Hurling - Irish Field Sport Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Hurling - Irish Field Sport

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Hurling is one of Ireland's most popular ball games. It resembles the game of field hockey but with very different rules. It is, in fact, a well-organised, physical game which requires a lot of skill to play properly and is regarded as one of the fastest field games in the world.

The Basics

Hurling, like hockey and football, has a simple objective: to score a 'goal'. This is done by hitting the small hurling ball, or sliotar into the opposing team's net. Failing that, teams will settle for a 'point', which is scored by hitting the ball directly over the goal's cross-bar. A goal is worth three points, so the overall aim is to collect as many points as possible before the game ends. Each match is divided into halves of 35 minutes aside1.


Each player has a hurley, which is a flat ash stick, about 1.3 metres long with a wide, flat end. It's like a hockey stick, only lighter and with a broader hitting surface. The other end of the stick is fashioned into a grip and may be wound with an absorbent fabric to improve handling. In addition to the jersey, shorts and boots, players often wear shin-guards, a hand-guard and a helmet2 for extra protection3. The sliotar is slightly smaller than a tennis ball. It is not hollow and is normally made from a plastic material which is much softer than a cricket ball or baseball. Getting hit by a sliotar at speed is painful, but not life-threatening.

The Playing Pitch

The standard hurling pitch is quite big. It is a grass surface that measures 137 metres long (from goal to goal) and 82 metres wide (from left side-line to right side-line). Each goal is H-shaped, somewhat similar to a rugby goal. Hitting the ball under the horizontal cross-bar is a goal, while hitting the ball over the cross-bar and between the vertical posts is a point. The goal section is often netted, just like in soccer.

Team Composition

A hurling team is composed of 15 players, each of whom have a number according to their position on the pitch. Number 1 is the 'goal-keeper'. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 form the 'full-back' line whose normal position is 15 metres in front of the goal. Number 5, 6 and 7 form the 'half-back' line. There are two midfield players, then a 'half-forward' line of three players, and finally the 'full-forward' line: the three players closest to the opponents' goal. In play, the back-line players tend to stay close to their forward opponents. This is known as 'marking'.

In addition to the players, there is a referee, two linesmen who run up and down the side-lines to indicate when the ball has gone out of play and an umpire standing beside each of the four goalposts. Umpires will raise a green flag to indicate that a goal has been scored and a white flag to indicate that a point has been scored.

Outline Of The Game

The game starts in the centre of the pitch when the referee throws the ball in to the four midfield players lined up beside each other. Players try to gain possession of the ball or to hit it in the direction of the opponent's goal. Players will also try to frustrate attempts by their opponents to take the ball, either by clashing or 'hooking' (using the hurley to stop another hurley from connecting properly with the ball) or by a physical shoulder-to-shoulder charge.

Players can take possession of the ball in play by 'rising' it from the ground or catching it while in the air. Rising is a technique where the hurley is used to lift the ball into the air, or into a players hand. Players are not allowed to pick the ball up from the ground, so they use the hurley like a big spoon to lift the ball up. They may also wedge the ball between their foot and the hurley, applying upward momentum to get the ball off the ground.

Once in possession of the sliotar, a player can strike the ball by throwing it gently in front of him and hitting it with the hurley in mid-air. Alternatively, he can start to run with the ball by balancing the ball at the end of the stick - a technique known as a 'solo-run'. A player is also permitted to kick the ball or to 'hand-pass' it - hitting the ball with the palm of his hand.

Putting The Ball Out Of Play

The sliotar can go out of play for a number of reasons.

  • A goal or a point is scored. The goalkeeper of the opponent's side is given the ball. He will perform a 'puck-out': throwing the ball in front of him and striking it up the field to resume play.
  • The ball goes wide. The goalkeeper will again resume play via a puck-out.
  • The ball goes out over the side-lines. To resume play, an opponent player takes a 'side-line cut'. This is a hurley strike from the ground with the intention of lofting it high into the air which is not an easy thing to do. It involves correctly positioning the hurley so that it hits the ball at an angle.
  • A defending player hits the ball out over his own goal-line. The umpires will call a 'sixty-five' which is a free strike given to the opponents from 65 metres away. The 'free-taker' positions himself over the ball, then he rises the ball from the ground and then he hits it while the ball is in the air.
  • A foul is committed. A free is given to the opposing team from the position of where the foul took place. If the foul took place close to the goal, a penalty will be awarded. If there is foul play on both sides, the game will be resumed via a 'throw-in', where the referee throws the ball into two opposing players lined beside each other.


Despite the fact that it is a fast, physical game, there are a number of rules, which are strictly enforced.

  • A player cannot pick up a ball from the ground, or run for more than four steps with the ball in his hand. He must either hit the ball or solo-run with it. Players are not allowed to throw the ball.
  • Players cannot hit each other either with the hurley stick or with their fists. They cannot pull on another player's jersey. They cannot charge them from the front or the back. Rugby tackles are not permitted. The only acceptable tackle is a side-by-side shoulder charge or a stick-to-stick tackle such as a hook. Players who foul are liable to get a yellow card, and, for serious offences - kicking, biting, fighting, etc - or repeat offences, a red card is shown whereupon the player is sent off and is removed from the field of play for the remainder of the game.
  • Players who dispute a referee's ruling are liable to have the ball moved ten metres towards their goal-line. As is the case with most sports, the referee's word is final.

A Note On Scoring

Scores in hurling can be somewhat tricky to understand. The number of goals scored are listed separately to the number of points. To calculate who is winning, you need to multiply the number of goals scored by 3 and add on the points tally. And so, a score of three goals and six points (or 3-6) for Team A against four goals and five points (4-5) for Team B means that Team A has 15 points (3x3+6), while Team B has 17 points (4x3+5) and thus is leading the game. If both teams end up with the same points tally, the match is declared a draw. There is no advantage to be gained by having scored more goals.


Hurling has a very ancient pedigree in Ireland and is regarded as the oldest existing field sport in Europe. The camán, or hurling stick, has been around since pre-Christian times. Legend has it that the ancient Irish hero, Cúchulainn, used a hurley and a well-aimed sliotar to dispatch a wild dog, an event that kick-started his career as a fearsome warrior. Hurling in its modern form evolved from the Irish stick fighting of the 19th Century. In 1884 a set of formal rules and organised competitions were arranged for the game under the auspices of the Gaelic Athletic Association. These rules and competitions continue to the present day, with minor changes.


Hurling is an amateur game. Even at the highest inter-county levels, players do not get paid4. It is organised on an all-Ireland basis by the Gaelic Athletic Association, or the GAA. (The GAA also manages the sport of Gaelic Football). Hurling is organised at inter-county level and at club level. They also cater strongly for younger players (for example, Under 14, Under 18 or Minor, Under 21) and weaker adult teams (Junior, Intermediate). There are a number of competitions in all categories, the most prestigious being the Inter-county Senior Hurling Championship, which is played during the summer months. The culmination of this championship is the All-Ireland Hurling Final, which takes place in Croke Park, Dublin on the second Sunday in September. Attendances can surpass 70,000 people for this game. The winners of the All Ireland Final take home the Liam McCarthy Cup5 and are fêted for weeks in their home county.


There is a women's version of hurling called Camogie. It uses a slightly smaller ball and has a number of subtle rule changes. In camogie, for instance, the shoulder-to-shoulder tackle is not permitted and a 45-metre free is awarded if a player puts a ball wide beyond their own back line. Camogie is organised through the Cumann Camogaiochta na nGael.

Hurling Heartlands

Hurling is played all over Ireland, but it is more popular in the southern counties of Ireland. The main inter-county teams are Cork, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Offaly, Limerick, Clare, Waterford and Galway. The counties of Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary have a very strong inter-county track record. In addition, there are many hurling clubs in Britain and in the United States.

1This is for inter-county games. For club games, each period is 30 minutes long.2Similar to an ice-hockey helmet.3The helmet is not obligatory for adult players.4They do of course get reimbursed for out-of pocket expenses. The status of hurling as an amateur game has been a bone of contention among players for some time.5Liam McCarthy was a founder member of the GAA in London. He purchased the original cup and donated it to the GAA.

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