Next weekend will see the first of the semi-finals of the All Ireland Hurling Championships when Kilkenny will play Waterford (7th August) and the following weekend will see Tipperary play Galway (14th August) to decide the teams playing the final on Sunday 4th September. It’s worth recalling that hurling is a game so ancient that it plays a role in some of our earliest legends – the Ulster Cycle, especially the tales linked to the hero Setanta who killed a nobleman’s ferocious guard dog by striking a ball into the dog’s throat with his hurley. The furious nobleman, Culann, demanded compensation from the youth. Unable to pay the demanded compensation for killing the valuable dog, Setanta agreed to become the man’s guard hound – hence he is better known as Cuchulainn (hound of Culann).
The game was played throughout the medieval period and into the early modern period. The Crown attempted to ban the game as alien to ‘English’ custom. As with the prohibition on football, the law had no effect.
In East Cork, hurling is more popular, and arguably more important, than Gaelic football. One indication of this passion for hurling can be found in a tale recorded in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1945. The tale suggests that hurling wasn’t simply a passion for the living – in this part of the country even the dead played the game!
The setting for this tale is East Ferry and the channel that links Ballinacurra to the Lower Basin of Cork Harbour, the so-called Ballinacurra River. This channel also separates the barony of Imokilly from Great Island (Barrymore barony), where Cobh (formerly Queenstown) is situated. From the early 1600s a ferry was licensed to convey passengers, livestock and carts from Great Island to Imokilly and vice versa. It seems likely that this ferry was actually in existence from very early days. The route was part of the early medieval bothar na naomh (road of the saints) which linked the monastery of Cork to Cloyne, and then on to Lismore (and Cashel). This makes sense because it mostly followed high ground and was therefore less vulnerable to flooding during heavy rain.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century ferry was operated by a windlass system – a cable attached to each side of the channel was wound around a windlass on board the flat-bottomed ferry. Simply by turning the windlass the ferryman could take the vessel from one side to the other and back again. Presumably the earlier ferry was operated by oars or a punting pole.
In the medieval period there were two parishes on Great Island – Clonmel in the western half of the island and Templerobin in the eastern half of the island. These still survive as ‘civil parishes’ on the Ordnance Survey maps and on the official documents into the twentieth century. On the other side of the Ballinacurra River lies the parish of Rath or Garranekinnefeake. Locals also know this as East Ferry – for obvious reasons. Today there is a small quay and a pub at East Ferry. It is not certain if this pub replaces a much earlier hostelry – but it shouldn’t surprise us if this were the case.
Traditionally, hurling was played between the young men of rival or neighbouring parishes. Teams were often enormous and the playing field could be extensive indeed. This is where the story tellers take up the whole drama.
Late one night when it was dark, the ferryman at East Ferry shore heard a voice hailing him from the Great Island shore. Naturally presuming that he had a fare to transport to the Imokilly shore, the ferryman conveyed his vessel to the other shore. On arrival, he discovered that there was absolutely nobody about. He called out, but there was no response.Although upset that he wouldn’t earn a fare, the ferryman decided to stay on the Great Island until he got a fare.
Settling down in his greatcoat to keep warm, he dozed off. But awoke suddenly when he heard a faint noise from the Imokilly shore. Oddly it sounded as if a large number of people on the high ground overlooking East Ferry were shouting and cheering. However, he couldn’t see anything in the darkness, and he wasn’t hailed, so he stayed where he was. Some time later there came a hail from the East Ferry shore. Naturally, the ferryman went across to earn his keep. But, again there was nobody there waiting for the ferry. Deciding to stay on his own side of the channel, the ferryman was about to settle down when some voices could be heard from the Great Island shore. Feeling somewhat abashed , he presumed that he had misheard and that the calm waters had projected voices a long way, the ferryman returned to Great Island…..only to find the shore empty as before.
Looking around to see if somebody had just made a fool of him the ferryman discovered some coins placed on a stone near the shore. On counting the coins the ferryman was astonished to discover that the sum deposited on the stone was exactly the fare sufficient to pay him for conveying a large party of passengers across the channel and back again. The long, cold, quiet night passed in weary exhaustion. The next morning the ferryman, feeling foolish, told his replacement what had happened during the night. The other ferryman was appalled and asked some searching questions.. ‘You took the dead men of Ballymore across to Rath to play a game of hurling against the dead of that parish!’ The noise he had heard coming from the top of the hill overlooking East Ferry was the ghostly audience cheering on the two teams! Apparently it had happened before, and there was no evidence of any harm being done to the ferryman……as long as he did his job, for which he had been paid the correct fare! It is not know if the ferryman quit his post that day….or continued to ferry the ghostly hurling teams to their matches.
It is curious that this tale explains how the ghosts crossed the water – apparently they cannot cross water, to the ferry proved very useful for their night-time hurling matches. Compare this with the Classical legend of Charon, the ferryman who conveyed the souls of the Greek and Roman dead across the mythical river Styx into Hades. Coins were placed on the eyes of the corpse to pay Charon’s fare for conveying their souls to Hades. In East Ferry, it was the ghostly hurlers who paid the ferryman! And all for the enjoyment of a game of hurling!