By Dave Hannigan
The sport of hurling is at the center of the latest chapter in an ongoing Canadian row about the origins of that country’s national pastime, hockey. Following a year-long investigation, a committee representing the Society for International Hockey Research published an 18-page report last month disputing an old theory that the game had its roots in the town of Windsor, Nova Scotia, where previous literary evidence appeared to establish that students at King’s College used to play games of hurling on the ice of a local pond as far back as 1800.
In “The Attache,” a novel published in 1844, Thomas Chandler Haliburton had written about students at the private school “racin,’ yelpin,’ hollerin’ and whoopin’ like mad with pleasure, at the playground, with games at base in the fields or hurley on the long pond on the ice.” Haliburton had attended King’s College from 1805-15, and since this mention of ice hurling constituted the first documentary reference to the sport eventually known as hockey, Windsor’s Long Pond became a place of pilgrimage for fans anxious to pay homage to that first spot on which the game that dominates the nation’s consciousness was born. Not anymore, according to those behind the new report.
“If this reference is accepted as a forerunner of hockey, then so too must stick-and-ball games played on ice in Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries by participants wearing skates,” said Paul Kitchen, chairman of the investigative committee last month. “We do not accept these activities as hockey, nor do we accept as hockey — ‘hurley on the Long Pond on the ice’ — if indeed it was every played at all. Hockey is a game played on an ice rink in which two opposing teams of skaters, using curved sticks, try to drive a small disk, ball or block into or through the opposite goals. There is evidence of a game like that being played in Nova Scotia in the late 1850s, but there appears to be no known references to any specific match between two identified teams. The Windsor claim relies on a vague literary allusion in a work of fiction. The proponents of the Windsor claim offer only conjecture.”
The first reported indoor game of ice hockey took place at the Victoria Skating Rink in downtown Montreal on March 3, 1875 and that game, which included students from McGill University, satisfied the research committee’s standards of what actually constitutes hockey as it is known today. While the denizens of Windsor are more concerned with aspersions being cast on the authenticity of the town’s claim to fame, the report obviously has implications for hurling’s place in the evolution of the sport. Despite the lack of proper research to this point, the links between Canada’s east coast and Ireland are extensive enough to back up any theory that the fastest field game in the world gave rise to the fastest ice game in the world.
Apart from the fact that photographs of the earliest hurleys show sticks that are remarkably similar in size and shape to the present day hockey stick, the Irish had reputedly been traveling to Newfoundland from as far back as St. Brendan the Navigator. Although the first serious influxes are probably dated to the 15th century, there were certainly enough Irish immigrants around by the 18th century to make Haliburton’s fictional account of hurling being played ring true.
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“Several ancient Waterford folk songs had many references to Newfoundland, and one such, dating from the 17th century and containing many words in the native language, was in praise and salutation of the hurlers from Faha Stogeen now domiciled on the banks of Newfoundland,” writes Seamus J. King in his seminal book “The Clash of the Ash in Foreign Fields.” “So it seems the first men to have stuck a ball in the New World were sons of Waterford helped, it is said, by other adventurous Mooncoin men from ‘across the river.’ ”
The belief that Windsor hosted games of hurling is also sustained by the patterns of migration within Canada during the last quarter of the 18th century when huge numbers moved from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia in search of better economic conditions. Any Irish on the move would most certainly have brought their favorite sport with them. There was also a fresh tide of emigrants from Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford arriving during that period at the invitation of relatives who had already prospered in this new land.
“I would not call them credible historians,” said Howard Dill, a 68-year-old pumpkin farmer whose family has owned the Long Pond for almost 125 years, when asked about the committee’s report. “You had a biased committee. There was nobody from Nova Scotia on the committee.”
Even Pat Hickey, a veteran hockey writer with the Montreal Gazette, has dismissed the report as nonsense, and in the absence of any more documentary evidence, it may be time for the Canadians to delve back into their own folklore for proof. One particular Irishman has obviously heard a version of this story before.
“It seems that a group of immigrants from Waterford or Cork who had arrived in Newfoundland got caught in the ice,” said Tommy Makem in an interview for a book called “Gaelic Speaking” some years ago. “Some of them had hurleys and they made a ball out of cloth or something and began to play on the ice. That is where ice hockey originated. It’s as good a theory as any — The Bould Thady Quills of Newfoundland!”