part of the game.
When Michael Cusack sat down to formulate the rules for the new game, he deliberated for a very long time. When at last he made his choice, he came out in favour of the lowland game. It was clear that he himself favoured mountain hurling on account of his background in Clare. But he knew that lowland hurling would prove far more popular. And so, sometime in the late 1880s, he wrote down the rules that gave us the game that we have today.
Mountain hurling did not disappear completely: some counties, even though the new form was taking over, still preferred to keep an element of ground hurling in their game. Almost inevitably, this form of hurling became less and less popular. Cork were the last county to employ the old game. Indeed there was a time in the 1930s when only one player in the Cork team was allowed to pick up the ball. That was Seán Óg Murphy.
We see occasional flashes of ground hurling from Offaly today. But the ball in the hand is favoured almost everywhere now. The reason is simple. Ball in hand, you have several choices: you can run with it; you can pass it; you can strike it. The choices are many.
If you drew a map of hurling in relation to the counties, you would see that it corresponded with a map showing the good land. Thus you will see that hurling dominates the eastern half of Cork while gaelic football dominates the western half. The same is true of Limerick and of almost every county.
I will say a last few words about mountain hurling. When Cusack used to play with his students in the Phoenix Park, his favourite advice was: ‘Tarraing é.’
When he set out from Kingsbridge on that fateful morning in 1884, he had two ambitions: he hoped to re-organize athletics and to revive hurling. Athletics was then in chaos; things have not improved much in the meantime. Hurling hardly existed at all.
Did he succeed in reviving it? He did but only to a certain extent. We are back to our old friend irony. When Cusack took what he deemed the better elements of soccer and rugby, unknowingly he frustrated his plan to revive hurling.
He called the new game ‘Gaelic football’. It could not be called an ancient game because it could not be played until the invention of the pneumatic bladder. The new game proliferated and sprang up in every nook and cranny of the country. It was not too difficult to play and it was a far safer game than hurling. And it militated against the revival of hurling.
It almost wiped out mountain hurling and it also weakened the other form. Incidentally, it almost wiped out cricket, a game then played in a great many parts of the country.
It was logical that hurling would become a great part of Kilkenny’s culture. It is a county where Nature has been bountiful. Almost all its land is fertile. The game never really died out there, having been so well fostered by the landlords.
The early All Irelands were really inter-club championships. Kilkenny were prominent then but they became even more so when the competition was based on counties. They had a great run in the early century, winning the All-Ireland seven times between 1904 and 1913.
It is not true every boy in Kilkenny is born with a little camán in one hand and a sliotar in the other. But they grow up with a knowledge that they are in a great tradition. Success breeds success. The young lads never lack for role models. Noel Skehan succeeded Ollie Walsh; Henry Shefflin succeeded DJ Carey.
I first saw Kilkenny play in the All-Ireland Final of 1937. To be honest I did not see them play. It was a very sad day for the Black & Amber. Tipperary overwhelmed them but at least I could say that I saw the immortal Lory Meagher. He was brought on late in the game when he could do little to salvage something.
I last saw Kilkenny play in the All-Ireland Final of 2008. On that day, under Brian Cody, they gave a display as near to perfection as is possible in human endeavour.
Flow on, lovely river.
Con Houlihan was an Irish sportswriter. Despite only progressing to national journalism at the age of 46, he became “the greatest and the best-loved Irish sports journalist of all”. He died on August 4 2012.
(This article was penned by Con for the publication “The Stripy men, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the publishers) .