Hurling can claim to be the oldest of Irish sports. Like many early games, it was often played with murderous enthusiasm, prompting a medieval statute decreeing that 'the commons of the land of Ireland.... use not henceforth the games which are called hurling, with great clubs and ball upon the ground, from which great evils and maims have arisen'. The statute was evidently ignored, and hurling was still being played in front of large crowds - and occasionally degenerating into a riot - in the 18th century.
Hurling is a hockey-like game, now played fifteen-a-side with a very broad, curved stick and a small, hard leather ball. The skills involved were admired by a curious visitor, a 17th-century London bookseller named Dunton, who described how 'you may sometimes see one of the gamesters carry the ball tossing it for 40 or 50 yards in spite of all the adverse players; and when he is likely to lose it, he generally gives it a great stroke to drive it towards the goal'.
After falling out of favour during the 19th century, hurling was one of the sports to be revived by the Gaelic Athletic Association. This not harmful-sounding organization, founded at Thurles in 1884, was one of the main agents of an intense cultural nationalism that aimed to revive the Gaelic language and 'native' traditions. The GAA was remarkably successful, building up a network of local clubs, and it is even now a power in sporting Ireland. As well as hurling and camogie (a women's version of the game), the GAA promoted handball and Gaelic football. Like other forms of the game, Gaelic football seems to have originated as a mass free-for-all; and although its rules have been refined over the years, and the number of players on each side reduced to 15, it has remained a singularly robust form of the contest, combining elements of rugby and association football to create a tough, fast-moving sight.
Although not exclusively Irish, horse-racing can only be described as a traditional national sport. The Irish passion for horses is centuries old: the Curragh, still Ireland's most famous course, was already popular for stabling and racing in the 17th century. The GAA's hostility to 'foreign' (code for British) sports persisted well into the 20th century, but fears that their introduction might undermine Gaelic sports has proved unfounded. Among others, association football, rugby, cycling, golf, boxing and greyhound racing have attracted large followings, and there is a large-scale public participation in a variety of sports and pastimes. Both the Irish and their visitors tend to be passionate golfers and the abundance of rivers, lakes and suitable coastlines has made Ireland ideal for inland and sea-fishing. And of course, in admired figures such as George Best, Stephen Roche and Barry McGuigan, Ireland has produced at least her share of world-famous sports personalities.
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