Monday, 3 January 2011

The Ancient Cornish Game of Hurling

The principal annual game of hurling takes place on Shrove Tuesday which, of course, depends on when Easter falls. The event that I am most familiar with is the St Columb hurling in central Cornwall, which happens to be my mother’s home town, and I recall that my grandparents had in their possession a very old and pitted hurling ball. Long ago, the game (which has nearly no rules and no referee), used to be played all over Cornwall but now is confined to St Columb and St Ives and is probably as ancient as the Obby Oss at Padstow and the Furry Dance at Helston. It is a rough and tumble game that has been played since pre-Norman times, with a ball, about the size of a cricket ball, covered in beaten silver with a raised silver seam on which a motto traditionally appears. This used to be in the ancient Cornish language but one of the modern versions of this is ‘Town and Country Do Your Best’, which is a reference to the fact that the game is played between teams of townsmen and countrymen whose objective is to run with and pass the ball to get it into the correct goal, the goals being placed two miles apart. The only taboo is to hide the ball, except in jest. The game begins in the market place at 4-30 pm, when the ball is ‘called-up’ by last year’s winner, who holds it aloft and encourages his team to recapture it. In fact, the winner each year may keep the actual ball, provided that he replaces it, with one of local manufacture. He then ‘throws-up’ the ball from a stepladder, after calling out: ‘Town and Country do your best for in this parish I must rest’ and raising three cheers. All hell then breaks loose in a giant scrummage of St Columbians of all ages; to the extent that shopkeepers and householders even board up their windows. The game can take many hours. The race over, the winner of the ball is then carried back to the market place, to the Hurling Song, where he proclaims whether the ball is won for Town or Country. Later on, everyone returns to the market place and the ball is ‘called-up’ again and a pub crawl takes place. The ball is repeatedly immersed in gallon flasks of beer (making it into ‘silver beer’) and this is shared around. Fortunately, despite the loss of so much custom and tradition, across the board, this game appears so deeply embedded in the local consciousness that it is likely to continue and I have even seen a photograph of a cousin of mine at a recent hurling.

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