A Brief History Of Hurling In Ireland

The 2014 National Hurling League game | ©  Seaninryan/WikiCommons
The 2014 National Hurling League game | © Seaninryan/WikiCommons
Photo of Kate Phelan
30 October 2016

Played for over 3,000 years, hurling is one of the world’s oldest sports. Believed to be older than Christianity, it was brought to Ireland by the Celtic civilisation that became predominant during the Iron Age and medieval Europe. Today, it is still one of the country’s most popular games and is played throughout the world by Irish immigrants.

Earliest Mentions

It’s impossible to trace hurling back to its very origins, as it predates recorded Irish history – written history at least. The first mention of hurling in writing appears in early Irish Brehon law during the fifth century, but the sport has featured in myths and spoken history for much longer. Mentions of hurling go as far back as 1200 BC and the myths of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, telling of a war between the provinces of Connacht and Ulster. The mythological hero Cú Chulainn is said to have killed a giant hound with a sliotar (the ball used in hurling.)

The Golden Age of Hurling

During their occupation of Ireland, the British authorities banned hurling twice – once in 1336 and once in 1537 – as it was feared that groups of young men banding together publicly might bode ominously for the Empire. However, the bans had little effect on the everyday behaviour of the Irish, and by the 18th century, even the Anglo-Irish landlords were in on the act. They would hold hugely popular competitions on their lands between their tenants, and the sport flourished, leading this period to be known as the ‘Golden Age’ of hurling.

Joseph Cooney lifts the Tom Callanan cup | Seaninryan/WIkiCommons / A GAA mural in Belfast | © Albert Bridge/Geograph / The 2014 National Hurling League game |© Seaninryan/WikiCommons

Rebellion and Decline

As rebellious nationalist sentiment continued to build among the Irish public, organised groups like Society of United Irishmen came to fruition, and tensions between landlords and tenants grew. Hurling’s golden age came to an abrupt end, and with the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the sport sank into a stark decline.


As Irish customs were continuously repressed throughout the 19th century, Irish interest in hurling was only truly revived in 1884 with the founding of the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA). The GAA promoted the sport once more, coming up with set rules and organising the annual inter-county championships that still continue today. Hurling is now played in countries as far away as North Korea, Argentina and New Zealand. In 2012, the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final was listed as number two on CNN’s list of 10 sporting events you have to see live, beating the soccer’s World Cup.

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