A passion for hurling…even beyond the grave!


An early 19th century print depicting Belgrove (on the left) and East Ferry (on the right) with the ‘Ballinacurra River’ in between. The view is towards the north in the direction of Midletong. Sadly Belgrove House on Great Island is now gone. The church-like building on the East Ferry side is still extant. It is a former chapel but is now a private house called Church Cottage.

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.

East Ferry

The ‘Ballinacurra River’ separating East Ferry from Great Island today.

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!

The first Sunday in September – the seasons turn again.

Padraig Mannion (Galway), John Power (Kilkenny)

Padraig Mannion (Galway – maroon* shirt), John Power (Kilkenny – black and amber shirt) in the Allianz National Hurling League game earlier this year. (When first published, the colour given here for the Galway shirt was ‘burgundy.’  However, I have been advised that the official colour is maroon. I must have been thinking of the 16th century wine trade between Galway and Spain!)

When does the autumn (the Fall to you North Americans) begin? Traditionally in Ireland it started on the first day of August. A meteorologist would state 1st September is the scientific date. Parents would suggest it starts when the children go back to school (this year some schools opened during the last full week in August!). But more and more in Ireland it seems to be the first Sunday in September, that is 6th September this year. All because of a hurling match.

As noted last year, the first Sunday in September is sacrosanct in hurling circles in Ireland – it’s the date of the All Ireland Hurling Championship Final in Croke Park, Dublin. This year’s final will be contested between last year’s winners Kilkenny (known as the ‘Cats’) and Galway (the ‘Tribesmen’). Having shocked everybody by defeating Tipperary in a thrilling semi-final, Galway are very welcome contestants for Kilkenny – and I’m saying this as a Corkman! Much as I admire Kilkenny, I feel the time has come for somebody to snatch the Liam McCarthy Cup away from them, if only to keep them on their toes!.Besides they’ve won that trophy seven times in the last nine years. Galway are aspiring to prise Kilkenny’s grip from the McCarthy cup for their first title since 1988! For this match, neutrals will be as rare as hen’s teeth.

The nobleman Culainn had a ferocious guard hound (cu) that was killed by the boy Setanta who struck a sliotar (hurling ball) down the hound's throat. Setanta then offered to become Culainn's new guard hound. Hence the name he was given - Cu Chulainn, or Culainn's Hound.

The nobleman Culainn had a ferocious guard hound (cu) that was killed by the boy Setanta who struck a sliotar (hurling ball) down the hound’s throat. Setanta then offered to become Culainn’s new guard hound. Hence the name he was given – Cu Chulainn, or Culainn’s Hound. Hurling is still a game that creates near mythical heroes.

The weather forecast looks good – dry and sunny with some small risk of showers hater (hopefully MUCH later). We’re enjoying something of an Indian summer at present although the temperatures are not exceptional. It’s dry – that’s all that matters!

For anyone who has never seen a game of hurling, I’d say, if you’re visiting Ireland during the summer months – go and watch a local club game! You may not understand it, but someone will try (and usually fail) to explain it to you. Or better, watch a major championship match on television. It’s unlikely you’d get a ticket to the big games – they get snapped up instantly. And remember the players are ALL ‘amateurs’ – that is they are not on a salary of any kind and yet they boast fitness levels that would rival that of most professional footballers on six figure sums. They play for pride of club, parish or county and for the honour of being a hero – in the true Corinthian spirit.

Made of hair. The earliest dates from the later twelfth century - between 1150 and 1200!

Made of matted cow hair with a horsehair covering, these early sliotars (hurling balls) are very different from the modern cork and leather sliotars. The earliest dates from the later twelfth century – between 1150 and 1200! The English tried to suppress hurling but its modern revival dates from the spread of the Gaelic Athletic Association in the 1880s.

Our official national festival is St Patrick’s Day, but to see 80,200 intermingled fans in Croke Park screaming on their respective counties probably gives a better indication of Ireland’s entrenched localism. There is a very real claim that the game is some 2,000 years old, with the modern rules being formulated in 1881, But it seems that the passions aroused by the game  haven’t aged one bit – there’s life in this old game yet!

Hurley used by Pat Madden of Meelick in the 1887 All Ireland Hurling Final against Thurles.

Hurley used by Pat Madden of Meelick in the 1887 All Ireland Hurling Final against Thurles. The modern hurley is somewhat more ergonomic, but every bit as deadly on the field of play.

Kikenny won’t have the mighty Henry Shefflin, who has retired. Not that they missed him – they have so many good players. Galway have already beaten Kikenny in the Allianz Hurling League and will play the irrepressible Joe Canning. Who is likely to win? It’s genuinely difficult to say, but I’m rooting for Galway!