In the Irish myths we are told who the characters are, what their condition of life is, and where they lived and acted; the heroes and their fields of action are brought before us as if they were persons of today or yesterday.
Mythic figures, in two squads, among them the heroic Tommy Walsh and Joe Canning, will run onto the green sward of Croke Park, a particular field of action in Dublin (53 degrees North, 6 degrees West), wearing the county colours of Kilkenny (52 degrees North, 7 degrees West) and Galway (53 degrees North, 9 degrees West) and face-guarded helmets.
They will wield sculpted ash sticks, many of them strapped with metal and tape. They will face each other in serried rows, fifteen on fifteen, and immediately begin to jostle, elbow and pummel each other in a preliminary warm-up.
The shrill blast of a whistle and the launching of a small white leather sliotar into the central area of the field will focus the contest into the final bout of the season - the All-Ireland Final - of the most ancient field game in the world.
Carrying his hurly of brass, ball of silver, throwing javelin, and toy spear, he proceeded to the court city of Emania, where without so much of a word of permission, he dived right in among the boys – 'thrice fifty in number, who were hurling on the green and practising martial exercises with Conchobhar's son, Follamain, at their head.” The whole field let fly at him. With his fists, forearms, palms, and little shield he parried the hurlies, balls and spears that came simultaneously from all directions. Then, for the first time in his life, he was seized with his battle-frenzy (a bizarre, characteristic transformation later to be know as his “paroxysm” or “distortion”) and before anyone could grasp what was coming to pass, he had laid low fifty of the best.
This account, from The Book of Leinster, of the hurling fury of the Irish mythic hero Cú Chulainn, playing the game and experiencing the playing-out-of-his-skin moment, known in Irish as a ristradh, is spoken of by modern hurlers and pundits in print, broadcast and on-line media as a furious and passionate engagement that you 'go with', that sweeps you into an intense savagery that is alarming and engaging.
It invokes in older men, watching from the side of the field, a blood-boiling intensity, echoing the intensity on the field. And, as an Offaly (53 degrees North, 8 degrees West) man once remarked, 'You know the hurling is good when the women in the crowd are squealing.'
Women play a form of hurling called camogie, with its own rules and character. There is also a Scottish form of hurling called shinty.
What draws young men and women to this ferocious activity? Is it the frenzy? The chance to live a life mythologised, even for a brief period?
He shakes from head to foot and revolves within his skin, his features turn red, one eye becomes monstrously large while the other becomes tiny, his mouth grows huge and emits sparks, his heart booms in his chest, his hair becomes spiked and glowing and the 'warrior light' rises from his brow.
Is this Tommy Walsh of Kilkenny? Or Joe Canning of Galway?
Tomorrow then. The ancient and the future in the furious now.
Myths and Legends of Ireland: Jeremiah Curtin; book; Sampson Low; London; 1890
The Hero with a Thousand Faces: Joseph Campbell; book; Princeton University Press; New Jersey; 1949
Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition: book; Dr. Daithí Ó hÓgáin; Ryan Publishing; London; 1990