TWO FORMS OF HURLING PRIOR TO SETTING UP OF GAELIC ATHLETIC
ASSOCIATION RESPONSIBLE FOR A LEGENDARY HURLING
Tracing The Origin of the Expression "The Best Hurler Is Always On The Ditch"
The ancient Irish cultural pastime of hurling dates back many centuries and was mainly played in two varying forms in Ireland prior to the setting up of the G.A.A. in 1884. An equally ancient and also current modern phrase associated with gaelic games for over one hundred years and uttered by fans in all counties,is the comment ‘The Best Hurler Is Always On The Ditch’.
The origin of this famous phrase is traced back to the early 19th century era. To-day this phrase is mainly used to describe the football and hurling expert who can score from any angle or distance and is infallible in hurling knowledge and opinion, he/she has all the answers, yet never graced a green field to kick or puck a ball in combat. The origination of the phrase is recalled here for your pleasure.
Park Hurling was played in a confined and defined space with sidelines, end lines and goalposts and was played on green grass.Teams consisted of 21 to 30 players and played under modest rules. Most games had a healthy purse for the winners of around £25 which regularly produced intense action from goal to goal.
One parish would challenge a neighbouring parish and the venue would often be chosen by tossing a coin with the winner nominating a venue more than three miles from each teams home base.
This enabled both sets of supporters to partake of alcohol beverages on the great occasion as it was illegal to consume liquor in your own parish on any Sunday of the fifty two weeks. A Sunday drinker (traveller) had to travel three miles from his homeplace to legally consume alcohol on a Sunday and this law was strictly enforced by the constabulary.
The build up to the challenge match was intense and would dominate local gossip in pubs and shops in the weeks leading up to the fixture. Many side bets would be wagered and a very important item on the agenda was the cutting and shaping of ash roots from the locality to make many ash sticks (hurleys) for the big day.
Whilst rules were made and intended to be applied, strict enforcement was almost impossible as patrons regularly came on to the park to vent their anger at opposing players. The chosen referee was usually a fearless citizen and specially selected for his tough no nonsense attitude.
After a vigorous and very physical encounter the winners would normally receive £25 for an after match porter feast in their own parish. The winners would also be awarded a barrel of porter for after match revival of body and soul and the losers could also count on sharing a few frothy pints with friend and foe.
Organised competitive hurling matches did not commence until around 1885 and great celebrations took place when a new club was affiliated to the Gaelic Athletic Association.
Parish to Parish hurling was mainly reserved for winter activity whilst the Park version belonged to the summer season.
It was also the ‘Untamed’ interpretation of hurling with zero rules application.
A Parish would send out a challenge to another Parish to engage in a trial of strength and endurance. Each side would agree a ‘Home’ point within their own parish to act as their ‘Finishing Line’.
Each side would appoint their own finishing post which would be located inside their own parish. The throw - in would commence at a neutral point of equal distance from both sides ‘Home’ finishing post.
The course would take in numerous fields and ditches before the winners would reach their own selected finishing post. The sliothar would fly to and fro in opposite directions, often for several hours before a contest would be decided.
To achieve their winning objective each team placed their big physical men in rucking positions to gain vital ball possession and hit the ball to ‘The Hurler On The Ditch’. The best skilled exponents of the game (usually the lighter build of players) were placed on the ‘DITCHES’ to field and control the ball in flight, take possession and jump from the ditch.
That same hurler on the ditch would head for the finishing line at full speed with the chasing pack in full flight endeavouring to retrieve the sliothar and head back in the opposite direction. When attacked and dispossessed after a mighty chase, another ‘Throw-In’ would ensue until the finishing line was finally reached.
The Hurlers On The Ditch became known as the wisecracks of the game.They had all the answers at the after match post mortems for each time they were dispossessed and their team lost.
And so it is that the traditional hurling phrase ‘The Best Hurler Is Always On The Ditch’ came to pass.