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Hurling to your heart's content

Updated on May 18, 2017


Hurling is described as the fastest field sport in the world. Some have rather creative descriptions for the game i.e Jason Statham in the movie Blitz. 15 players per team, 30 sticks, 2 goalposts, 1 point for a shot over the bar, 3 for a shot underneath. One may liken the sport to a mixture of hockey and lacrosse, however, purists will say that there are zero similarities to either. Part of the appeal of Hurling is that all sports were outlawed by the British during their occupation of Ireland, however, the rebels would go to open fields up in the hills and play where the soldiers couldn't see. Overall, Hurling is Ireland's most popular sport with tens of thousands of people watching matches every Sunday at stadiums all over the country.

History of the game

Hurling is among the oldest field games in the world with the first documented reference dating back to 1272 BC.

Hurling is often referenced in Irish myths and legends, the most famous of which has to be the early account found in the Táin Bo Cuailgne, a legendary tale from early Irish literature, which describes the exploits of the Ulster hero Cú Chullainn, (Hound of Cullen) who was so named after killing a fierce guard dog by driving a hurling ball down its throat. Such stories often portray Hurling as a form of martial training and proficiency on the Hurling field was equated with skill in battle.

The 19th century saw a new version of Hurling, or hurley as it was referred to, become popular within the upper classes. A defining ten year period for Hurling was before the establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884. By 1879, there were at least six hurley clubs among the gentry in Dublin, and the Irish Hurley Union was founded in Trinity College. It was exclusively an upper-class preserve and bore little relation to traditional concepts of the game. During this period, the various forms of the game all metamorphosed into the first nationally codified sport of Hurling, which was in essence, the summer game of Leinster and the South.

Since the foundation of the GAA in 1884 and the introduction of a formal set of rules, the game of Hurling has evolved to the game we see today. The original core concept of man-on man (or woman-on-woman) contests for the ball within the defined framework of a positional game has been added to and eroded to varying degrees over time.

Early shot of a hurling match
Early shot of a hurling match | Source

GAA Venues and National Headquarters

The GAA own some of the best stadiums in Ireland. The capacities of each county stadium are typically greater than their counterparts in Rugby or Soccer. Examples of these stadiums are Semple Stadium, Tipperary, Pairc Ui Caoimh, Cork, Gaelic Grounds, Limerick and the National headquarters of Croke Park.

Croke Park is an 83000 seater stadium, making it one of the largest in Europe. It hosts all the GAA national finals and caters for a number of large concerts throughout the year. Croke park represents the serious end of the Championship season as all games from the quarter finals onwards take place on the hallowed turf.

If you are ever in the area, a visit to the museum comes highly recommended:


The Rules

Key Points

  • 2 teams with 15 players each
  • There's typically a goalkeeper, 3 full backs, 3 half backs, 2 midfielders, 3 half forwards and 3 full forwards giving a 3-3-2-3-3 formation
  • The game is played on a pitch that is typically 145m long and 90m wide with lines extending the full width of the pitch at 13, 20, 45 and 65 meters from goal
  • Each player has a stick made from ash (hurley) and a helmet must be worn by all participants.
  • The ball is called a sliotar and slightly larger than a tennis ball
  • The ball can be played freely in a hockey fashion without restrictions however, if the player takes the ball in their hand, they must release it after taking 4 steps, alternatively they can balance the ball on the stick and take as many steps as they wish
  • The goals are shaped like a capital letter 'H' with a strike over the crossbar counting for 1 point and a goal (under the crossbar) counting for 3 points.
  • If the ball goes wide, play resumes with a stike from the goalkeeper. If the defending team hits the ball wide, play resumes with a free strike by an opposition player from 65 meters.
  • A free ball begins with the ball on the ground. The player scoops the ball into the air and then strikes it with the second movement.
  • If the ball goes out on the sidelines, play resumes with a player striking the ball from the ground - A sideline cut
  • The game is quite physical with shoulder to shoulder challenges, blocking and hurley to hurley clashes all very common.


Hawkeye was introduced in the past few years as a type of video refereeing. The only time the technology is used, however, is to determine whether or not a ball has gone between the post. This rule introduction has been very controversial as it means that there are now stoppages in the game and it means that the referee and linesman's decisions can be overruled by a computer. If a player feels that a ball which they struck, that the umpire deemed to be wide, was, in fact, between the posts, they can ask for Hawkeye to be used. If the referee feels that there is uncertainty, then he signals to the upstairs referee to review the footage and allow the system to determine if the ball was wide or not.

Player Progression

Players begin their careers at underage level. They start at U/12, U/14, U/16 with the first real milestone being U/18. At this point they can be selected for the regional or 'county' team. Next they move to U/21 and again they have the opportunity to be selected for the county team. The best players from this selection will go on to represent their county at senior level, with the second tier being intermediate and the third tier being junior. The graphic shows broadly how the system is structured.

There are 32 counties in Ireland divided into 4 provinces.Each county has a team made up of players selected from the dozens of parishes within its borders. There is a league which takes place between February and May each year and the Championship (the main competition) which takes place between May and September. First, teams compete in a provincial knockout tournament with the winners and runners up going on to play in the national quarter finals.

The result... A truly breathtaking spectacle!

Hurling Legends

Kilkenny are renowned for their production of high quality hurlers and this is evident as two of the best hurlers that ever lived hailed from the Black and Amber county. Henry Shefflin is the most recent with Dj Carey finishing his career in the early 2000's. Both players were very exciting forwards and both players made names for themselves for scoring audacious points from difficult angles and distances, sometimes being marked tightly by the defender. Eddie Kehir would be one of the most memorable hurlers from Kilkenny hurling's past.

Cork produced some fantastic players down through the years, the most notable of which was Christy Ring. He was fast, strong and could strike the ball with great ferocity.

Tipperary is another hurling stronghold with Lar Corbett being a recent graduate of their GAA school and Brendan Cummins worthy of a mention as their former all-star goalkeeper. Nicky English was also one of the Tipperary Greats.

Limerick have had their moments down through the years and Mick Mackey is the one that stands out. He was an all rounder with a reputation for running through the opposition with the ball.

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Jerseys and other kit


O'Neills are the official kit supplier of the GAA. They provide Jerseys, shorts, socks, tracksuits, t-shirts and other items and apparel for all Inter county GAA teams. The Jerseys normally have a standard design with the distinct county colours, 3 stripes down along the shoulders and the O'Neills emblem in the centre of the chest. Players don't have their names printed on the back but they are usually assigned numbers from 1-20 on the day of a game.

Marketing and Media

GAA, in general, receives little coverage at the levels below senior. On occasion, an U/21's game may be broadcast but typically, only the Senior codes grab the media attention. Until recently, RTE (Radio Television Eire) was the sole broadcaster for GAA with matches being shown live and highlights being televised on the infamous Sunday Game programme with former players sitting in as pundits and giving their views on the weekend's events. In the past 10 years, TnaG or TG4 has begun showing live matches across all levels midweek and at weekends. TG4 is known as 'the Irish channel' as all shows are broadcast through the Irish language. A massive breakthrough for the branding and worldwide promotion of Ireland's national sports came when Sky Sports bought the rights to show a specified number of Senior Championship games each year. This meant that Hurling would be seen by men, women and children across the UK and even further afield. Some controversy surrounded this move, as it meant that key games would not be broadcast on RTE meaning that Irish people would need to buy an English TV sports package to watch the very games that the English once prohibited Irish nationals from playing.



Camogie is the female version of the male game of hurling. There are few differences between the sports but subtle rule adaptations mean that it exists as a separate entity and does not even make up part of the GAA (Gaelic Athletic association). The equipment is the same, the ball is the same, the jerseys are the same but the players wear skirts instead of shorts. The structures are the same in terms of pathways for players through the grades and ultimately progressing on to represent the county. High profile finals are played at the GAA headquarters, however, crowds will typically be smaller and coverage will be limited to radio and perhaps a slot on TG4.



The Irish games of Hurling and Football are starting to spread world wide. People are playing Hurling (in particular) in 4 corners of the globe. There are teams in the U.S, the Middle East, Australia and mainland Europe. Adaptations of the sport have been designed so that a form of the game can be played on a soccer pitch with soccer goals and just 11 players per team. This makes the sport more accessible in countries where the full game has not been developed to the point where they have the facilities required for the traditional version.

There IS a national hurling team, however, it is only formulated once a year for a demonstration match against Scotland. The Scottish have their own similar Gaelic sport called Shinty and it is a hybrid of Hurling and Shinty which is played in the annual international.


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