Hurling and Camogie – searching for the early medieval origins of Ireland’s ancient games


Tipperary vs Kilkenny, National League Hurling Final, May 2014 (Photo: James Crombie, Irish Mirror)

Aidan O’Sullivan,

UCD School of Archaeology

Friday 2 September 2016


Ireland’s famous sports of hurling and camogie are stick-and-ball games played respectively by men and women, mostly on this island but increasingly abroad. The games are administered by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and the Camogie Association. Two teams of fifteen players each, oppose each other on a  large, rectangular pitch with goals at either end. The games, when played at the top level, and you can watch a fantastic  2013 All-Ireland Hurling Final with Clare vs Cork game on YouTube here, require players with a high degree of personal skill and physical coordination, as well as speed, agility, quickness of thought and action, and no little courage under a dropping ball with sticks flailing.


Dublin vs Tipperary camogie (photo:

Hurling and camogie are games that inspire great passion and affection, and down through the years, its followers have tended to argue that hurling (I will use that name from now on, but what lies below applies to camogie also) is a game of immense antiquity, with roots deep in Irish prehistory. In reality, the modern sport of hurling was largely codified in the late 19th century, and has indeed itself evolved through the 20th century, and even in this decade, in terms of rules, equipment and tactics. However, we also have definite evidence for the playing of several different stick and ball games in the early medieval period (i.e. AD 400-1100, the later Middle Ages and then up to the modern period, and the challenge is to understand what these games might have been like.

In exploring the earliest evidence for hurling in Ireland, we have a limited range of sources. There are increasingly hints from archaeology, for both the character of the stick and ball, but our best evidence comes from early Irish historical sources and particularly early Irish laws dated to the 7th/8th century and early Irish narrative literature or sagas, dated to across the medieval period. These legal and literary sources give us our best sense of the equipment used, the stick and the ball, the playing areas (known in Old Irish as the faitche or cluichemag), as well as the game’s strategies, players, teams, and the injuries suffered both by participants and spectators.

A number of scholars have previously looked at the history of hurling, notably Liam O’Caithnia, Art O Maolfabhail and Seamus King. All of them provide particularly good and important studies of the development of hurling in the 17th-19th centuries, but perhaps – and this is not meant as a criticism – they tend to present very simplistic views of hurling in the medieval period. Most importantly, they tended to conflate and combine descriptions of possibly quite different games from different source, make them into one, and claim that this was “hurling”.

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Image: Aidan O’Sullivan, from original books)

Probably the most important recent scholarly work then has been Angela Gleason’s, who completed a PhD in the Dept. of History TCD in 2002, entitled “Entertainment in early Ireland” (and I’m delighted to acknowledge Dr Gleason for allowing me to read her thesis in 2009). One of the key points that Dr Gleeson makes is that all modern historical studies of hurling have tended to be heavily influenced by the GAA’s origins and development in the cultural and political nationalist movements of the late 19th century and 20th century. She has argued that historians of the GAA in attempting to identify the origins of hurling in the games of antiquity, may have bundled together potentially quite different games and presented them as one single game. The early medieval historical evidence might suggest that in fact people played quite a range of field sports and games, each of them with their own equipment, strategies and participants, some of which might have been like hurling, whilst others may have been quite different.

One of the problems in reconstructing the games as they were played is that the audiences of early medieval storytellers and writers would have been quite familiar with the games, so they would not have felt the need to explain the rules, tactics and complexities of the game. Thus phrases are used in the early medieval texts which we might struggle to understand, not having that easy familiarity all our lives.

Indeed, imagine if a person today, entirely unfamiliar with modern hurling, read in a  newspaper that “Joe Canning got the sliotar at the edge of the square, and stuck in the roof of the net”. Their reaction might be: “What’s a sliotar? What was the square? Why did he put in roof of the net, and how does one do that anyway?!” In the same sense, we are trying to reconstruct an ancient game from short pieces of text, intended for people who knew more than we do.

On the other hand, there is little doubt that when you read these texts, they do present a general sense of games that are not unlike hurling or camogie, or indeed games that were certainly like the games that were being played in Ireland the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, the earliest reference to a game known as hurling is found in a statute issued in Kilkenny in 1367, in the reign of Edward III, which outlaws horlinge, deeming it a distraction and diversion from military pursuits such as archery. The text reads

“Also, whereas a land, which is at war, requires that every person do render himself able to defend himself, it is ordained, and established, that the commons of the said land of Ireland, who are in the different marches at war, do not, henceforth, use the plays which men call horlings, with great sticks and a ball upon the ground, from which great evils and maims have arisen, to the weakening, of the defence of the said land, and other plays which men call coiting; but that they do apply and accustom themselves to use and draw bows, and throw lances, and other gentlemanlike games, whereby the Irish enemies may be the better checked by the liege people and commons of these parts; and if any do or practise the contrary, and of this be attainted, they shall be taken and imprisoned, and fined at the will of our lord the king.” (source CELT The Corpus of Electronic Texts, published by UCC)

Horlinge then in the 14th century then was a native, Irish game played with great sticks and a ball on the ground. Now, this is important, because in recent years we have confirmed archaeological evidence from the 15th century and before that, for sticks and for balls that would fit this description. In other words, we have definite historical and archaeological evidence for a type of game, known as hurling/horlinge, in the late medieval period. The evidence also fits well with what we know of earlier games, before the 10th century. On balance then, I think that the early medieval stick and ball games described in the sources are indeed ancestral to modern hurling, albeit different in many ways, and the experience of both playing and watching them would not be entirely strange to a modern observer, and certainly not strange to someone playing the game of hurling in the 18th or 19th century in parts of the country.

The description of stick-and-ball games in the Táin Bó Cuailgne

This can all be well-illustrated by a consideration of the most famous and most often quoted source about early medieval hurling; the Táin Bó Cuailgne and particularly the boyhood deeds of the hero Cú Chulainn (originally known in boyhood as Setanta). Although more recent, popular versions are available, the scholarly work is that of Cecile O’Rahilly who published academic editions/translations of both recensions, including her Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster (1967) and Táin Bó Cúailnge Recension 1 (1976), as well as an edition of the later Stowe Version (1984), a variant version of recension 2 in more modern language, with a few extra passages (see here for a discussion of versions and translations). In any case, descriptions of early medieval field sports, some of which are very like hurling, are found in two main versions of the Táin (and again, I am indebted to Angela Gleason for her previous analysis of the texts, with my own occasional comment).

  • The earliest and simplest descriptions (in Old Irish) are found in the Leabhar na hUidre (the Book of the Dun Cow, hereafter LU) dated to the early 12th century.
  • Slightly later, and more embellished descriptions (composed in middle Irish, but based on old Irish) are found in the late 12th century manuscript, Lebor Laignech (the Book of Leinster, hereafter LL)

The well-known section known as the boyhood deeds of Cú Chulainn begins by describing how one day, Cú Chulainn sets out on a journey to the playing-field at Emain Macha, the royal site of Ulster. He takes with him his wooden shield, his toy javelin, his playing stick and his ball.The text begins:

…the little lad asked his mother if he might go to play to the playing-field at Emain..

The boy went forth and took his playthings. He took his hurley-stick of bronze and his silver ball; he took his little javelin for casting and his toy spear with its end sharpened by fire, and he began to shorten the journey (by playing) with them, He would strike the ball with the stick and drive it a long way from him. Then with a second stroke he would throw his stick so that he might drive it a distance no less than the first. He would throw his javelin and he would cast his spear and would make a playful rush after them. Then he would catch his hurley-stick and his ball and his javelin and before the end of his spear had reached the ground he would catch its tip aloft in the air (From O’Rahilly, C. 1967 Táin Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies Táin LL, trans. 158-59).

The different texts deal with the equipment using different phrases:

Leabhar na hUidhre version (early 12th cent.) “He went off then with his wooden shield and his toy javelin, his hurley and his ball (a lorg áne 7 a liat[h]ráit)

Lebor Laignech version (late 12th cent) “He took his hurley-stick of bronze and his silver ball (Gebid a chammán crédunma 7 a líathroit n-argide); he took his little javelin for casting and his toy spear with its end sharpened by fire.

We can see straight away that there are several important words in the various recensions of the Táin texts; lorg áne means literally ‘driving-stick’ and is used in LU (but O’Rahilly translates it as ‘hurley’), while LL uses the term ‘cammán créduma (which O’Rahilly translates as ‘bronze hurley’, following the modern Irish word cammán, which means literally ‘little bent thing’). The texts go on. On his way to Emain (in LL), Cú Chulainn amuses himself by striking the ball with his cammán so that it flies a great distance. He then throws his cammán after it, once again striking the ball and driving it a distance equal to the first. He completes the trick by throwing his javelin after it, catching all of them before they strike the ground.

So, here we get a clear description of the use of a stick (lorg áne or cammán) to hit a ball (liathróit) and interestingly, the stick is used to hit the ball up into the air rather than simply along the ground.

When he reaches the playing-field at Emain, Cú Chulainn attempts to join a game being played by boys. In both LU and LL, he does not seek a bond of protection (a legal exemption from liability for injuries given and received). He joins the game and shows great skill, scoring a goal. However, his attempts to join the game are resisted. The other boys throw their balls at him, along with their hurling-clubs

LL They cast their thrice fifty hurley-sticks (trí coíctu cammán) at the boy’s head. He lifted up his single plaything stick (óenluirg n-ánuisa) and warded off the thrice fifty sticks. Then they cast the thrice fifty balls at the little boy.

The use of another word, óenluirg n-ánuisa is interesting, and may simply be the use of different words to provide variety, but Angela Gleason has suggested that this may indicate that being of different status (an unfostered youth, unlike the boys) he had a different stick.

 Cú Chulainn uses his lorg áne in other activities, mostly violent, elsewhere in the Táin. In one episode from LU, he meets a man carrying his brother on his back, but refuses to help him and the man attacks him. LU “Wherepon Cú Chulainn rose to his feet, and striking off his opponent’s head with his hurley, began to drive (imáin) the head like a ball before him across the plain’.

However, the picture gets a little more complex when we realise that in another part of the Táin, there is a description of the boys gathered on Conchobar’s playing field at Emain, to play cluchi puill (‘hole game’).

“Conchobar went to the playing field (arin faidchi) and saw something that astonished him; thrice fifty boys at one end of the field and a single boy at the other end, and the single boy winning victory in taking the goal and in hurling (‘immána’, driving) from the thrice fifty youths. When they played the hole-game.. and when it was their turn to cast the ball and his to defend, he would catch the thrice fifty ball outside the hole and none would go past him into the hole. When it was their turn to keep goal and his to hurl, he would put the thrice fifty balls unerringly into the hole” Táin Cúalnge

There is possibly an implication here that the ‘hole game’ is different than other field-sports. Cú Chulainn defends a ‘goal’, each boy appears to use his own ball. Angela Gleason suggests that the existence of a distinct game known as the ‘hole-game’ is also implied by the law-tract Bretha Éitgid describing injuries sustained during it. The terms used are balls (liathroide), sticks (lorg), holes (poll) and pis (long). A difficult to understand passage goes as follows;

“Immune is he who strikes the ball with his stick from the driving hole to the grifid-pit (place?), or from the grifid-pit to the place of division, or [in striking it] from the hole in which it is until it reaches the place in which it is.” Bretha Éitgid, trans. A.B. Gleason 2002, Recreation in early Ireland, PhD thesis, Trinity College Dublin p. 271

It is all very impenetrable, but this and other passages from an Old Irish law tract known as Mellbretha, suggests the existence of a playing field with separate places, boundaries and divisions, and that a ball is driven from one place to another, and defended. On the other hand, its possible that the same place and equipment were used for the ‘hole game’ as the previous ones, much like say boys and girls might play penalties today, and use a number of different balls, as one boy or girl defends the goal. It is in principle the same sport, but is a different type of contest.

In any case, the Táin gives us a strong sense of a stick and ball game, the equipment used, possibly the tactics, the means of scoring and the venue, which we turn to now.

Where were the games played?

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The early medieval sources give us a strong sense of where field-games were played and most often use the terms ‘faithche’ (green) or cluichemag (sports field), and this is particularly so in the Táin.

“He went on to the place of assembly in Emain where the youths were. There were thrice fifty youths lead by Follomain mac Conchobuir at their games on the green of Emain. The little boy went on to the playing field (faithche) in their midst and caught the ball between his two legs when they cast it nor did he let it go higher than the top of his knee no go lower than his ankle, and he pressed it and held it close between his two legs, and not one of the youths managed to get a grasp or a stroke or a blow or a shot at it. And he carried the ball away from them over the goal.” From O’Rahilly, C. 1967 Táin Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies Táin LL, trans. 158-59

In the Táin, there is a clear sense that the game is played in a specific space close to the king’s household at Emain. The Book of Leinster version uses the words faithche (‘green’) and cluichemag (‘sports field’) to describe the place where Cu Chulainn and the boys of Emain play.

In the Middle Irish Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agu Ghráinne, the king of Ireland holds a contest of ‘driving (iomáin churmórtuis) during a fair (áonaigh) on the green at Tara. The use of the word ‘driving’ is interesting obviously, as well as the fact of a competition, and a venue.

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In early medieval Ireland, we know that the space close to the royal residence was known as the faitche or ‘green’ and was used as a location for fairs, assemblies and also sporting events. The green was probably a fairly large area and in some sources is defined as the four fields adjacent to a chief residence and in others as the land as far as a bell might be heard – all very vague definitions, but definitely implying that a green was a space close to the residence. There is even a sense in the historical sources that such greens had to be maintained in good order by the king. In the old Irish law tract, Cetharslicht Athgabála, there was a requirement for greens to be maintained “in the time of the games” (cartad oenaigh .i.. in aimsir cluithi)….a bit like the Croke Park groundsmen maintaining their pitch

Other early Irish legal sources all stipulate that a green or faithche was a place where people could play field-games (cluithi) and horseracing (graithfne) and that they would be legally immune from fines for damage to property if this was what they were doing. For example, Angela Gleason notes in her PhD that a passage in the law tract, Bretha Éitgid states that anyone who causes damage or injury from striking a ball on the green of the chief-enclosure (faiche primcathrach) is exempt from fines as such open spaces are free. However, if small boys caused destruction by driving balls (imain na liathroiti) outside the green (secharfaiche), they – or their parents or foster-parents – would have to pay compensation. The law tract, Bretha Éitgid also defines various legal liabilities if the ball lands outside the green; including considerations for the retrieval of the ball; permission to enter private property; permission to open any fence or gap to retrieve a ball and care to secure such a barrier upon leaving. So, a strong sense that the playing-field was bounded in some way.

There is even a sense that spectators gathered in particular areas to watch the game on the playing-field, much as in the Táin where it says the Conchobar spends a third of his day watching the drivings (immánae) of the boys on the green. Indeed, there are even legal passages that discuss circumstances where spectators might be compensation for injuries received while watching a game.

The descriptions of games at Tara and Emain Macha certainly indicate that part of the spaces around them were used for games, but we can also identify other archaeological sites in Ireland where we can see hints that a royal stronghold or fort had a green or faitche beside it. For example, on Lough Derravaragh, Co. Westmeath, there is a likely royal crannog and ringfort at Coolure Demesne. UCD School of Archaeology’s investigations have dated this crannog to the between the 5th and the 9th century AD, and a range of finds indicate that it was a high-status site, possibly that of the Uí Fiachrach Cuile Fobair, a minor local dynasty in Mide. The local townland may preserve in its outline the estate associated with the royal residences and would certainly provide a suitable space for a green or playing field.

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An early medieval royal landscape at Coolure Demesne, Co. Westmeath, with likely royal residences at the crannog and ringfort on the adjacent land. The space to the east of the dwellings would make an ideal faithche or cluiche mag (Image Aidan O’Sullivan, UCD School of Archaeology)

Similarly, in Co. Westmeath, we have the known early medieval royal residences of the kings of Clann Cholmáin, one of the most important groups of the Southern Uí Néill, and ultimately holders of the kingship of Tara. At their royal crannog of Cro-inis, and their royal fort at Dún na Sciath, there is an interesting exclusion zone to the north, where there is a complete absence of any early medieval settlement enclosures.  Screen shot 2016-09-02 at 12.10.14

It is also incidentally, a level, grassy sward that again would make an idea playing field. Although we have no way of proving it, it is likely that this space was the location for games, horse racing and public assemblies associated with the king during the early medieval period.

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Photos (top) and map (above) showing the early medieval royal residences, Dun na Sciath and Cro-inis, of the kings of Clann Cholmain, of Mide, on the west shore of Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath. An expanse of grassland to the north of the royal complex would be highly suitable for the extent of a faithche. (Colour photo and map, Aidan O’Sullivan; black and white photo in 1969: Cambridge University Committee for Aerial Photography).

What were the playing sticks – the lorg ané and cammáin – like in early medieval Ireland?

So, what were these playing sticks like, and did they bear any resemblance to the hurleys that we know from more recent times? Well, we can see today that hurleys are both regional in style, and that they have changed profoundly even within the 20th century, so its likely that lorg áne – the driving stick – and cammáin – little bent thing – in early medieval Ireland were probably variable. There are regional styles in Wexford, Kilkenny, Galway and elsewhere today, so why not in the past?

We have for example, the very recent O’Connor style hurley, initially used by Cork hurlers but now increasingly by most county teams, with its pronounced heel, which is very much about the modern style of game which is largely played from the hand and thus emphasises the ‘sweet spot’ in the middle of the bas, for striking the ball from the hand.

Cork v Wexford - All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final

Katriona Mackey, Cork, in action against Noeleen Lambert, Wexford. All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final, Cork v Wexford, Croke Park, Dublin, Sept. 2012. You can see two slightly different styles of hurley here, the one to the right used by the Cork camogie player displays the pronounced heel that is increasingly popular, the Wexford player’s is more like the traditional Wexford style  (Photo Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE)

Moving backwards to the 1950s, for example, we can see that hurleys used in Clare by my father, shown in the photograph of the Clare hurling team were quite different again – with sticks that were principally for ground hurling.


My father, John O’Sullivan (back row, second from right) on the Clare senior hurling team in the mid-1950s. In the foreground you can see his team mates’ hurleys, which with their narrow bas are of course designed largely for ground hurling and are very different from the stick used today. (Photo: O’Sullivan family).

Moving back further in time, we can see in this image of the hurley used by the Kilkenny player Lory Meagher, traditionally seen as one the game’s greatest players. His hurley is of course very narrow in the bas, as befitted the game at the time in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, you can watch the game as it was played, mostly on the ground, in 1921 during the Dublin v Limerick All-Ireland Hurling Final in this British Pathé newsreel here


Lory Meagher (to the left) prior to the All-Ireland Final against Cork in September 1931

Moving backwards again to c. 1900, we can see in this image of a hurley found at Michael Cusack’s house at Carron and currently held in Clare County Museum, that sticks consistently had a long, narrow boss.


Michael Cusack’s hurley, Carron, Co. Clare (Clare County Museum)


Going back further in time, the National Museum of Ireland’s Folk Life Collection also has a collection of hurleys, some of which might well be early in date although most probably date to the 19th century. These vary in style, There are also various depictions used by Art O’Maolfabhail, going back through 1840s to 1805 – which might or might not be accurate drawings – of hurley sticks in the 19th century.

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Hurleys from the late 19th century and early 20th century. To the left, one Patrick Kenrick, Fethard, c.1900, from a photograph held by the National Library of Ireland, to the right, an image used in his book by Art O’Maolfabhail from the National Museum of Ireland’s Folklife Collection, showing a range of hurleys from different parts of the country.

At this point, we might also mention Art O’Maolfabhail opinion that there was originally a northern ‘winter hurling’ and a Leinster ‘summer hurling’, with the GAA largely adopting the latter on its formation in 1886.

We can push this discussion of the development of hurling sticks by mentioning the very earliest artistic depiction we have of a stick, which is on a late medieval grave slab found at Clonca, on the Inisowen peninsula, Co. Donegal. This grave slab was made, probably in Ireland, for one Mánas mac Mhoireasdain of Iona, in a west Scottish style. It depicts a late medieval – 15th century – sword, as well as a long, thin playing-stick with a curved end and a ball beside the tip. The iconography of the slab would be intended to portray his masculine strengths and his cultural background – and it has often been seen as a depiction of a stick like that used for ground play, as in modern shinty.

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Finally, most importantly, the earliest archaeological evidence of an actual stick that we have is a hurley made of alder-wood, found in a bog at Derries, near Edenderry, Co. Offaly and held in the Folklife Collection of the National Museum of Ireland (F:1981.160).

Derries Hurley_NMI

Hurley found in a bog at Derries, near Edenderry, Co. Offaly, and radiocarbon dated to the 15th-17th century AD (Photo: National Museum of Ireland Folklife Collection, with thanks to Clodagh Doyle).

This was also a stick with a narrow bas or playing end, measuring 94.5cm in length with a maximum width of 6.5cm. It has been radiocarbon dated to345+/- 24 BP, which would be calibrated to 2 sigma c.AD 1467-1635. In other words, a date somewhere from the late 15th to early 17th century (with my thanks to Eamonn P. Kelly and the National Museum of Ireland for the c14 dates). The National Museum of Ireland, in collaboration with the GAA Croke Park Museum, have a nice video about the hurley and an account of the hair hurling balls here with commentary by Clodagh Doyle, and the Director of the NMI Raghnall O’Floinn.

But, what were the early medieval lorg ané and cammán like?

Moving backwards in time again, back a thousand years ago; What was the lorg áne (driving stick) or cammáin (little bent thing) like in early medieval Ireland? The sources give some hints. In the Táin, the stick was clearly used to propel a ball across a field, and potentially to lift and strike it into the air – which would certainly imply a broad boss. It is most likely that these sticks were made of wood, possibly even ash or alder which was often used for spearshafts and handles.Otherwise, the sources tend to focus on what else might be on a stick.

A Middle Irish (i.e. 11th/12th century) commentary on the law tract Cáin Iarraith lists the playthings that a boy should have on fosterage. The son of a king should have a cammán ornamented with silver, while the son of a lord is expected to have a cammán ornamented with bronze. As Angela Gleason has translated below, we can see that typical concern of the early medieval Irish to match high social status with material culture. The commentary on the law tract Cáin Iarraith states:

…7 airget aru faighnibh 7 credumu aru cumanaibh, 7 sdan aru faignighib o sin imach 7 umhu aru cumanaibh.

…and silver upon their (sons of a king) scabbards and bronze upon their playing sticks, and tin upon their (sons of a lord) scabbards in the same way and copper upon their playing-sticks. (CIH 1759.17-18, trans. Angela B. Gleason 2002 Entertainment in early Ireland PhD thesis, Trinity College Dublin).

We have no idea what precisely this ‘ornamented’ means – these could be bands to strengthen the cammán, but they could also be decoration on the handle. Law tracts and saint’s lives commonly rank objects according to class and it is impossible to say if these are accurate descriptions. They may be fantastic items, not really found in real life.

Angela Gleason also notes that in a Middle Irish tale from the Book of Leinster, one character named Crimthann receives a stipend of fifty bronze playing sticks and balls (cammán creduma co lliathroitib credumaib). Clearly though, the ownership of a cammán was expected of boys of status. That the cammán was an item of personal property can also be seen in a fragment from an Old Irish law tract known as Mellbretha (“sports judgements”?), which describes field-games and liabilities for injuries, based on age and presumably status.

“If a boy finds or takes a cammán or lúbóc that is not his own; if he is later found with it, there is no retribution; i.e. he simply gives it back and there is no further penalty (“if it be a lúbóc or cammán which is found or taken and they are found there with him, that which is taken stands as retribution”.

In another old Irish law tract, Cetharslicht Athgabála, it is stated that children’s playthings should not be distrained – these being “playing sticks and balls (camana 7 liathroiti), and Lúbóca, or cats…” Angela Gleason has argued that the reference to an object known as a lúbóc – and the fact that this is in juxtaposition with cammán – indicates that there is possibly another ball game to be considered. A lúbóc would appear to be a circle or ring through which a ball might be played, a hoop of some description. There is other evidence to suggest that it simply is another game, not related to the ‘driving game’.

We have some further evidence for what these lorg áne and cammán looked like. There is intriguing evidence for the depiction of ‘driving sticks’ on early medieval high crosses at Kells, Co. Meath and Monasterboice, Co. Louth – a fact that was first noted by Art O Maolfabhail in 1973. Early medieval high crosses were large decorated, ornate stone crosses located at key locations in early monasteries and may have been a way of illustrating stories and events from the bible to a largely illiterate population.

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The scene of David slaying the lion depicts David as a shepherd killing a lion with his bare hands. On the early medieval Kells Market cross, Co. Meath and on the early medieval west cross at Monasterboice, Co. Louth there is a carving of a curved object associated with a circular object – and these is often interpreted as a shepherd’s crook or a sling with a sling stone. However, slings were not typical weapons in early medieval Ireland, or at least they are not commonly mentioned, and we may be looking here at a ‘driving stick and ball’.

Now why would David be holding a driving stick and ball?

Well, it is intriguing that about the same time as these early medieval high crosses were being erected and used in monasteries, the saga of the Táin Bó Cuailgne was being written down. In the boyhood deeds of Cú Chulainn, there is a well-known incident where the boy Setanta gains his new name Cu Chulainn by killing a ferocious beast. In this episode, Setanta is travelling late to a feast, following on from the king Conchobar, as he had been playing on the fields at Emain. In both versions of the tale, he passes the time on his journey using his playthings, and in LL, he is again using his hurley and ball. When he arrives at the fort, he finds that a fierce hound is about to attack him. In both LL and LU, he throws the ball down through the hounds throat before picking him up with his bare hands and smashing him against a pillar stone, i.e. it is not stated that he used his hurley.

It is possible that people in early medieval Ireland would have been thus familiar with a motif where a hero kills a fierce beast – and more familiar with the Cú Chulainn episode than a biblical one – and so the artists depicts a camán and liathroit, rather than a shepards crook or sling. It is admittedly, tenuous: but it’s a possibility (and see Dr Andrew Halpin’s comment below, arguing that they are indeed slings).

What was the early medieval liathróit like?

The early medieval historical sources also give evidence for the character of the ball used in the games. The modern sliotar or hurling ball is of course made of leather and cork. In the 19th century, hurling balls were often made of wood (cnag), the roots of furze/whin bushes, leather, horse or cow hair and woven straw and were often used as betrothal gifts from young women to young men, or as part of Mayday festivities (see the National Museum of Ireland’s website here. The Lavally ball illustrated below was made of felted cows hair, covered by a network of fine cord of plaited long tail hairs of horse.  These balls were often deposited in bogs, occasionally situated at depths indicating at least some antiquity, possibly from the late medieval period – but now we have definite evidence through the National Museum of Ireland’s work, of early examples of ‘hurling ball’. The National Museum of Ireland’s radiocarbon dating has placed several balls back to the 12th/13th century AD.


Hair hurling balls held in the Folklife Collection of the National Museum of Ireland; from left, clockwise: Tomageehy, Co. Kerry, Tooreen, Co. Kerry, Lavally, Co. Sligo. The Tooreen ball has been c14 dated to AD 1514-1647 (Photo: National Museum of Ireland, sourced at their website here

The early medieval historical sources can be a bit graphic, if fantastical, in their descriptions of hurling balls. Some of the sources claim that balls were created out of the brains of enemies. In the Middle Irish Aided Conchobuir, it is stated that “At that time it was a custom with the men of Ulster to take the brains out of the head of every warrior who they slew in single combat, and to mix lime with them so that they were made into hard balls. And whenever they were in contention or at comparison of trophies, these were brought to them, so that they had them in their hands.” There are similar mentions of balls made of brains in other sagas too, as well as the Táin. They may of course be entirely fantastic.

 To conclude – what about players, teams and strategies?

So much for sticks, balls and playing grounds, what of the nature of these games; how were they played; what was their goal, how were they organised in terms of teams and rules? Well, we have real problems in reconstructing these, because the sources are vague, they often only hold snippets of information, and they amay be as Angela Gleason has argued, be referring to potentially different field games. The term immáin simply means ‘driving’. Is this hurling? It is intriguing though that today we might say that a corner-back in a hurling match might get the ball and “drive it down the field”, so perhaps we should be cautious about being too literal about words (you will also hear the shouts of “drive it!”, “pull on it”, “timber him!”..ok, I only heard the last phrase in north Tipperary in the 1980s, but how would we understand phases like this if we did not know the game?). So, the terms lorg áne and cammáin may literally mean ‘driving stick’ and ‘little bent thing’. Are these hurleys in the modern sense, almost certainly not, as we have already shown the development of hurleys across time – but it is not unlikely that early medieval sticks looked much like the later medieval ones from Clonca and Derries.

The saga-literature implies that the game known as immáin (‘driving’) or áon líathróti (‘ball-driving’) was played on a green. In some sources (Tóruigheachta Diarmait agus Ghrainne) a game could go for days. In the Táin, Cu Chulainn catches the ball between his shins, and despite the tackles of the other boys, carries it ‘across the goal’ (dar brúch mbáire). It sounds like the first goal ends the game. The game as presented in the saga lierature is played mostly by young boys with a ball and playing-stick. The sagas of course are representing an ideal, heroic, military society – so Cú Chulainn is a hero able to beat 150 boys at a game. During fairs and festivals, it was played by men. For example, in Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne, a game is being played at the feast of Tara. Diarmaid steps in, grabs the nearest cammán and scores three goals.

There are occasional references to otherworldly people playing games. The most famous is in the Middle Irish Cath Maige Tuiread (‘the Battle of Moytura’), when Rad and 27 others challenge the Tuatha dé Danann to a game of immáin and the match ends when most of the players suffer broken arms and legs. Ordinary people undoubtedly played games too. In other sources, such as Tochmarc Étaine, there is a description of 150 youths playing games, and interestingly, there are also references to 150 girls on a playing field.

The quality of the skills of some of these players is shown in the Táin, has already been mentioned. A medieval Irish saga, Cath Finntrága, dating to the 14th century, also describes how a foreigner displays great skill in keeping the ball aloft. In this passage, the foreigner takes his caman and ball, hit the ball up the beach, chases after and catches it and then comes up and down the beach with it on his foot, knee or shoulder without letting it fall on the sand.

“Thereupon the foreigner doffed his battle-dress and donned a splendid elegant dress and took a club and ball (do gabh caman 7 liathroíd) and beat the ball (ro bhuail an liathrod) from the west of the strand to the east, and he caught it in his right hand before it descended, and he put it on his foot the second time and he sprang in his rushing from the west of the strand to the east, and he threw the ball from one foot onto the other, without touching it with his hand, and without its touching the ground, and he put it on his knee the third time and ran to the other end of the strand and then put it from one knee on to the other, without throwing it on the ground. The he threw it on his shoulder and made a rush like the March wind from one end of the strand to the other, without touching it with the hand, and without throwing it on the ground, and he challenged all the fiann to perform that trick.” Meyer, K. 1885, Cath Finntraga 21.

Undoubtedly, a modern referee would have blown the whistle, for carrying the ball more than the three steps…in a tough Junior Hurling match, he might have got himself sorted out for playing ‘fancy-Dan hurling’ (my father, John O’Sullivan, a talented Killaloe Smith O’Brien’s and Clare hurler in the 1950s, told me once of a game where as half-back he came out with the ball, skilfully tipped it over an opponent’s head and soloed down the field before striking it. It immediately came straight back over his head: whereupon his brother-in-law (who played in a more, eh, traditional 1950s Clare style) Tommy O’Brien playing at full-back, came out and buried the opposing forward, before shouting out at my Dad “You and your fancy-Dan hurling!”).

Are the hurling or camogie that we see today like the games of early medieval Ireland that are described in the texts? They are not of course: both are codified, modern sports organised by major, sophisticated sporting organisations, and the games have evolved even in our own time in keeping with greater levels of fitness, a flightier ball, and arguably increased skill levels (we regularly see feats in hurling or camogie matches today that we would have rarely seen 20-30 years ago).

However, it is undoubtedly the case that hurling and camogie can trace their ancestry in the games played in the near and distant past. In conclusion, every year, in September, we see the modern heroes of the games of hurling and camogie run out onto the cluiche mag of Croke Park, for the All-Ireland Hurling or Camogie Championship finals. The two teams play not with balls made of brains, or use bronze hurleys and silver balls, but they are games to look forward to all the same.


The Clare vs Cork All-Ireland Hurling Final of 2013, played out in Croke Park in front of 82,000 people. Hurling and Camogie are amongst the world’s greatest field-sports and are part of Ireland’s cultural heritage (Photo: Aidan O’Sullivan).

Update: 10th September 2016.

This blog post has been slightly updated on 10th September 2016, firstly with a changed title to represent the role of camogie in our national games, especially with the All-Ireland Camogie Final to be played on Sunday 11th September 2016. Secondly, Clodagh Doyle of the National Museum of Ireland kindly recently sent me a copy of her fascinating and important paper reporting on the scientific analyses and radiocarbon dating of Ireland’s earliest hair hurling balls. A DOI link is provided in the ‘Further reading’ section below. It can also be downloaded here

Acknowledgements and Further reading

My thanks to Dr Angela Gleason for permission several years ago to read and cite her PhD thesis on Entertainment in early Ireland. My thanks also to the GAA’s Croke Park Museum for inviting me to give a lecture entitled ‘Cú Chulainn to Canning – Evolution of Hurling from Warrior to Hero!’ in Croke Park, 26th March 2009, from which the above text is taken. My grateful thanks also to Clodagh Doyle, Curator of Folklife Collections, National Museum of Ireland, for information on hair hurling balls and the Derries hurley.

Clodagh Doyle (2016) Hair Hurling Balls: Review, Research and Scientific Investigations, Folk Life, 54:1, 3-31, DOI: 10.1080/04308778.2016.1159789

Gleason, A.B. (2002) Entertainment in early Ireland. PhD thesis, Trinity College Dublin

Lucas, A.T. (1975) ‘Hair hurling ball from Lavally, Co. Sligo’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 81, 13–14.

O’Sullivan, A. (1998) ‘Warriors, legends and heroes – the archaeology of hurling’ Archaeology Ireland 45 :32-34

Author: Aidan O’Sullivan is a Professor of Archaeology at UCD School of Archaeology, University College Dublin. His academic research interests focus on early medieval Ireland and beyond, experimental archaeology and wetland archaeology.  He inherited from his Clare father a life-long love of hurling. His main claims to fame are that he won Dublin Colleges hurling medals with Gormanston, Junior Hurling Championships with Valleymount, and U-21 County medals with Kiltegan, and played U-14, U-16, and U-18 for Wicklow (but you might have got a run that day too…). His young sons currently play for Kevins Hurling and Camogie Club in Dublin 8, an inner city club who are currently seeking to establish a cluiche mag in Dublin 8, a district with 11 schools, 2,500 children and not a single playing pitch for any sports.  You can read more about Prof Aidan O’Sullivan at his UCD webpage here He can be contacted at