Hurling Boys (The)

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HURLING BOYS, THE. Irish, Set Dance (6/8 time). G Major. Standard tuning. AB (Stanford/Petrie): AABB (O'Neill). George Petrie notes: "A very popular tune of the King's County." Hurling is an ancient Gaelic game and a popular modern sport in Ireland owing to a revival that began in the late 19th century.

A hurler, c. 1900. Photograph by Patrick Kenrick (1872-1950), Fethard. (National Library of Ireland).

Perhaps the most famous hurler was the Irish hero Cú Chulainn, the leader of a great band of Ulster warriors and the greatest figure of Irish mythology. The hero was originally named Setanta, and came about his mature name in this way. As a young boy he had gained knowledge and performed feats far beyound what is usual for one his age. At the age of five years he decided to join the boys corps of warriors-in-training at the court of his uncle, King Conor Mac Neasa of Ulster, and set out to walk the distance, amusing himself on the way by hurling the sliotar and throwing the hurley stick after it, then running like a flash to catch them before they hit ground. He astonished Conor and the boys of the corps with his prowess on the hurling field, scoring easily and defending against all shots. In fact, Conor was so impressed that when he was invited to a banquet of the house of Culainn he asked Setanta to accompany him. Caught up in a hurling game at the time, Setanta promised to hurry along afterward and to meet his uncle there, a plan to which his uncle agreed.

When the king arrived, Culainn welcomed him with due ceremony and bade him enter the banquet hall with his retinue, checking with Conor when the last guest had been seated that all had indeed arrived. Conor, forgetting about young Setanta, assured him all were there, upon which Culainn closed the hall doors and let loose his magnificent hound, a prodigious beast, to guard the building. Setanta, hurrying along as promised, approached the house only to be set upon by the hound who bayed like thunder and lunged, fangs bared to rip the youngster to pieces. The boy, who only had his hurling stick and sliotar at hand, hurled the ball with all the force he could muster, a colossal force, and sent the ball through the gaping jaws of the hound where it lodged in his throat. Stunned with pain the animal stopped in his tracks which gave Setanta time to grab him by the legs and dash his head upon the stone courtyard. Meanwhile the noise of the conflict roused the diners in the hall, and Conor finally remembered that Setanta was due to attend. Fearing the worst he and Cullain rushed out, expecting to find the lad torn assunder, but instantly overjoyed to see him whole and well. There was the matter of the hound, however, a treasured guardian of a vassel of the king's, and a loyal friend to Culainn who mourned his loss. To repay the debt Setanta pledged to find a young hound and train it as a replacement guardian, and, volunteered in the meantime to himself guard Cullain's house and property in place of the slain animal. King Conor decreed this was fair, and it was thus that Setanta became known as Cú Chulainn, which means 'the hound of Culainn'.

The set dance, played as a jig, was in the repertoire of Suffolk fiddler Fred 'Pip' Whiting, and is described as an "Old Country Dance" on his Topic recording. Pete Cooper says the tune is "clearly a vernacular descendant of 'Jockey to the Fair'."

Source for notated version:

Printed sources: O'Neill (O'Neill's Irish Music), 1915; No. 387, p. 185. O'Neill (Dance Music of Ireland: 1001 Gems), 1907; No. 963, p. 165. Stanford/Petrie (Complete Collection), 1902; No. 604, p. 152.

Recorded sources: Topic 12TS374, Fred 'Pip' Whiting - "The Earl Soham Slog" (1978).




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