Hurling takes to the mountain tops

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The Independent Online
PICTURE a sort of Stone Age golf played by super-fit athletes in near blizzards on mountain tops and you have a fair idea of the annual Poc Fada Na h'Eireann, played this week in Co Louth.

This is hurling, one of the world's oldest games stretching back more than 2,000 years. In its early days it was known as 'baire baoise' (imitation warfare) and teams of 21 played in a three-line battle formation. In one ancient confrontation, the Battle of Moytura, 400 were killed in a hurling match prior to the main bloodbath.

The Poc Fada, which resumed in its present form in 1967, has its origins in Irish mythology. It was close by the Cooley Mountains where the Poc Fada - literally 'The Big Hit' - is now played that the folk hero Cu Chullain, himself a hurler, performed his numerous deeds of bravery.

Embarking on his warlike progress the then Sedanta killed the giant hound that guarded the land of Culann the Smith by slamming a ball down its gaping throat, before smashing the animal against a stone pillar.

To placate its owner, the young warrior pledged to fulfil the hound's task, and changed his name from Sedanta to Cu Chullain, 'The Hound of Culann'.

Commemorating this feat the modern Poc Fada has a side event, the Poc Baire (battle shot), in which veteran hurlers test their accuracy with three shots at a target featuring the open mouth of a theatrically snarling hound's head, mounted between goalposts.

In the main event 10 individuals try to cover a 5-kilometre (3.1 mile) course, marked out by yellow painted boulders, in the fewest shots. For nearly four hours the loud smack of ash hurley on leather-bound ball or 'sliothar' can be heard up steep rock-strewn slopes, on high peaks, and down ravines and valleys dense with purple heather.

The players first balance the ball carefully on the back of the hurley before hoisting it up and striding forward to hit it. Propelled skywards its spinning makes an eerie whirring sound.

Young volunteers with flags mark each landing place, with adjudicators clutching walkie-talkies reporting scores back to the start. Numerous calls are made to alert the unwary to imminent landings.

A troop of women and a few men from Ireland's Civil Defence, clad from head to foot in luminous yellow, keep vigil for weakening spectators - foil blankets and stretchers at the ready.

The competitors, wearing tracksuit bottoms and short- sleeved shirts, are of hardier stuff. Their only concession to conditions is a towel to wipe the rain from the stick before a strike.

On their shirts is a roll call of Irish commerce, with sponsors' names from Madden's Milk (Limerick) to Barry's Tea (Cork).

Bagpipe music and strong tea welcome the crowd at the finish, marked by flags of all Ireland's counties, north and south.

After years of domination by players from Munster, some enormous drives from the measured, deliberate action of Co Offaly's Albert Kelly saw him take this week's top prize, a silver trophy, narrowly defeating the defending champion Tommy Quaid of Limerick.

(Photograph omitted)