Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Shrove Tuesday sees the small town of St Columb celebrate the ancient sport of hurling. It's not exactly as our Irish friends would understand the sport... To start with, there are virtually no rules, other than some laid down when the sport began in the 1500's. Two teams - town and country - compete to manoeuvre a ball weighing just over a pound to their target goal post - a granite monument around a mile away from the centre of town. Comprising as it does the whole of the parish of St Columb, this constitutes the largest 'pitch' for any ball game in the world.
How the players get the ball from town to the goal varies. The ball is often thrown ('dealt') from player to player and, when forward progress is halted, a mss brawl ('ruck') develops with players attempting to wrestle the ball free.
As a consequence of a game involving a solid ball (sterling silver encasing an apple wood core - I had that in a pub quiz recently!) and mass street brawls, the local shops and houses take precautions and board up their windows for the occasion.
Not that it's all hurly burly. The large number of spectators are catered for by frequent breaks in play for the ball to be passed around and admired. It is said (when is it ever not in such ancient events) that touching the ball brings good luck and dunking it in a maiden's glass will mean she is pregnant before the end of the year. I suspect that, with all the hands that the ball goes through, she is more likely to be ill before the end of the night. And whether the young ladies of St Columb need an excuse for being pregnant is another matter entirely (I'll get in lots of trouble for that one).
The players also contrive to prolong the game for around an hour. At present the town team is much in the ascendency and they could have won in about 10 minutes. But they saw fit to run the ball up and down the street for a while (with frequent breaks for rucks) first.
It is also said that hurling is a good chance to sort out any differences you may have with your neighbours. All you need to do is toss the ball to them and then pile in.

Photos (top to bottom): The parish church of St Columb; Boarding up in anticipation; last year's winner Scott Bennett with the ball; ready for the off; a break in play gives a chance of a youngster to see the ball; an unconventional way of rucking; one of the many rucks; the ball is hurled in the air; Shrove Tuesday at 4.30pm is not the time to be driving through St Columb! play stops outside a pub named after the event for a youngster to see the ball.

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