You might think that it would be easy to trace the origins of a sport. If you are researching a modern sports it easy; most of them organized in the late nineteenth century. If you are examining a local pastime an area's landscape should answer your questions, for instance the Nigerian plains inspiring running races. But if you're researching an ancient sport, tracing the origin is almost impossible. Hurling is one of these sports.
Similar to a game depicted in ancient Egyptian cave drawings, dated circa 2000 BCE, hurling is considered to be the oldest Irish game. The first written record of this pre-Christian sport is a mention in the Brehon Laws, compiled during the 5th century. No one knows where the sport originated from and whether or not it was native to Ireland or brought over from one of the many tribes that conquered or settled in the Emerald Isle, but there are two theories that link the ancient Irish to Egypt.
First, and most probably, is that hurling traveled with the nomadic tribe known as the Celts when they first landed in Ireland around 600 BCE. Linguistically the Celts belong to an Indo-European culture, and it is known that they once lived in the Semitic areas1. Another theory leads us back to the ancient Milesian legends, which are written in Lebor Gabala Erren (The Book of the Talking Dead2). According to the legends the Irish are descended from the kingdom of Scythia and its king, Feinius Farsaid. Feinius Farsaid and his son, Nel, went to Asia to work on the Tower of Nimrod (aka Babel), after which they returned and opened a school of languages. This school was so well known that the Pharaoh of Egypt invited Nel to come and teach his people the new languages of the world. While in Egypt Nel married Scota, the Pharaoh's daughter and settled down. Years later, after the Pharaoh drowned while pursuing "Moses and his band of Hebrews," Nel's great-grandson Sru left Egypt with his son, Heber Scot and returned to Scythia, where Heber Scot became king3. It is entirely possible that Sru and Heber Scot brought the game back with them. The only definite thing we know about hurling is that this ancient game is the model for most Celtic sports, including camogie, a female version, shinty, bandy or banty, hockey, gaelic football, and modern hurling.
Many Irish legends mention hurling, but none mention its roots. The sport has a major role in the legend of Cuchulainn, who was a Herculean type of hero4. The legends, which were revived from extinction by Sechan Torpeist, a 7th century bard, tells the story of how Setanta, the nephew of King Conchobair Mac Neasa of Ulster, receives the name of Cuchulainn:
Setanta journeys to his uncle's court to join the boy's corps. He shortened his walk by hurling his silver sliotar (ball) and then throwing his bronze hurley stick after it. He would run and catch both the sliotar and the hurley stick before they hit the ground. Soon he arrived at court, and his hurling abilities amazed the boys of the corps. Legend has it that he was able to score with ease and when he guarded the goal he never let a shot in.
One day King Conchobair was invited to a banquet at the house of Culainn and asked his nephew to join him. Setanta agreed to go after he finished playing a hurling game. While at the feast Culainn asked the king if all the guests had arrived. King Conchobair, forgetting about Setanta, said yes and Culainn unleashed his hound to guard the house. When Setanta arrived at the feast the great hound leapt up to attack him, but Setanta quickly hurled the sliotar at the hound and it went down the beast's throat. The boy immediately grabbed the stunned hound by his feet and smashed its head into the floor of the stone courtyard killing him.
When the guests heard the baying of the hound they ran outside and were surprised to see Setanta alive and the beast dead. King Conchobair was overjoyed but Culainn was sad at the loss of his favorite hound. Setanta offered to find a hound worthy of the one he had slain and vowed to guard Culainn's home until such an animal could be found. Thus Setanta became known as Cuchulainn, which translates to "the hound of Culainn".
Although the game often became violent and sometimes turned into small battles, hurling became part of Irish culture. In 1366 the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed to try to prevent the Anglo-Normans from picking up Irish habits and culture. The Statutes outlawed English/Irish marriages, and forbade the English from using the Irish language, customs and laws. Of course this lead to a small problem because hurling was very popular with the Normans. Although hurling was banned, for both the Irish and the Norman English, games were still played.
Finally in the 16th century a hurling ban was actually followed. The Galway Statutes, dated at 1527, almost eliminated the game for good. The statutes named "hokie," a game defined as hurling a little ball with sticks, on the list of prohibited games. It is believed that hurling was prohibited because of its violent nature and the fact that small bloody battles usually followed a game. In it's place the Irish began to play Gaelic Football, which is a hurling derived form of soccer. Hurling wasn't revived until the 18th century.
The small hurling revival of the 18th century became known as the golden age of hurling. For the first time organized games were played, and inter-barony and inter-county leagues were formed. Landlords promoted the game and supported their teams. The players followed a strict code of honor on the field, and very few battles broke out on the field, unlike the ancient games. In the late part of the century, due to external factors, the gentry pulled their support from the game, and this, being timed with the Great Famine, ended the revival.
The late 19th century brought about a successful return of the game. With the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884, hurling was once again the official game of Ireland. The GAA organized local games, created leagues, and for the first time created standardize rules for the game. The first Senior Hurling Final, or the World Series for the Irish Hurling Teams, was played in 1887. The late 19th century also saw rivals of shinty, a Scottish version of hurling, and bandy, a Welsh version played in Northern England, as well as the emergence of hockey.
It is no surprise that hurling traveled with the various peoples that interacted with Ireland. It is believed that clansman practicing shinty, the Scottish form of hurling, alone in the hills of the Highlands led to the creation of golf. Bandy, a hurling game played on ice, has become a popular in Scandinavia and the Russian states. Field and ice hockey were created by Canadians who were influenced by their Scot and Irish pasts. As hockey gains popularity in the United States and Celtic-Americans welcome their pasts, hurling will hopefully enjoy another golden age.
1It's my theory that Ruth, the convert who married Boaz and was the grandmother of King David, was from a Celtic tribe. It is known that King David had bright curly red hair and blue eyes, something not normally found within the olive skinned Semitic culture.
2 The Book of the Taking of Ireland, or the Book of Leinster , 1150 A.D.
3 If you haven't figured it out yet, the story continues to tell how the Scots were thrown out of Ireland and how they came to be in Scotland. But that's another story. The date is given for this book is 1150 AD, whether that means the tales were written down in that year or were created in that year, I don't know. If they were created in that year then it would make sense to assume that the book was a way to take the pagan legends and merge them with Biblical tales.
4 Cuchulainn (aka Setanta): A Celtic hero/god whose story parallels Hercules. Born of a human father (Sualtam) and an unknown women who may be a god, he had a spiritual father-son relationship with the god Lugh. He studied under the warrior goddess Scathach, and returned to Ulster as a great warrior. He led the Red Branch, an of warriors whose exploits are related in one of the cycles in Irish mythology. Cuchulainn is honored as a pagan god and became semi-divine through his adventures. The Book of the Dun Cow record may of his stories.
Basic Rules of the Game can be found here.