Hurling could join castles in the air on Unesco list


AS KILKENNY and Tipperary prepare for Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final, a Fine Gael Senator has called on the United Nations to add hurling to a global list of cultural activities that need to be “safeguarded”.

John Paul Phelan has written to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) requesting that the game be accorded the status of a “cherished intangible asset” under its living heritage programme.

Unesco maintains and supports World Heritage Sites – ranging from the pyramids at Giza to India’s Taj Mahal – including two locations in Ireland: Brú na Bóinne in Co Meath and Sceilig Mhichíl off the Kerry coast. But the UN body has also developed a convention to protect endangered cultural traditions and customs that do not fall into the “monuments and objects that have been preserved over time” category.

Mr Phelan believes hurling would be eligible for inclusion on the list, which already includes the polyphonic singing of the Aka pygmies of central Africa, the carnival at Binche in Belgium, Sardinian pastoral songs and a mask dance performed in Drametse, an eastern Bhutanese village. According to Unesco, such “living heritage is very fragile and its safeguarding has become one of the priorities of international co-operation”.

The Senator claims the recent addition to the list of Catalonia’s unique tradition of human castle building provides the most promising precedent to justify the inclusion of hurling. During a visit to Barcelona he encountered the “Catalan castellers” – a sporting custom that involves teams of men standing  on each other’s shoulders in an effort to build the highest “human tower”. Castellers are a familiar sight at festivals in Spain with notable examples in the towns of Vilafranca del Penedès and Valls.

Mr Phelan says if his proposal is successful, Ireland could “benefit from tourism and revenue spin-offs” by gaining access to a special Unesco heritage fund. “Being on the list also brings an increase in public awareness of the site or activity, and of its outstanding values, thus also increasing potential tourist spin-off for Ireland. There’s no reason why a comprehensive hurling history, tourist trail shouldn’t be developed in Kilkenny or any other hurling hotbed, to promote the game.”

If Unesco does add hurling to the list, then celebrated players could be declared “living human treasures”. The scheme, which has already been implemented in a number of countries, involves governments honouring practitioners of the relevant craft and providing them with “an annual or monthly stipend” and possible tax reliefs.

Beneficiaries to date include the performers of Korea’s Royal Ancestral Ritual Music at the Jongmyo Shrine and Nigeria’s guardians of certain “social practices, rituals and festive events” such as “the custodians of deity worship”.