Hurling is the most characteristic of Irish games, its origins are in Ireland's ancient Celtic culture and the sport is mentioned in the legends of mythical Irish warrior Cuchulainn. To the uninitiated the game of Hurling may resemble Hockey, but Hurling has more in common with the Scots Gaelic game of Shinty.
Hurling follows the same scoring system and similar rules as the other major Gaelic Athletics Association sport, Gaelic Football, but the two games are played differently. Both games are played by 15 men a side and the object of each game is to score more points and goals than the opposing team. Each game has the distinctive H shaped goal posts; a goal is scored when the ball is put into the net, while a point is scored by hitting the ball over the bar but within the H posts.
Similar in shape to a hockey stick, the game of Hurling is played with sticks or hurleys, which are traditionally made from Ash wood and used to move the ball, known as a sliotar, which is a hard leather ball of 65mm in diameter.
When the sloitar is on the ground, it must be played by striking or lifting it off the ground with the hurley into the air where it may be struck again or placed into the hand for either four seconds or four steps, whichever comes first. However if the sloitar is caught, the catching player may not throw it or carry it using the hurley’s base for the shorter of four paces or four seconds, but is allowed to strike it with a stick or hand, or by kicking.
Arguably the oldest field team sport in Europe, Hurley was brought to the shores of Ireland by the ancient Celts some 2,000 years ago and the sport is chronicled throughout Irish folklore. It is also regarded as the fastest moving field team sport in the world. It's a tough game, very much a contact sport, where no quarter is given or asked for. You'll see sliothars and hurleys flying around at head height and though some players wear helmets, it isn't obligatory and the majority don't even where them!
In accordance with the structure of the GAA, Hurling is an amateur sport played at county and club level. The main competition in Hurling is the Inter-County Championships. Teams from each of the 32 counties of Ireland, as well as teams from London and New York, battle it out for a place in the All Ireland Finals, held at Croke Park each September. This final is one of the biggest sporting events in the country, as 80,000 people pack out Ireland's largest stadium, to cheer on their home county and hopefully watch their team lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
Over the years the game of Hurling has seen many great teams and challengers. Tipperary, where the game was first codified in the town of Thurles, were a major force during the 1960s reaching six All Ireland Finals from 1961 to 1968 and winning all but one. The next decade saw the dominance of two of the game's great contenders, Cork and Kilkenny. From 1969 to 1979 one of these two hurling superpowers where in the finals and the two met each other at Croke Park three times to compete in some of the game's most memorable matches. The Kilkenny Cats were winners on two of these occasions, in 1969 and 1972, but Cork won in 1978 to make it three in a row for the Leesiders. The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of teams such as Limerick, Galway, Offaly and Clare who would challenge the dominance of the big three of Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary. But in recent years the battle between the old enemies Cork and Kilkenny have been renewed. Of the seven All-Ireland Finals that were to take place between 1999 and 2005, only one was not contested by either Cork or Kilkenny and the two have battled it out three times. In 2004 Cork met Kilkenny in a game with it all to play; the Cats were chasing their first treble, while Cork wanted revenge for their defeat the previous year. With both teams winning 28 titles each, this final was to be the decider. After a tight game Cork won 0-17 to 0-9 and went on to win the next year. Kilkenny however went on to win in 2006 through to 2008, beating Cork in 2006, Limerick in 2007 and Waterford in 2008. From 2009 to 2011, Kilkenny met Tipperary in what was the first ever time that same two teams played in the All Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final for three years in a row. Kilkenny took the wins in 2009 and 2011, with Tipperary winning in 2010. Continuing their Hurling dominance and appearing in their seventh consecutive final, Kilkenny reigned supreme again in 2012, beating Galway to win the 2012 Final.
Throughout the years Hurling has had its share of characters and sporting heroes. These men not only won at the highest level, training as hard as any sportsman, but they also held regular jobs, playing their sport as amateurs for the love of the game - a rare quality indeed for any sport today. Greats like Eddie Keher, who helped Kilkenny win six All Ireland titles between 1963 and 1975 and scored 194 points in just 21 games. Or Christy Ring, the Corkman who won eight All Ireland medals during the 40s and 50s. Ring is still one of the games all time top scorers and is so respected in his native Cork, that they named a bridge after him. And of course there is Jack Lynch, a successful Hurler and Footballer wining All Ireland medals with Cork in each sport, who went on to lead Ireland as Taoiseach (Ireland's Premier), during the 60s and 70s.
Uniquely Irish, if you get the opportunity to watch a Hurling match while here on your Ireland Vacation be sure you do, there are plenty of opportunities to catch live matches within local grounds up and down the country or alternatively with extensive coverage on Irish Television, bigger matches can always be enjoyed over a glass of the black stuff!