The Whaling Tradition in Hurling

‘Call me Ishmael’. . . one of the most famous opening lines in literature, it could so easily have continued ‘. . . and I’m a hurler.

The comings and goings associated with the GAA 125 have led to a great deal of introspection and reflection on the last century and a quarter of our great games. Among the gems uncovered from highbrow academic research, attic clear outs and garage spring cleans have been documentary evidence that hurling could so nearly have been an international sport, but for a global decline in whaling.

In an old seaside shanty, down near Bantry that was scheduled for the wrecking ball before the credit crunch hit (now earmarked for development as a visitor centre) a gang of builders discovered an old seaman’s chest clasped shut with a rustic padlock. Serendipity meant a small key dangled by a length of gnarled hide. Upon opening the creaking chest, the builders realised it no ordinary seaman had stowed his belongings. No, this was the box of Pandora and the builders, one from Newtownshandrum and the other from Portumna in Galway tipped back their 125 peaked caps, ruffled the hair and gazed in wonder.

The chest held treasures beyond measure: a pair of ancient hurleys and an almost-finished stave from a barrel with a rough bas fashioned at the end; a leather bag with half a dozen or eight wizened and browned sliotars; a couple of pairs of nailed brogues; a peaked cap with the legend Corcaigh embroidered across the front. Other items included a smaller rosewood box containing a series of dog eared parchments; some dageurrotype photographs of sepia tone – one in particular of a striking young women of sallow skin and waved dark hair. It bore the legend Dona Christiana.

Unfolding the yellowing parchments, the fella from Newtownshandrum was surprised and stunned as the most remarkable tale unfurled before his eyes. The Galway man, more used to utility than ornament, set about boiling the kettle for tay and sandwiches and a read of the Irish Daily Star which he unfolded from the back seat pocket of his trous.

In 1887 a shipful of whalers had set out from the port of Kingstown in Cork, bound for the rich seas near the Isles of Cape Verde. They enjoyed the sailing on the vessel the Prionsias O Murchu, a ship of sturdy construction that handled itself well in all weathers but excelled in negotiating rough seas and storms. When they needed reassurance, the whalers from Cork knew that aboard the O Murchu, no evil should they fear.

The parchments revealed the ship sailed hither and thither, occasionally meeting with a sister vessel the Sean O Ceallaigh or the Naomh Niocláis. Both were formidable sea faring hulks that were manned by other sturdy fellas from seaports and fishing villages along the Southern seabord. Occasionally a gobdaw from the far North would be on board, acting the wag but being treated with a mixture of amusement and astonishment as he guldered in a loud voice.

The reason the whalers from Cork loved sailing? They could disembark on the beautiful Cape Verde Islands, relax a while under the blue Southern sky and when fully rested, they break out the barrel of hurls and set about a match amongst themselves. Sand in their feet, wind in their hair. Occasionally an ash hurl split and burst; then the ship’s cooper would fashion a new blade from an old barrel, or on occasion he might scrimshaw a bit of whale bone for the same effect. The mammalian caman swung easily with a slight oiliness and the unmistakeable whiff of ambergris.

The other presssing occupational hazard was the pucking of a ball into the Atlantic, especially during on-deck training sessions at sea. Typically the Northern hurler was the most likely candidate, pulling wildly sending another sliotar billowing off to starboard and down to the hurlers in Davey Jones’ locker room where the inches were no more.

Betimes the O Ceallaigh would pitch up or maybe the Naomh Niocláis would weigh anchor and a contest between crews would ensue with the occasional blood flow from a split hurler joining the detritus and entrails of dead leviathans trickling into the Atlantic.

The highlight of the trip for the owner of our sea chest, a fella called Ronald O’ Donovon Rossa, was the regular stopover in the island of Madeira, there to sample to the local fine produce and to meet his beloved Christiana. A fine and graceful athlete, she took to the hurling with a gay abandon and pucked the sliotar as sweetly as any of the lads on the ship. Many times he returned to visit and they sported, stick and ball, hand in hand on the beach.

It was almost the start of a beautiful legacy until alas, an unmentionable disaster was to strike and soon the whaling was no more. But, to this day the people of Madeira think what might have been.

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