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A new Silver Ball with the motto "Town and Country do your
inscribed on the band
Hurling or Hurling the Silver
Ball (Cornish: Hyrlîan), is an outdoor team sport of Celtic origin played only in
Cornwall in the United
Kingdom. It is played with a small silver ball. It is not to be
confused with 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 sport 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" 
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.
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!". 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. 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
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.
Whilst the exact 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. 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. The
game's origins are thus thought to be over 1000 years old.
Little is recorded of the sport until about the 16th Century. At
this point there were two forms of the game, according to Carew's
Survey of Cornwall. "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 had
few rules and was more similar to the St. Columb game of modern
times (see below).
Modern survival of the
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.
The traditional annual matches at St Columb and St Ives are the
only instances of the sport today although hurling of a
silver ball is part of the beating the bounds ceremony at Bodmin every five years.
The game as played at St.
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
game at St. Columb Major
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 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.
Hurlers stone circles
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.
- points of note
Pub Sign at St. Columb Major in
- Most of the following pertains to the game as it is played at
St. Columb Major.
- Rules. There is no referee, no official written rules and no
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.
- 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. As soon as the ball
is goaled or carried out of the parish, the game finishes.
- 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.
The parish of St. Columb Major is the world's largest
pitch for any ball game, with an area of about 20 square
- Serious injuries are very rare.
- The ball is made from sterling silver which encases a ball of
apple wood. There is only one maker of the ball. 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 ball weighs just over a pound.
- The game is known to have originated over 500 years ago. In the
last 100 years there have been only two lost balls.
- 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.
- The game attracts visitors from miles away but most watchers
are local to the area.
- Terminology (as used primarily in St. Columb
- 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
- Throw up - is the start of the game. A man chosen by
the previous winner mounts a step-ladder and throws the ball into
- Winner of the Ball - is the hurler that goals the ball
for his side (or carries it over the parish boundary in the St.
- 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.)
evidence of hurling in Cornwall
- 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
According to the law, or when the ball to throw;
And drive it to the gole, in squadrons forth they
And to avoid the troupes (their forces that forlay);
Through dykes and rivers make, in the rubustious play;
- 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
- 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.
- 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 
- 1705 (13 August) Camborne, from the parish burials
- William Trevarthen buried in the church. A margin mote
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.
Hurling Balls on public
Hurling balls in Truro
Hurling ball used at Truro
Although many hurling balls remain in private collections, there
are several on public display. The County museum at Truro has three, while there are
two on display at St. Columb Major -
one in the Post Office and one in the Town Hall. 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
trans-literated as: "Fair play is good play."
Dates for future games at
(All games start at 4.30 p.m.)
- 2010 - Tuesday February 16 and Saturday February 27
- 2011 - Tuesday March 8 and Saturday March 19
Archaeologia Britannica, by Edward Lhuyd.
Hurling at St Columb in the
21st Century (BBC website)
Traditional British Rural Sports By Tony Collins, John Martin,
Wray Vamplew (page 169)
Sports and Games of the 18th
and 19th Centuries, by Robert Crego
Rabey A. I. (1996) From St Columb to the sea ISBN 0 9500235 7
Carew; The Survey of Cornwall
Rabey A. I. (1984) The Silver Ball: the story of hurling at St
- ^ Westwood, Jennifer
(1985), Albion. A Guide to Legendary Britain.
London : Grafton Books. ISBN 0-246-11789-3. p. 21.
- ^ a
Hutton, Ronald (1996). Stations of the Sun: A
History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University
Press. p. 163. http://www.google.co.uk/books?id=t-P24jQyfP0C&pg=PA487&dq=st+columb+history&sig=LyZQWunjTww2ITTFN9InGnl1XV8#PPA163,M1. Retrieved
Drayton, Michael (1612), "Poly-Olbion: A Chronologic Description of
Great Britain", (The first edition, song, page 7)
West Penwith Resources -
Penzance: Past and Present (Millett 3)
Forestry | British History
Penzance Natural History and
Antiquarian Society. V. T. Vibert. 1851.
- Carew, Sir Richard
(1602) Survey of Cornwall. Reissued: New York, 1969,
- Greenaway, R. D. (1926) Cornish Hurling: the Popular
Origins of a Magical Ritual. (Reprinted 2004 by Oakmagic,
Monmouth) ISBN 1-904330-62-2
- Rabey, Ivan (1972) Hurling at St. Columb and in
Cornwall Padstow: Lodenek Press ISBN 0-902899-11-2
- Hornby, Hugh (2008) Uppies and Downies: the Extraordinary
Football Games of Britain Swindon : English Heritage ISBN
1905624646 (contains section on Cornish Hurling)
- Hornby: Uppies and
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