Frank McNally on the hair-raising history of hurling

An Irishman’s Diary on why Irish bogs sometimes cough up hairballs

 

When we speak in Ireland of “skin and hair flying”, it’s usually just an exaggerated description of a row. But there was a time, thanks to hurling, when the expression had more literal meaning. And although the skin and hair were usually of the animal kind, rows among the humans using it were common. Sometimes they were fatal.

Long before the GAA standardised the making of sliotars, it had been the practice to weave them from bovine and horsehair, around a core that sometimes included bone. The inner layer of hair was usually from cows, but analysis of a centuries-old ball found in Limerick revealed it to be from a yearling calf, not unlike the ones whose skins had been prized since ancient times in Ireland for the making of manuscript vellum.

The bovine hair would be wrapped in a plaited cord of horse-tail strands, with up to 5.5 metres of cord required to produce the finished article. This was intricate work, typically carried out by young women, who would present the often very ornate balls – intended as prizes rather than for playing – on special occasions. Paradoxically, it was also a tradition for newly married couples to make such presentations, in return for good luck.

Nowadays, excitement aroused by hurling reaches a peak in late summer. But in times past, May Day was the flashpoint. Then, women presented “May Bush” balls, sometimes decorated with ribbons and tassels, or gold and silver lace. These could carry mythological significance. Gold symbolised the sun, for example, silver the moon. Less romantically, players came to expect drinking money with the balls, or even instead of them. This was where the trouble started. 

In Kilkenny – where else? – the violence reached crisis point in the 1780s. The cats were particularly susceptible to hair-balls, it seems. Finn’s Leinster Journal reported that for many years past, the peace of the city had been disturbed every May-eve by a “vast multitude of audacious fellows, who assemble to collect May-balls among the newly-married folk”.  

These were never given without drink money, it reported, and the result was “such bloody battles [...], such confusion and uproar, as would induce a passing stranger to believe that a furious band of wild Indians had broken in upon us”.

But it went too far in Callan in 1782, when a quarrel over May-balls led to one Nicholas Butler, a cooper, being hit on the head with a stone from which he “expired instantly”.  

The Bishop of Ossory had had enough. Soon afterwards, “to prevent the tumults and other fatal consequences of requiring and giving garlands, globes, and other decorations generally known by the appellation of May Balls”, he instructed priests not to give sacraments to those responsible. This halted the practice for a generation, although it was revived in Callan by 1829.

The history of hair hurling balls has been told in a fascinating essay by Clodagh Doyle of the National Museum of Ireland, Country Life, where most of the 14 known examples are held.

The oldest is the aforementioned one found in East Limerick, which has been dated to circa 1192. In fact, that area and neighbouring North Kerry account for most of the balls, all of which were preserved in bog. So as Limerick seeks to win the All-Ireland for the first time in half a century this year, it can draw on some deep roots.

Among the elite counties, at least, hurling now tends to coincide with good land. Indeed, for a supposedly national sport, it seems to have a strong geographical correlation with the Normans, who of course became more Irish than the Irish themselves. But as the preserved hair-balls attest, it used to be played in and around bogland too.

Doyle’s essay mentions a story in Kerry folklore about a man called Con Shea, who once hit a ball so high it was not seen to come down from the sky afterwards, being found instead five years later, five miles away, and ten feet deep in a bog. Presumably Shea’s descendants, like the rest of Kerry, have since decided to specialise in football.

So have the people of Leitrim, for obvious reasons. Good land was scarcer there, and an account from the folklore collection tells of games having to be played on a “red turf bank”, because farmers didn’t want their grassland damaged. It wasn’t just balls that might be lost in Leitrim. According to Doyle, there is a description of a match in a place called Bohey, “where one of the players nearly drowned when he fell into a bog hole”.

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