In the opening sequence of the RTÉ documentary 'The Game', a young boy hurls alone in a floodlit ball alley while we listen to Ger Loughnane distil to perfection what the sport means to each and every young boy or girl who ever picked up a hurl.

"When you start off with hurling, the thrill of that leather ball hitting off the ash. And you controlling the leather ball with the ash. And that feel from the hurley, from the bás of the hurley of the leather hitting it, it runs up along the handle, into your hand and really into your soul."

But even to those not gifted with the talents of an All-Star like Loughnane, even those who never played a competitive game of hurling or camogie in their lives, it is a sport writ large across the history of Irish society and culture.

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Between last weekend and the one coming, thousands will have made the pilgrimage to Thurles and Dublin for the All-Ireland semi-final, included in that number will be my mother – born in London to English parents, she moved to Ireland upon marrying my father in the 1960s.

One of those to never lift a hurl in anger, she would credit hurling with helping form a sense of Irishness, which in her eighth decade is unwavering. From cheering on the great Wexford team of the 1990s in Croke Park to encouraging her distinctly average son from the sideline of underage matches, the sport found its way into her soul.

In the three-part documentary, Gerry Nelson and Crossing the Line films conducted interviews with some of Ireland's foremost historians, poets, hurlers, managers and broadcasters in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of hurling and its place in Irish culture.

These unique insights, coupled with amazing action sequences and previously unseen archival footage, give an insight into the history of the sport, its role in the formation of the Ireland of today and a glimpse into its future.

Ahead of the documentary's broadcast we have gone through the transcripts of some of these interviews to try and map the seven ages of hurling.

Image - Cú Chulainn and the Bull: Karl Beutel (2003) Armagh County Museum Collection

Cú Chulainn and the Bull: Karl Beutel (2003) Armagh County Museum Collection

Mythological

"The first documented version of the Cú Chulainn hurling story appeared in Leabhar na hUidre, the Book of the Dun Cow in about the year 1100," says historian Donal McAnallen. 

"There's a saying that you would have heard in the '60s or '70s but particularly the '60s from maybe rural areas at hurling matches," says former Cork manager Donal O'Grady. "'He hurled all before him'.

"He just attacked and he drove fellas out of the way and whatever else. The story of Cúchulainn starts that day, when Setanta came into the fray and he hurled all before him. Won the match and there was great celebrations. So there was a feast back in Chulainn's castle or house or encampment or whatever you want to say it and but he forgot about Cú Chulainn because he wasn't on the original team sheet so to speak. And he released his dog and the rest is history."

The story of Cúchulainn starts that day, when Setanta came into the fray and he hurled all before him

"The story of people hitting a ball with a stick is a story which is told everywhere, from Iceland to Ethiopia to the Far East and across to the Aztecs," says Paul Rouse, historian and Offaly football manager. "You look at the Lacrosse played by the American Indians, the stick and ball games played by the Mongols, the Berber stick and ball game played on the sands of the desert and what the Irish game of hurling is a modern variant of a theme which is written through history, across millennia."

But, Irish nationalists of Victorian times were not going to let the truth get in the way of a good myth, a good nation defining myth, as Rouse explains.

"What happened was, in the 19th century when those old texts were being translated, they were being translated in a period of heady Irish nationalism, where the culture of the British empire was sweeping, pressing the culture – what was considered to be all Gaelic culture – out to the margins of society, and those people who were doing the translations applied the word 'hurling', a modern word, to that old story of playing ... with a stick and a ball."

Image - Hurling was one of the few elements of Irish life to benefit from landlord system

Hurling was one of the few elements of Irish life to benefit from landlord system

The Landlords

That is not to say hurling was clutched from the mists of time by Cusack and Co in Hayes Hotel in 1884. The sport was played widely in the 1700s, thanks to the patronage of protestant landlords. The Don Kings of pre-GAA hurling.

"The great matches were held for big sums, for big price sums," explains McAnallen. "And one of the things that we can take from that is during in 18th century Ireland, hurling was very much accepted as a sport of the people and patronised by men of importance."

"They were, if you like in American terms, the NFL owners. In soccer terms in Britain, they were the club owners at the time," says O'Grady. "Even though other forms of Irish life, particularly if you like after the Flight of the Earls of 1607 and so on and so forth had died culturally a lot of Ireland had died after the Famine, obviously hurling kept going. The GAA obviously gave it a huge impetus in 1884. There were some clubs like my own in St.Finbar's going into 1876."

There is an extraordinary story to be told of hurling matches played around the world before the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association


"When we're thinking what a game of hurling or camán looked like before 1884," says McAnallen. "The truth is probably that no two games probably looked the same. Some of the probably and some areas may have had a tradition of having some form of recognisable goal. Others may have had playing to a certain point or maybe even striking the ball as a far as you could which is just the element of the puc fada which is also woven into Irish history and mythology."

Not only was hurling – in its various forms – flourishing in the southern half of Ireland, long before the foundation of the GAA, it was being played on foreign soil so explains Paul Rouse.

"There is an extraordinary story to be told of hurling matches played around the world before the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association. And this story takes you, for example, to Paris in the 1780s, to New York at the same period. To Toronto in the 1840s and the 1850s. It takes you through the story of London in the 19th century. Bell's Life Weekly in the 1840s, published rules for hurling in the 1840s, drawn on the game which had been played in the city 20 years earlier."


After the act of Union in 1800 however the idea of Anglican gentry landlords acting as patrons of hurling games fell away very quickly

But even as the sport was being played across the Atlantic, the increasingly fraught nature of British rule on this island saw the sport decline in the country of its origin.

"After the act of Union in 1800 however the idea of Anglican gentry landlords acting as patrons of hurling games fell away very quickly," says McAnallen. "Because from that point onwards the sort of relationship that had developed between landlords and the common in people in Munster and Lenster that became more separate, their relations. And so the idea of playing great hurling games for huge sums of money that fell away. So with that for a long time the whole idea of amateur status for hurling was preserved for some great number of decades."

Image - Michael Cusack, the cricket-loving founder of the Gaelic Athletic (James Hardiman Library, NUIG)

Michael Cusack, the cricket-loving founder of the Gaelic Athletic (James Hardiman Library, NUIG)

The Birth of The GAA

"Michael Cusack is a remarkable individual on many levels," says historian Mark Duncan. "He was, prior to the foundation of the GAA a man with very ecumenical sporting taste. The man was an athlete, he played rugby, he played cricket, and in establishing the GAA, he is largely involved in a battle for the control of Irish Athletics"

"He was transformed as a human being but also by the language revival, to become driven to the idea of restoring hurling," says Rouse. "This came from his urban world. And what did he do? He called people together, four of them first, into the Phoenix Park, beside that Wellington monument, that emblem of Dublin life. Right near the gates of the Phoenix Park, near the front gates. Four of them first, himself, on a Saturday afternoon in November 1883."

Fast forward 12 months to that meeting in Thurles, where less was achieved than you might like to imagine.

"There were no rules for the game of hurling drawn up at that first meeting of the association, on the first of November 1884, nor at the second in Cork at the end of December 1884, but what was decided was that Maurice Davin, Cusack's great accomplice in the founding of the Gaelic Association, Gaelic Athletic Association, was charged with making rules for the game, and he did so and brought those rules to a meeting on the 17thof January 1885 and they were published and spread everywhere."

But it was the structure, based on geographical boundaries, which was the greatest early success of the GAA.

Image - Thurles Blues - The inaugural All-Ireland  champions

Thurles Blues - The inaugural All-Ireland champions

"Whoever invented the crest for the parish, I don't know had they any idea what they were after stumbling on," says Tipperary's All-Ireland winning former manager Liam Sheedy. "Because when I see what people will go through for their parish and for their club, like when they put on those parish colours, and attached to that is the crest of their club, and all it means to them, I mean, just, it just seems to completely take over people."

Whisper it, but even this geographical construct may have owed a lot to that garrison game of football.

"By the 1880s, and certainly by the middle of the 1880s, the FA Cup was a huge popular phenomenon in England and was driving the spread of soccer which was now pushing past rugby as the most popular football game in England," says Rouse. "I think it's fair to speculate that the GAA understood the success of that, saw what was happening with the Irish Football Association Cup, the IFA Cup, from Belfast, and said, 'We'll do that'."

Ironic then, the role that the GAA is credited with in the fight for independence.

"I would actually believe there would never have been a 1916 if there wasn't an 1880s," says Harry Bohan. "That the whole pride, national pride and local pride, was restored in Ireland by whatever happened in the 1880s and hurling was hugely important in that."

Image - Hurling was more a game of the schoolyard than a formalised sport before the 20th century (James Har

Hurling was more a game of the schoolyard than a formalised sport before the 20th century (James Har

The Modern Game

The Thurles Blues won that 1887 championship, in 1888, and it was not only the calendar that was in need of an overhaul. The sport of hurling as we know it today did not come into being until the early years of the twentieth century.

"Rules are completely overhauled in the first decade of the 20th century," says Duncan. "What you see is the adjustment of the scoring system, the old side posts which resemble Australian Rules goal posts are removed, you see the gradual reduction of team sizes from 21 to 17 to 15 a side, and that transforms the game as both a playing and a spectator experience.

"It's more enjoyable to play, it's more enjoyable to watch and those developments coincide with also developments in how the game is coached and trained, and teams begin preparing for All-Ireland finals in the early 20th century."

Image - The development of Croke Park owed much to the Tailteann Games (Failte Ireland)

The development of Croke Park owed much to the Tailteann Games (Failte Ireland)

"In 1915 Laois won the All-Ireland," says Rouse. "They were given handouts. Printed documents on how they should play. They were brought in for collective training, into Maryborough, as Portlaoise was then called, central point, for weeks before the game. People were put to work in their jobs to cover for them to enable them to come in to train.

"They went up to Dublin, the Laois team, the night before the final, four sentries were posted around the hotel that they stayed in to stop the lads escaping for the night previously, there were masseuses brought in to rub down the players, they were instructed not to drink, they were prepared for the game in order to win."

The Tailteann Games in 1924 saw the Irish Free State invest £10,000 in Croke Park as part of a campaign to assert itself on a global stage and hurling had the Mecca it needed, just as counties across the country were beginning to discover their identities as the tradition of being represented by your champion club died away.


If you look at those first games of Camogie... Its restrictive dress, its ankle length skirts, you wonder how someone can move at all, let alone hit a ball


"If you look at a team like Kilkenny," says Duncan. "Kilkenny won, won their first All-Ireland in 1904, they then go mad and win seven All-Irelands between 1904 and 1913. The earliest of the team photographs that you'll find for that period, you'll see them wearing the jerseys of their clubs, Mooncoin and Tullaroan.

"By the end of that run of success they're wearing the black and amber jerseys that we're all familiar with now, with 'Kilkenny' embroidered across the front of the jersey. And that is important to building a greater sense of identification with their county team, because those photographs are reproduced in newspapers. They're reproduced in hotels and in pubs and in family homes."

Cusack's hurling had no place for women, but by the early years of the last century, with society changing and women gaining greater independence, female members of the Gaelic League began making their own trips to the Phoenix Park.

"And between 1903 and 1905 this game of Camogie was invented," says Rouse. "Why was it given a different name? Well of course the story of the time is the notion, it's partly to do with the ideology of sport at the time and the idea that there were games that were appropriate for men, where they could show their manliness, their courage, their vigour, all those things for which men are famous.

"And, women of course .. more decorative, should not be involved in such robust competition. This is in the ideology of the time. And if you look at those first games of Camogie, pictures of them from 1905, and you look at the clothes that people are wearing. Its restrictive dress, its ankle length skirts, you wonder how someone can move at all, let alone hit a ball."

Image - Listening to the 1933 All-Ireland hurling final in Clonmel

Listening to the 1933 All-Ireland hurling final in Clonmel

The Age of Media

"You're not at the match but you're listening to the radio, you've your ear up to the radio," says poet Theo Dorgan. "There was no television when I was starting to listen to matches, there was very little television coverage. But you've your ear up to the radio and you're conscious that you're in your own front room and at the same time you're away wherever the match is being played.

"And the radio is only about 18 inches by 12, by maybe 9 inches deep, right, and if you go around the back of it it's like a miniature Manhattan, all the valves and all the bits and all lit up like this, it's like Manhattan at night, right, so you're conscious of that. But you're also soaring, you're away, and you're asking yourself eventually 'where am I when I'm away at the match? I know I'm sitting here, I know I've got a glass of milk and a slice of Madeira cake in front of me, because my ma just finished baking a cake, you know, and it's cooled down enough to eat it at half time', but you're also there. So that mystery of 'I'm here but I'm also there'."


 She wrote that she has 'rarely seen so native a scene in her own country' she said 'one would have loved the whole world to see it'


The recognition and nascent fame hurlers were enjoying in the early years of the GAA was only accelerated with the advent of radio and eventually television, but also newspapers and cinema.

"Different people make a case for different decades as being the hay day of hurling. Many people cite the 1990s, others cite the 1950s but I think it's hard to look past the 1930s," says Duncan.

"The 1931 All-Ireland final between Cork and Kilkenny marks a particular high point for the game. The All-Ireland final goes to three games, and the crowd builds with each game. By the time the third match comes along .. some of the newspapers are running coupon competitions and offering cash prizes for readers who can predict or guess the final score or the attendance at the match. The Irish Independent commissions one of its writers, a woman by the name of Gertrude Gaffney to write a featured piece around the game. And, what she does, is immerse herself, not in the match, but in what was happening around the match.

"She said it was impossible to not be carried along by the throng of the crowd. When she was inside the stadium, again, her focus was less on the game but on the pageantry around it and the crowd itself, she wrote that she has 'rarely seen so native a scene in her own country' she said 'one would have loved the whole world to see it'."

Image - The great Lory Meagher (L)

The great Lory Meagher (L)

Icons Lory Meagher and Eudie Coughlan lined up on either side in those matches, while the era of the media also saw the emergence of stars like Mick Mackey and a certain lorry driver from Cork.

"And of course the arrival of Christy Ring, again brought the creation of the ultimate hurling icon," says Rouse. "Because of his abilities, because of his successes, the accident of where he was born in terms of the success which he earned, and the timing of the spread of radio through the 40s and 50s and its growth and the arrival of more filming of his matches and the showing of cine-films everywhere on the reels – and the very fact that he lasted at the top of the game for so long and won so much. A unique combination of everything, and a whole story is created around this man.

Image - Munster captains Wayne Sherlock, Mark Foley, Tommy Dunne, Brian Lohan and Fergal Hartley

Munster captains Wayne Sherlock, Mark Foley, Tommy Dunne, Brian Lohan and Fergal Hartley

Building Brand Hurling

Kilkenny captains collecting Liam MacCarthy has become a little mundane in recent years, but Donal O'Grady recalls one from the 1970s quite distinctly.

"The GAA had employed PR people and Brian Cody was almost manhandled. It's worth getting the coverage of it, if you see it. He was manhandled almost as he stood up the steps. I think it was Bill O'Herlihy, God rest him, and his company was the PR people. He got pulled off the steps, almost into the seats and some guy wiped his face with a towel or whatever in case there were any marks of blood or whatever. So that shows the lengths that the GAA were going to project this game as manly but no blood, no this, no that. Whereas back along maybe in the 30s, 40s and 50s fellows went up maybe with lots of marks because it was the marks of glory."

"The GAA starts dipping its toes into sponsorship and to commercial activity in a serious way in the 1970s, but really from the mid 1990s you see the GAA embracing commercial activity and that coincides with the revamp of the hurling championship, the introduction of a backdoor competition," says Duncan.


They were all bachelors at that time, they were very young, so they were ultimate poster boys for the game, you know

"Through those middle years of the 1990s you start seeing sponsors names appearing on jerseys, you start seeing the All-Ireland championships being sponsored. The Guinness brand was very much identified with the All-Ireland hurling championships, and there's no doubt that they brought something to it. They brought a great promotional nuance to the game - everybody remembers the ads, the billboards, that Guinness put out."

Unsurprisingly the manager of the 1995 All-Ireland champions recalls them well.

"'Nobody said that it's going to be easy', 'It's going to be hell for leather' and that kind of a thing," says Ger Loughnane. "Brilliant catchphrases on the billboards. So, the game had a huge profile and Clare were the epitome of this new age and they were playing in a way that was different as well and they were all very young. They were all bachelors at that time, they were very young, so they were ultimate poster boys for the game, you know."

Image - Ger Loughnane won two All-Irelands with Clare in the 1990s

Ger Loughnane won two All-Irelands with Clare in the 1990s

Roll forward a few years in Clare and the great Harry Bohan is standing in Croke Park, contemplating one of the consequences of this great marketing campaign.

"I went as a selector with Anthony when he was managing Clare and we played in Croke Park and I remember standing on the side-line and saying, 'Jesus, imagine running out here in front of 80,000 people, like to play, I mean, sacred salt in other words'. That's the dream, but there are more and more, that's and for those who get there, that's huge and for those who are prepared to give it all to get there, that's huge but we have to be desperately careful that fellas who might think that, if they don't have that dream it won't be easy keeping plane but in other words, a lot of them anyhow, because that's the other thing that has worried everyone, that the county has so taken over now that the clubs are seriously hurt."

Image - Brian Cody watches on as Joe Canning takes a late free in this year's drawn Leinster hurling final

Brian Cody watches on as Joe Canning takes a late free in this year's drawn Leinster hurling final

The Hurling of Today

While the game has arguably never been stronger in the elite counties, Liam Sheedy knows that does no mask the fact hurling has not spread beyond far beyond the five counties that contested that first All-Ireland championship in 1887.

"I made a statement on the Hurling 2020 [Committee] that every child on the island of Ireland should be given the opportunity to get that hurley placed in their hand, and let them see how they go, and let them take it from that. So, I do think we have a number of challenges, you know, let's not get carried away because the game is so strong in six or seven or eight counties, you know, I think the challenge for the GAA is how do you take it from eight to 16, what needs to be done."

For Bohan, his concerns revolve around the individuals and his/her motives to play in the future.

"Once a country or an organisation or a family or an individual gets gripped with corporate values, in other words where the money completely takes over, like the soccer in England now, I said we'd, you need to be extremely careful that the ethos of the game, the commitment to the game and other things, the compassion that goes with the game, that they're not lost and I feel that's the big, big challenge for the GAA into the future."

Hurling is getting better and better, the quality of player is getting higher and higher and hurling, great analysis now, as Ring says, 'there's better still to come'

Dorgan takes heart from the continuing growth of Camogie, particularly at underage level.

"It was almost invisible when I was a child, and now it's leading the way. I mean, Cork, there would be no Cork hurling if it were not for the women until, you know, this season, it had seemed to die away. And now you're as likely to see a gang of girls walking around the streets with a hurleys in their hands as in my time, you'd have seen boys.

"And that's very healthy because it's to do with skill, it's to do with joy in the body when you're running full tilt. That moment, that first time you solo, the ball out on the outstretched hurley and you feel you have the wings of angels, you really do. And yet it's an ordinary sensation, it's just a game, you're just passing the time. And, but there's an innate poetry in hurling, I think, it connects you to everything there is. It's the instrument and it's the body and it's the air and it's the open air, and it's your teammates and it's the opposition.

We will bookend our journey with words from Ger Loughnane, the RTÉ analyst is unsurprisingly quotable.

"I think it all goes back to the greatest player of all time, probably, because of his appeal, Christy Ring, when he said at the end of his career, when someone asked him about him being such a great player, he said, 'there is better is still to come…' and how true it was. You know, I look at that Hurling is getting better all the time. The quality of the players is getting better all the time. The level of skill that's there now is far superior to anything we've seen in any other era.

"Style will change but skill level is what I look for in players & the skill levels now are just mesmerising. Really in order to see it properly, you have to see it in slow motion to see how good they are. The eye and hand co-ordination of a player now that I wouldn't have imagined even 20 years ago. Hurling is getting better and better, the quality of player is getting higher and higher and hurling, great analysis now, as Ring says, 'there's better still to come'."

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The first episode of the Game is on RTÉ One at 9.35pm tonight.