On hurling … and moonlighting … in Ireland


Hurling is expected to be included on the Unesco list of the “world’s intangible cultural heritage” in 2016, The Irish Times reports.

Unesco defines “intangible cultural heritage” as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.”


I always enjoy Dan Barry’s pieces about Ireland or Irish America in The New York Times, including his latest on the very Gaelic sport of hurling. (Barry’s 2013 story about Duffy’s Cut is linked in my last post.)

The lede of the hurling story, datelined Kinvara, in County Galway, is a little curious, or ironic, to my thinking:

Thirty men battle on a deep-green field, each one wielding what looks like a field hockey stick moonlighting as a broken oar.  (My emphasis.)

Of course Barry is using the verb moonlighting in its common definition of a secondary job. But the word has origins in the nighttime agrarian violence of late 19th century Ireland. It was the guerrilla warfare or terror tactic of rural nationalists fighting against the English land tenure system.

The-Hurling-Match. Painting by Martin Driscoll.

The Hurling Match. Painting by Martin Driscoll.

Barry hints at some of this background as he outlines hurling’s history:

For a while, the game enchanted the gentry, with landlords fielding teams to play other estates. But they gradually distanced themselves from the game, either having concluded that such Irish pursuits were beneath them or suspecting that hurling smacked of rebellious nationalism.

The game’s hold had loosened by the mid-19th century. The Roman Catholic clergy disapproved. The police distrusted large gatherings. Some areas used matches to settle scores. And the wholesale death and emigration caused by the Great Hunger, the potato famine, darkened everyday life in places like Kinvara.

But in the early 1880s, Michael Cusack … began championing Irish customs, at a time when English games, especially cricket, were growing in popularity. His crusade coincided with a renewed push by Irish nationalists for home rule. He and others soon established the Gaelic Athletic Association, which provided a nationwide structure for Irish sports based on parishes and territorial boundaries, all with an implicit rejection of English ways.

The game survived, and even thrived, in the destiny-determining decades that followed, through the audacious acts of rebellion, the Irish War of Independence, the civil war.

There is certainly plenty of evidence of nationalist sentiment within the ranks of the fledgling G.A.A., especially in the west of Ireland. For those interested in the subject, I recommend “Forging A Kingdom: The G.A.A. in Kerry, 1884-1934,” by Richard McElligott; and “Land, Popular Politics and Agrarian Violence in Ireland: The Case of County Kerry, 1872-1886,” by Donnacha Sean Lucey.

A search of Hansard, the official record of British Parliamentary debates, returns hundreds of hits for the term “moonlighting” from the 1880s into the early 20th century. For example, from May 1887: “The Government say they want to put down exceptional crimes—such as murder, firing into houses, mutilation of cattle, and Moonlighting.”

That is not to say that all hurlers or other G.A.A. participants were moonlighters. But some of these young, single men likely did engage in such activity, and everyone living in Ireland at the time was aware of the term. Surely nobody in late 19th century Ireland would have described a hurley, or camán, as “moonlighting as a broken oar.”

I don’t know if Barry and the Times‘ editors are aware of the historical meaning of moonlighting. I’ve dropped him a line to ask and will post his response, if any. It’s use here certainly isn’t incorrect. And at least the story doesn’t mention anyone boycotting the hurling matches for being too rough and tumble.

But that would be another blog post.