Cornish hurling

Cornish hurling
A new Silver Ball with the motto "Town and Country do your best" inscribed on the band. This ball was used at St Columb Major
Pub sign at St Columb Major

Cornish Hurling or Hurling the Silver Ball (Cornish: Hyrlîan), is an outdoor team game of Celtic origin played only in Cornwall, United Kingdom. It is played with a small silver ball. The origins may be connected to the Irish game of the same name which allows the use of sticks.

Once played widely in Cornwall, the game has similarities to other traditional football or inter parish 'mob' games, but certain attributes make this version unique to Cornwall. It is considered by many to be Cornwall's national game along with Cornish wrestling. An old saying in the Cornish language goes; "hyrlîan yw gen gwaré nyi" which translated into English means, "Hurling is our sport" [1]

Although the custom attracts fewer spectators, the annual hurling matches at St. Columb Major have the same status in the Cornish calendar as the 'Obby 'Oss festival at Padstow and the Furry Dance at Helston in that all three are unique customs that have survived unchanged and have taken place annually since before records began.


The ball

A St Columb ball, 1995

The ball for hurling is made of sterling silver which is hammered into two hemispheres and then bound around a core of applewood which is held together with a band of silver. The band hold screws or nails which hold the ball together. Normally a motto would appear on the band, such as "Town and country - Do your best!". In St Columb the ball was crafted for many years by John Turver, although in the last decade the ball has been made by local craftsman and funeral director Colin Rescorla.[2] The winner of the ball has the right to keep it, but must have a new one made in its place for the next game. The price of a new ball is secret but is said to be around £300. The traditional inscription on the ball was "St Columb Major and Minor / Do your best / In one of your parishes / I must rest."[3]

Size and weight

The ball weighs just over a pound but there is no definitive size or weight, as the ball is hand-made, but generally the weight is about 19 to 21 ounces and is equal in size to a cricket ball.[4]

Hurling balls on public display
Hurling balls in Truro Museum
Hurling ball used at Truro

There are examples of hurling balls on public display at Truro Museum, Lanhydrock House, St Columb Major Post Office and St. Columb Major Town Hall. Many are also held in private hands. One held at Penzance Museum is thought to be very old and bears the following inscription in Kernewek (the Cornish language):

Paul Tuz whek Gwaro Tek heb ate buz Henwis. 1704

The first two words signify "Men of Paul", i.e., the owners of the ball. The last seven words may be translated literally (retaining the word order of the engraving) into English as "sweet play fair without hate to be called", which may be roughly translated as: "Fair play is good play."[5]


Although the origins of hurling are unknown, one theory is that it derives from the Irish game of hurling and was brought back to Britain after the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century.[6] One instance is recorded of a match between twenty-one Irish players from County Wexford and an equal number of Cornish players which was witnessed by King George I.[7] Hurling is very similar to the game of cnapan; a Celtic form of medieval football played in the southwestern counties of Wales, especially Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire, until the nineteenth century.[8][9]

Another theory suggests that it is linked with a Pagan fertility rite, with a silver ball being cast up in honour of the sun. With the coming of Christianity it is believed this was turned into a game.[10] The game's origins are thus thought to be over 1000 years old. The Orkney 'Ba' Game', which has been played on Christmas Eve and Hogmanay every year since the mid 19th century, has some similarity to Cornish Hurling.[11]

Little is recorded of the sport until about the 16th century when contests were generally between groups of men from two parishes.[12] At this point there were two forms of the game, according to Carew's Survey of Cornwall (1602). "Hurling to goals" was played on a pitch similar to that of modern-day football, and had many strict rules, similar to those of football and rugby; this was common in the east of the county. "Hurling to country", however, was often played over large areas of countryside and despite its name also involved goals; this was common in the west of the county. This had few rules and was more similar to the St Columb game of modern times (see below).[13] Inter-parish matches died out towards the end of the 18th century but matches between different sections of the same township continued. At St Ives those named Tom, Will and John formed a team to play against those with other names on the Monday after Quadragesima. At Truro a team of married men played against a team of bachelors, and at Helston the men of two particular streets played against the men of the others. The field of the St Ives game has been changed twice, first to the beach, and in 1939 to the public park.[14]

The game is known to have originated over 500 years ago. In the last 100 years there have been only two lost balls.


  • Terminology (as used primarily in St Columb Major) includes:
    • Deal - to pass the ball.
    • Call up - takes place before the game starts when the previous winner holds up the ball, declaring victory for his side. The ball is 'called up' for a second time at 8:00 p.m. by the new winner.
    • Throw up - is the start of the game. A man chosen by the previous winner mounts a step-ladder and throws the ball into the crowd.
    • Winner of the Ball - is the hurler that goals the ball for his side (or carries it over the parish boundary in the St Columb game).
    • Silver Beer - is beer served after the game, from gallon jugs with the ball in the jug.
    • Stand - to tackle.
    • Shuffle the ball - to hide the ball. (Generally frowned upon - unless done in jest.)

Modern survival of the game

Up until the 19th century the game was still relatively common, with many Cornish towns and villages holding a match on feast and fair days, and games between St Columb Major and Newquay survived into the early 1900s.[15]

The matches at St Columb and St Ives, and the game played as part of the beating the bounds ceremony at Bodmin[16] are the only instances of the sport today.

The game at St. Columb Major (twice yearly)

At St. Columb Major on Shrove Tuesday and on the second Saturday following, a much rougher and traditional version of the game is played. The game involves a physical battle on the streets and in the surrounding countryside, between the "Townsmen" and "Countrymen" of the parish, with the shops in the town barricading their windows and doors to protect from accidental damage, which sometimes occurs.

The game starts with the throw-up at 4:30 p.m, usually followed by a large scrum. The ball is thrown to the crowd at the Market Square and the objective of the game is to control its possession with deliberate passing, throwing, snatching and tackling. Game play in the town normally lasts no longer than one hour. During this period the two teams are irrelevant, i.e. townsmen 'deal' the ball to countrymen and vice versa. Play often stops for spectators to touch the ball for luck or fertility or slows to allow younger players to participate. After about an hour the ball is hurled towards respective goals that are set about two miles (3 km) apart, at either end of the town. Very often, if a route to the goals is impractical, however, players may carry the ball through the roads and fields that surround the town, with the aim of taking the ball across the Parish boundary. In this latter stage of the match the two sides strive for possession, and the actual "Town against Country" hurling takes place.

The 'winner of the ball' (that is, the hurler that goals the ball or carries it over the boundary) is carried on the shoulders of two team-mates back to Market Square, to strains of the "hurling song". Here he calls up the ball, declaring "Town Ball" or "Country Ball", depending on the side to which he belongs.

At 8:00 p.m., the winner returns to Market Square to call up the ball again. This is followed by a visit to each of the public houses of the town, where the ball is immersed in gallon jugs filled with beer. Each gallon will be 'called up' and the 'silver beer' (as it is known), is shared amongst all those present.

The game as played at St. Ives (annually)

The annual St. Ives hurling match happens on Feast Monday each February (the feast is on the Sunday nearest to February 3). The game starts at 10.30am when the silver ball is thrown from the wall of the Parish Church by the Mayor to the crowd below on the beach. The ball is passed from one to another on the beach and then up into the streets of St. Ives. The person in possession of the ball when the clock strikes noon takes it to the Mayor at the Guildhall and receives the traditional reward of five shillings. At one time the game was played by the men of the village. These days it is played by the children.

The game as played at Bodmin (roughly every 5 years)

It is a little known fact that Hurling survives as a traditional as part of Beating the bounds at Bodmin, commencing at the close of the 'Beat'. The game is organised by the Rotary club of Bodmin and was last played in 2010. The game is started by the Mayor of Bodmin by throwing a silver ball into a body of water known as the "Salting Pool". There are no teams and the hurl follows a set route. The aim is to carry the ball from the "Salting Pool" via the old A30, along Callywith Road, then through Castle Street, Church Square and Honey Street to finish at the Turret Clock in Fore Street. The participant carrying the ball when it reaches the turret clock receives a £10 reward from the Mayor.[17] The next occurrence of the Bodmin Hurl will be following the next beating of the bounds, which is unlikely to take place until 2015.

Former Helston hurl

The town of Helston used to hold a hurl following the 'beating of the bounds', but the tradition there died out in the early 20th century.[18]

The Hurlers stone circles

The Hurlers, looking south

On Craddock Moor, near Minions, are "The Hurlers". These consist of three separate Bronze Age stone circles with thirteen, seventeen and nine surviving stones. Local tradition maintains that they are men turned to stone for profaning the Lords Day by taking part in a hurling match. The arrangement of the stones led to the name and was recorded as far back as 1584 by John Norden.[19]


  • Field of play. The game takes place mainly in streets still open to traffic. The game can also extend onto private property including gardens and fields and sometimes through houses or pubs. The game can stop at any time so that members of the watching crowd can handle the ball. Touching the ball is said to be lucky and can bring good health and fertility.[20] The parish of St. Columb Major is the world's largest pitch for any ball game, with an area of about 20 square miles (52 km2).
  • Goals and winning. There are two goals but no goal-keepers. The goals are made of granite. The town goal is the base of an old Celtic cross and the country goal is a shallow stone trough. To win the team must carry the ball to its own goal. Another way to win is to carry the ball out of the parish, which can be up to 3 miles (4.8 km). As soon as the ball is goaled or carried out of the parish, the game finishes.
  • Rules. There is no referee, no official written rules and no organizing committee. The two teams have unequal numbers. The Town team has the larger team since the town has grown larger in size. Before the 1940s the Country team was stronger in numbers due to the number of people who were employed in agriculture.
  • Time of games. There are only two games a year. The first game is held on Shrove Tuesday. The second game is on the Saturday of a following week. The game is always started at 4:30 pm. The game can last anything up to two hours. After the game the ball is always returned to the start point.

Early written evidence of hurling in Cornwall

  • c.1584, topographer, John Norden who visited Cornwall writes:
The Cornish-men they are stronge, hardye and nymble, so are their exercises violent, two especially, Wrastling and Hurling, sharpe and seuere actiuties; and in neither of theis doth any Countrye exceede or equall them. The firste is violent, but the seconde is daungerous: The firste is acted in two sortes, by Holdster (as they called it) and by the Coller; the seconde likewise two ways, as Hurling to goales, and Hurling to the Countrye.

According to the law, or when the ball to throw;
And drive it to the gole, in squadrons forth they goe;
And to avoid the troupes (their forces that forlay);
Through dykes and rivers make, in the rubustious play; [21]

  • 1602, in his survey of Cornwall historian Richard Carew writes about Cornish hurling. It is interesting to note the rule about no forward passing. This rule only applied to one of the two historic forms of hurling, and still applies to the modern sport of Rugby[20]
That the hurler must deal no foreball, or throw it to any partner standing nearer the goal than himself. In dealing the ball, if any of the adverse party can catch it flying ... the property of it is thereby transferred to the catching party; and so assailants become defendants, and defendant assailants.
  • 1648, at Penryn: following a Royalist uprising to support the King, the victorious Parliamentarians passed through the town in a triumphant manner with three soldiers, bearing on the points of three swords (carried upright), three silver balls used in hurling.[22]
  • 1654, at Hyde Park, London: The Lord Protector, (Oliver Cromwell) however, was present on that May-day, and appeared keenly to enjoy the sports, as we learn from another source. In company with many of his Privy Council he watched a great hurling match by fifty Cornish gentlemen against fifty others. 'The ball they played withal was silver, and designed for that party which did win the goal.' Report in the Moderate Intell. 26 Apr.-4 May 1654 [23]
  • 1705 (13 August), at Camborne, from the parish burials register:
William Trevarthen buried in the church. A margin note in the churchwardens accounts explains "Being disstroid to a hurling with Redruth men at the high dounes the 10th day of August".
  • 1707, the Cornish saying "hyrlîan yw gen gwaré nyi" ("Hurling is our sport") appears in print for the first time in Archaeologia Britannica, by Edward Lhuyd.

Dates for future Hurls

St Columb Major

(All games start at 4.30 p.m.) 2012 — Tuesday 21 February and Saturday 3 March

St Ives

(Game starts at 10.30am)

  • 2012 - Monday 6 February


(Follows beating of the bounds which takes place roughly every 5 years)

  • 2015 - March/April (estimate)


  1. ^ Archaeologia Britannica, by Edward Lhuyd.
  2. ^ Hurling at St Columb in the 21st century (BBC website)
  3. ^ Holloway, John, ed. (1987) The Oxford Book of Local Verses. Oxford U. P.; p. 63
  4. ^ Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports By Tony Collins, John Martin, Wray Vamplew (page 169)
  5. ^ Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society. V. T. Vibert. 1851. p. 78. 
  6. ^ Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries, by Robert Crego
  7. ^ The ‘Yellow Bellies’ and the Hurling Men of Cornwall
  8. ^ Jarvie, Grant (1999). Sport in the making of Celtic cultures. Sport and nation. London: Leicester University Press. pp. 58 and 73. ISBN 0 7185 0129 2. Retrieved 7 February 2011. 
  9. ^ Collins, Tony; Martin, John; Vamplew, Wray (2005). Encyclopedia of traditional British rural sports. Sports reference. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge. pp. 66–67. ISBN 0 415 35224 X. Retrieved 7 February 2011. 
  10. ^ Rabey, A. I. (1996) From St Columb to the Sea ISBN 0-9500235-7-4
  11. ^ Bruce, Michael (2004) A Scottish Miscellany. Lomond Books. ISBN 1-84204-065-0. P. 160.
  12. ^ Hole, Christina (1949) English Sports and Pastimes. London: B. T. Batsford; pp. 55-57
  13. ^ Carew (1602) The Survey of Cornwall
  14. ^ Hole (1949); pp. 55-57
  15. ^ Rabey A. I. (1984) The Silver Ball: the story of hurling at St Columb
  16. ^ Rotary Club of Bodmin Beating the Bounds at Bodmin
  17. ^ 2010 Bodmin Hurl Rules, Rotary Club of Bodmin, 02/04/2010.
  18. ^ English sports and pastimes By Christina Hole (page 57) [1]
  19. ^ Westwood, Jennifer (1985) Albion. A Guide to Legendary Britain. London: Grafton Books. ISBN 0-246-11789-3. p. 21.
  20. ^ a b Hutton, Ronald (1996). Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford University Press. p. 163.,M1. Retrieved 2007-08-18. 
  21. ^ Drayton, Michael (1612), "Poly-Olbion: A Chronologic Description of Great Britain", (The first edition, song, page 7)
  22. ^ West Penwith Resources - Penzance: Past and Present (Millett 3)
  23. ^ Forestry | British History Online

Further reading

External links

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