The ‘Yellow Bellies’ and the Hurling Men of Cornwall

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 2003), News, Volume 11

On Bodmin Moor in Cornwall there are three circles of standing stones known as ‘The Hurlers’. Legend has it that men of the area broke the Sabbath by playing the game and, as a consequence, were instantly turned to stone.
It may come as a surprise to find the game of hurling associated with Cornwall, as we tend to think of our national game—arguably the most skilful, fastest and most exciting of all field games—as being distinctively and peculiarly Irish. While the modern form of the sport certainly is, in the past ‘ball and stick’ games were played widely throughout Europe, before eventually developing into a number of games, each with its own individual characteristics. Before Cuchulin ever pucked a sliothar in the Cooley mountains, friezes showed ancient Greeks playing a game with sticks and a ball, a pastime which may have been old even then.
But it was the warrior Celts who seem to have taken these games to their hearts and we now find them, in their various guises, mainly along the western seaboard of Europe, amongst the remnants of that people. In Brittany and elsewhere in France the game was called hoquet (from the old French word for a shepherd’s crook) and became what is now field hockey. In Scotland it developed into camanachd or shinty, and a similar game in Wales, no longer played, was known as banty. The games of golf and cricket are other refinements of this seminal game, both, in their early days, having used curved sticks with a ‘bas’ in common with the others.
Hurling in Cornwall has a long history and was once played throughout the county. Cornish historian Richard Carew describes two types of the game in 1602—‘hurling to goal’ and, more like the old Irish inter-parish games, ‘hurling to country’. Twice exhibitions were held in London, and in 1654 Oliver Cromwell was amongst the spectators. The tradition is still kept alive with an annual game held on Shrove Tuesday at St Columb. The game, as it has developed, has now very little in common with our game: sticks are no longer used and the ‘silver ball’ is passed to team members by throwing to hand.
In County Wexford, the nearest part of Ireland to Cornwall, the game of hurling has been a central part of the lives of the people down through the centuries. The oldest Wexford hurling ballad (translated from the old Yola dialect of the barony of Bargy) refers to a game about the year 1688:

Yesterday we had a goal just in our hand
Their men were all quaking ’twas themselves could not stand
If a muddler be buried ’twould be my Tomeen
Who, by all the bad luck, was well placed to drive in.
Many a fine puck by Tomeen was made
The culbaire said it would well be our fate
If we had any luck that our name would be sung
From the Teamhair here below right up to Cargun.

Tomeen may well have been the Tony Doran of the 1680s!
Throughout the following century hurling seems to have been extremely popular in the county, sponsored by many of the major landowners, such as the Carews of Castleboro, the Devereuxs of Carrigmannon and, particularly, the Colcloughs of Duffry Hall. In a ballad
called ‘The Hurling at Mohurry’, written by a blacksmith named O’Cavanagh, a game between men from the Duffry and a team from County Carlow in 1770 is described blow by blow:

Squire Colclough, our patriot, threw up the ball
And Dick Doyle from Marshallstown gave the first fall
Our men being trained in the hurling school
Like a shot from a cannon they sent the ball cool.

The game seems to have been central to the sporting life of the county before 1798 and must have been organised around the parish or village. This focus on the game was to prove important to the United Irishmen prior to the Rebellion, and we find that in Mulrankin, for instance, the local hurling team formed the nucleus of the rebel volunteers of that parish and, under their captain, Michael Browne, fought bravely as a unit at the battles of Ross and Horetown. This pattern may well have been followed throughout the remainder of the county. One of the United Irish leaders, Mogue Kearns, was remembered as having been famous as a hurler before leaving for France to study for the priesthood. The game remained strong throughout the nineteenth century before the foundation of the GAA.
But it was the story of an event in the first half of the eighteenth century that was to distinguish Wexford teams forever after. That great patron of sport in County Wexford, Caeser Colclough, arranged, though an acquaintance, a hurling match between a Wexford team and a team from Cornwall—it was said to have been for a large wager. The Wexford team travelled to Cornwall and played the game, perhaps the first ‘compromise rules’ match in history, and in order to identify their team each player wore a yellow sash around his waist. On their return home, having won the day, their victory was cheered with the cry ‘Up the Yellowbellies’, and thus the nickname was born.

Eamon Doyle is a local historian.


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