Ireland’s Ancient War Sport

Hurling is a ‘game’ - but not one for the faint-hearted – it’s a team sport played with a small ball and a curved wooden stick. The stick, or hurley (called ‘camán’ in Gaelic) is curved outwards at the end, to provide the striking surface. The ball or ‘sliothar’ is similar in size to a hockey ball but has raised ridges.

Hurling is played on a field about the same size as a standard soccer pitch. Each team consists of fifteen players, lining out as follows: one goalkeeper, three full-backs, three half-backs, two midfielders, three half-forwards and three full-forwards. Each player is ‘armed’ with a hurley. The object of the game is for players to use the hurley to hit the ball, or slioter, between the opponents’ goalposts - either over the crossbar for one point, or under the crossbar into a net guarded by a goalkeeper for three points.

The goalposts are the same shape as on a rugby pitch, with the crossbar lower than a rugby one and slightly higher than a soccer one. You can strike the ball on the ground, or in the air. Unlike hockey, you can pick up the ball with your hurley and carry it for not more than four steps in your hand. After those steps you have to bounce the ball on the hurley and back to your hand, but you are forbidden to catch the ball more than twice. To get around this, one of the skills is running with the ball balanced on the hurley. This is all done with lightning speed, as hurling is one of the fastest sports in the world! Players can handle the ball twice and advance a maximum of four steps before making a pass. Passes can be made either by striking the ball with the hurley or by kicking or slapping it with an open hand for short passes. Players may use their hands only to catch a ball in the air or off a bounce. Side to side shouldering is allowed although ‘body-checking’ (as in ice hockey) or shoulder-charging is illegal (but is known to happen!). No protective padding is worn by players - although a plastic protective helmet with faceguard is recommended, but this is not mandatory for players over 21 years.

Hurling is Europe’s oldest field game. When the Celts came to Ireland as the last ice age was receding, they brought with them a unique culture, their own language, music, script and unique pastimes. One of these pastimes was a game now called hurling.

Hurling was said to be played in ancient times by teams representing neighbouring villages. Villages would play games involving hundreds of players, which would last several hours or even days.

Hurling is older than the recorded history of Ireland. It is thought to predate Christianity, having come to Ireland with the Celts. It has been a distinct Irish pastime for at least 2,000 years. The earliest written references to the sport in Brehon law date from the 5th century AD.

Hurling is related to the game of shinty that is played primarily in Scotland, to cammag on the Isle of Man and to bandy that was played formerly in England and Wales. The tale of the Tain Bo Cuailgne (drawing on earlier legends) describes the hero Cuchulainn playing hurling at Emain Macha. Similar tales are told about Fionn McCumhail and the Fianna, his legendary warrior band.

Recorded historical references to hurling appear in many places, such as in the 13th century Statutes of Kilkenny of the Anglo-Normans which forbade hurling due to excessive violence, stating further that the English settlers of the Pale would be better served to practice archery and fencing in order to repel the attacks of the Gaelic Clans – who were of course, ‘beyond the Pale’. And a 15th century grave slab survives in Inishowen, County Donegal dedicated to the memory of a Gallowglass warrior named Manas Mac Mhoiresdean. This slab displays carvings of a broad-sword, a hurley, and a sliotar. In 1587 Lord Chancellor William Gerrarde complained that English settlers of the Munster Province Plantation were speaking Gaelic and playing hurling. The English also referred to those Irish warriors who were not employed in the service of the English crown, but who followed the Gaelic lords and clan chiefs, as ‘idle swordsmen’ – but these not so ‘idle swordsmen’ played plenty of hurling to stay fit and to maintain their keen eye and quick reflexes for sword-fighting in battles against the English.

The 18th Century is frequently referred to as ‘The Golden Age of Hurling.’ This was when members of the landed gentry in Ireland kept teams of players on their estates and challenged each other’s teams to matches for the amusement of their tenants.

One of the first modern attempts to standardise the game with a formal, written set of rules came with the foundation of the Irish Hurling Union at Trinity College Dublin in 1879. It aimed “to draw up a code of rules for all clubs in the union and to foster that manly and noble game of hurling in this, its native country”.

The founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884 in Thurles, County Tipperary under the patronage of Thomas Croke, Archbishop of Cashel, and Charles Parnell, turned around a trend of terminal decline by organising the game around a common set of written rules. The 20th century saw greater organisation in Hurling and Gaelic Football. The ‘All-Ireland Hurling Championship’ came into existence along with the provincial championships. Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary dominated hurling in the 20th century with each of these counties winning more than 20 All-Ireland titles each. Wexford, Waterford, Clare, Limerick, Offaly, Dublin, and Galway were also strong hurling counties during the 20th century.

In current times tens of thousands of fans attend National Hurling League matches and crowds of up to 50,000 at championship matches are not uncommon, which is all quite amazing considering Ireland’s entire population is only a modest 4 million. The revenue generated by this sport and the way it is distributed is even more incredible than the sport itself. There isn’t one professional player in all of Ireland. Hurling, you see, is a sport of pride and not money. All funds are managed by the GAA, an association responsible for supplying players with equipment as well as the building and upkeep of stadiums. Travel expenses for players and coaches are also covered but that is the extent of any incomes. Thanks to hurling regulations which restrict player movement, (players generally represent the town of their birth) the sport has managed to maintain its charm.

Although many hurling clubs exist worldwide, only Ireland has a national team (although it includes only players from weaker counties in order to ensure matches are competitive). The Irish national team and the Scotland’s national shinty team have played for many years with modified ‘international’ match rules. The match is the only such international hurling competition. However, competition at club level has been going on around the world since the late 19th century thanks to emigration from Ireland, and the strength of the game has ebbed and flowed along with emigration trends. Nowadays, growth in hurling is noted in Continental Europe, Australasia, and North America.

References to hurling on the North American continent date from the 1780’s in modern-day Canada concerning immigrants from County Waterford and County Kilkenny, and also, in New York City. After the end of the American Revolution, references to hurling cease in American newspapers until the aftermath of the 1845 – 1852 ‘Irish Holocaust’ (the so-called Potato Famine) when Irish people moved to America in huge numbers, bringing the game with them.

Newspaper reports from the 1850’s refer to occasional matches played in San Francisco, Hoboken, and New York City. The first game of hurling played under GAA rules outside of Ireland was played on Boston Common in June 1886.

In 1888, there was an American tour by fifty Gaelic athletes from Ireland, which was known at the time as the ‘American Invasion.’ This created enough interest among Irish Americans to lay the groundwork for the formation of the North American GAA. By the end of 1889, almost a dozen GAA clubs existed in America, many of them in and around New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Later, clubs were formed in Boston, Cleveland, and many other centres of the Irish American Diaspora.

In 1910, twenty-two hurlers, composed of an equal number from Chicago and New York, conducted a tour of Ireland, where they played against the County teams from Kilkenny, Tipperary, Limerick, Dublin, and Wexford.

Traditionally, hurling was a game played by Irish immigrants and discarded by their children. Many American hurling teams took to raising money to import players directly from Ireland. In recent years, this has changed considerably with the advent of the Internet. Outside of the traditional North American GAA cities of New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Fransico, clubs are springing up in other places where they consist of predominantly American-born players who bring a new dimension to the game and actively seek to promote it as a mainstream sport, especially Joe Maher, a leading expert at the sport in Boston. Currently, the Milwaukee Hurling Club, with 264 members, is the largest North American Hurling club, which is made up of nearly all Americans and very few Irish immigrants.

The GAA have also begun to invest in American college students with university teams springing up in Stanford, Berkley, Purdue, Marquette and other schools. On the 31st of January 2009, the first ever US collegiate hurling match was held between Stanford and UC Berkeley, organized by the newly-formed California Collegiate Gaelic Athletic Association.

The earliest reference to hurling in Australia is related in the book ‘Sketches of Garryowen.’ On the 12th of July 1844 a match took place at Batman’s Hill in Melbourne as a counterpoint to a march by the Orange Lodge. Reportedly, the hurling match attracted a crowd of five hundred Irish immigrants, while the Orange Lodge march shivered out of existence in the cold southern winter

In 1885, a game between two Sydney based teams took place before a crowd of over ten thousand spectators. Reportedly, the contest was greatly enjoyed despite the fact that one newspaper dubbed the game “two degrees safer than war.”


The ‘Auld Alliance’ was an alliance between Scotland and France. It played a significant role in Franco-Scottish (and English) affairs from its beginning in 1295 until the 1560 Treaty of Edinburgh. It was renewed by all the French and Scottish kings and queens of that period except for Louis XI. By the late 14th century, the renewal occurred whether there was an English threat to other of them or not. Norway was also sometimes included in the treaties.

The alliance dates from the treaty signed by John Balliol, King of Scotland, and King Philip IV of France in 1295 against King Edward I of England (also known as ‘Long Shanks’ and as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’).

King John Balliol and his wife   Robert the Bruce and Isabella of Mar  

The terms of the treaty stipulated that if either country was attacked by England, the other country would invade English territory, as became evident at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513 AD.

The alliance is normally dated to 1295, but J. D. Mackie dates it earlier: to 1173. At this time, the Angevin kings of England were increasing in power. Due to this, King Louis VII of France and ‘William the Lion’ (King William I of Scotland) both supported a rebellion against the English king. Elizabeth Bonner also talks of "informal cooperation" between the two countries at this time.

In 1326, ‘Robert the Bruce’ (King Robert I of Scotland) renewed the alliance, with the Treaty of Corbeil. During the 1300s and 1400s, the treaty was invoked six times.

Between 1331 and 1356, King Edward III of England defeated the kings of both countries. Bonner believes that the alliance meant that he did not succeed in subjugating them.

Edward III as founder of the Order of the Garter

Edward’s first shield as King & his second Shield, quartered with the arms of France,
to indicate his claim to the throne of France

In 1336, at the beginning of the ‘Hundred Years War’, King Philip VI of France provided military support for King David II of Scotland, who fled to France after being deposed by King Edward III of England.

In 1346, under the terms of the ‘Auld Alliance’, Scotland invaded England in the interests of France. However, they were defeated, and David II was taken prisoner at the Battle of Neville’s Cross.

Battle of Neville's Cross from a 15th-century Froissart manuscript

French and Scottish forces together won against the English at the Battle of Bauge in 1421 AD. As it marked the turning point of the ‘Hundred Years War’, the significance of this battle was great. However, their victory was a short-lived one: at Verneuil in 1424 AD, the Scots army was annihilated. Despite this defeat, the Scots had given France a valuable breathing space, effectively saving the country from English domination. In addition, in 1429 Scots came to the aid of Joan of Arc * in her famous relief of Orleans.

Joan of Arc at the coronation of King Charles VII

* Joan is a national heroine of France and a Catholic saint. A peasant girl born in eastern France, she led the French army to several important victories during the ‘Hundred Years War’, claiming divine guidance, and was indirectly responsible for the coronation of King Charles VII of France. She was captured by the Burgundians, sold to the English, tried, and burned at the stake when she was nineteen years old.

Many Scottish soldiers chose to settle in France. Some were granted lands and titles in France. In the 1400s and 1500s, they became naturalised French citizens.

In 1560, after more than 250 years, formal treaties between Scotland and France was officially ended, by the ‘Treaty of Edinburgh’. At the height of the anti-Catholic ‘Reformation’ in Scotland, the politically all-powerful Lowland ‘Covenantors’ (Presbyterians) declared Scotland was Protestant, and allied Scotland with Protestant England instead. (The Highlands remained Catholic.)

Although principally a military and diplomatic agreement, the alliance also granted "dual citizenship" in both countries. Thus, its influence also extended into the lives of the Scottish population in a number of ways: including architecture. Law, the Scots language and cuisine, due in part to the Scottish mercenaries participating in French armies. Part of the influence on law was due to Scots often going to French universities, something which continued up until the Napoleonic Wars. Other intellectual influences from France continued into the 18th century as well. Examples of architectural influence include two Scottish castles built with French castle-building in mind: Bothwell and Kildrummy. Scots also enjoyed having their choice of France's finest wines. At its height the French language was widely spoken in Scotland.

South-East tower of Bothwell Castle

Certain provisions of the earlier treaty remained in force. In particular, all Scots were still French citizens, until that right was revoked by the French government in 1903.

In 1942, when General Charles de Gaulle * was in Scotland, he described the alliance between Scotland and France as “the oldest alliance in the world”.

General de Gaulle

* Charles de Gaulle was a French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during the Second World War. He later founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 and served as its first President from 1959 to 1969. In France, he is commonly referred to as Général de Gaulle or simply ‘Le Général’.

De Gaulle was born in Lille. He was raised in a family of devout Roman Catholics who were nationalist and traditionalist, but also quite progressive.

De Gaulle's father, Henri, came from a long line of aristocrats from Normandy and Burgandy, while his mother, Jeanne Maillot, descended from a family of rich entrepreneurs from the industrial region of Lille in French Flanders … his mother’s ancestors included members of the old Irish ‘Wild Geese’, exiled to France in the 1600s.

While serving during the First World War, he reached the rank of captain, commanding an infantry company. He was wounded several times, one of them in the left hand, as a result of which he wore his wedding ring on his right hand in later life. He was captured at Douaumont in the Battle of Verdun in March 1916. After the armistice, de Gaulle continued to serve in the French army and on the staff of General Maxime Weygand’s military mission to Poland during its war with Communist Russia (1919–1921), working as an advisor to Polish infantry forces. He distinguished himself in operations near the River Zbrucz and won the highest Polish military decoration, the Virtuti Militari.

Order Virtuti Militari (Latin for ‘To Military Valour’)
Poland’s highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy

In the 1920s and 1930s de Gaulle came to the fore as a proponent of armoured warfare and advocate of military aviation, which he considered a means to break the stalemate of trench warfare. During the Second World War, he reached the temporary rank of Brigadier General, leading one of the few successful armoured counter-attacks during the 1940 ‘Fall of France’ campaign, and then briefly served in the French government as France was falling. He escaped to England and gave a famous radio address in June 1940, exhorting the French people to resist Nazi Germany and organised the Free French Forces with exiled French officers in England.

Flag of Free France 1940-1944

He gradually obtained control of all French colonies - most of which had at first been controlled by the pro-German Vichy regime - and by the time of the liberation of France in 1944 he was heading a government in exile, insisting that France be treated as an independent great power by the other Allies. De Gaulle became Prime Minister in the French Provisional Government, resigning in 1946 due to political conflicts. After the war he founded his own political party, the RPF. Although he retired from politics in the early 1950s after the RPF's failure to win power, he was voted back to power as Prime Minister by the French Assembly during the May 1958 crisis.

The Auld Alliance is still alive and well in the hearts of all true Jacobites !

’Jacobites’ by John Pettie


These dogs are devoted, yet free-spirited, fierce sentries yet gentle with children, Irish Terriers have enraptured their owners through the generations - as well as their commanding officers on the Western Front during the First World War.

Lady FitzGerald, so devoted a ‘Mick’ owner that she has been ‘poor servant’ to seven Irish Terriers over the years, explains their particular appeal, “Walk out with an Irish Terrier and inevitably someone will stop to say, 'Gorgeous dog - what is he?' or, 'How wonderful to see a Mick,' (the name given them in the First World War – the famous Irish Guards regiment are also nicked-named ‘The Micks’). Invariably, these encounters turn into a party while dogs and new-found friends commune. For Irish Terriers are sociable dogs, not cloying or begging for affection, but 'chatty' and interested, with enormous charm and rare character. Once they have touched your life they are never to be forgotten, at least that is my experience.”


Lady FitzGerald went on, “I have loved Irish Terriers since, as a tiny child, our adored ‘Paddy’ arrived - a present for my older brother. He lived for 17 years and was wilful, quirky and indomitable to the end-and he loved us with his life. My own Irish (for I have never been without) seem to run through my heart like an unbroken thread of pure gold. You have to understand that we Irish Terrier people are not just fans, we are devotees. Gordon Selfridge in 1933 gave up a whole floor of his famous Oxford Street store in London to mount an exhibition about the breed. Opened by the Duke of Atholl, a staunch supporter, all the best-known dogs and bitches were 'on display'. “

They are an authentic terrier, descending in an unbroken line from their ancient terrier forbears. Their precise origin is unknown. The Romans brought with them a small 'black and tan' as they marched west through Europe and into Britain, but in Ireland there was already a terrier whose breeding was 'traced carefully through generations', and prized for its courage and hardiness, unsurpassed speed and skill as a ratter, but famed also for its ideal temperament for 'life in close proximity with people'.

Who knows how it was bred? The resemblance in coat and racy outline suggests a relationship with the ancient breed of Irish Wolfhounds. Similarities with the other terrier breeds in Ireland - especially Ireland’s Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier - are obvious. There must in any case have been a pressing need for such a dog - the sturdy but swift, low-maintenance all-rounder, able to mount guard, fend for himself when necessary, hunt and poach-but showing an astonishing gentleness with people and especially children.

They are referred to in Irish manuscripts as 'the poor man's sentinel, the farmer's friend and the gentleman's favourite'. Bred more for their working qualities of pluck and gameness than their looks, it was not until the 1808 when 'showing' dogs became popular that any form of 'standardisation' was deemed necessary.

They were a motley lot that gathered at the first Dublin show to offer classes for the breed-brindled, grey, black and tan, and some so small that they weighed only 9lb.

The arguments were long and vociferous but the characteristic which was considered paramount was the striking character of the breed-the extraordinary combination of intelligence, fiery courage and touching gentleness with its human companions.

Proper standards were drawn up in 1879 by the first Irish Club and the Ballymenas from County Antrim were the style-setters for the dogs we see in the show ring today. By the turn of the century there had been a rapid increase in their popularity. Everyone who was anyone had an Irish. The Irish Terrier Association, founded in 1911, had an earl, a marquis, a maharajah, several lords and baronets, a Major-General and a string of humble colonels as vice presidents. King Edward VII had his beloved ‘Jack’ and they became the favourite sporting terriers of the Hapsburgs.

They were taken to all parts of the British Empire, notably India and South Africa, and became popular in America - especially after the writer of animal stories Jack London, an owner, wrote two novels celebrating their 'unparalleled excellence'.

  It was their courage which led to their pre-eminence as 'war dogs' during the First World War. Shipped to France with their handlers, they showed great courage as sentry patrol dogs, messengers, guards and ratters in the terrible conditions of trench warfare on the Western Front. One such was ‘Larry’ who, under shell-fire, struggled back to base camp through miles of frozen slush and mud. Having delivered his message, he collapsed and died. They found a bullet lodged in his shoulder.  

Colonel Richardson, who was responsible for the dog training programme, spoke of the 'gallant Micks' and was convinced that they had an almost psychic ability to find their masters in the mayhem of battle. He told of an Irish Terrier who shipped himself to France with the troops and found his master in the trenches. It is impossible to conceive how he managed it.

There any no disadvantages to the Irish Terrier - unless you are a control freak who cannot tolerate a dog who has a free spirit, is not naturally obedient, remains playful and energetic into ripe old age, digs holes, chews, is insatiably curious, full of ideas and innovations and is exasperatingly delighted with himself. In an age when convenience is the fashion, conformity the rule and depression almost the norm, we can thank God for a dog with his soul intact, a heart warm and generous, that is perfectly adapted to modern living and has the wit and fire of his ancient terrier ancestors.

Irish Terriers … “Loyalty Laced with Wit”