The history of Ireland’s old sport and Canada’s national pastime is entwined.
National identities are sometimes improvised rather than invented. Consider a frozen pond in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in the 1800s. Many of the boys at King’s College School are Irish immigrants attempting to adjust the furious play of their favourite and ancient game of hurling (hurling) to the freezing Canadian surroundings. The most famous version is that principal William Cochrane, a priest from Omagh in County Tyrone, instructed the boys to begin playing the sport with the ball on the ground rather than balancing it on the thin stick or “hurley” as was customary.
“Hurley on the ice” was born with this simple proposal, and the phenomena swiftly spread as troops at neighboring Fort Edward picked it up. As soldiers were transferred to positions further along the St Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes, the game found its way down to Halifax and then beyond. The rest of the narrative is hazy, but “ice hurley” eventually became “ice hockey,” and a fledgling nation had a national sport.
Éamonn Cualáin, a documentary producer, based in Dublin, was doubtful when his brother-in-law told him this storey in Toronto in 2005. He remembers thinking, “This is another Irish yarn.” “We’re attempting to claim that we once again built the world.”
But it’s a storey that’s stayed with him for years. Cualáin travelled to Canada in 2017 with co-producer Sam Kingston to film the documentary “Poc na nGael” (Puck of the Irish). His film follows the significance of Irish immigrants in developing the sport, including a trip to Montreal, where the Montreal Shamrocks won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1899 and 1900, long before the Montreal Canadiens were born. Cualáin will also visit Toronto, the birthplace of the city’s beloved Maple Leafs, which used to be known as the Toronto St Pats. This is not a lost past – it is honoured every year on St Patrick’s Day – but Cualáin believed there was more to Ireland’s patron saint than a parade to tell. Even the most devoted hockey and hurling fans are surprised by the countries’ shared heritage.
Cualáin says, “There are some pillars that make us Irish, and hurling is one of them.” “Hurling is one of the strands that bind us together.” In 2018, UNESCO recognised the importance of hurling and camogie (ca-mo-ghee), its female counterpart, in Irish identity by inscribing the games on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity alongside the ancient Celtic harp and the uilleann pipes, Ireland’s national bagpipe.