Clare Association Yearbook, 2003
John Rattigan, Curator, Clare Museum
In 1995, Christy Kelly, a farmer from Mullagh in West Clare, contacted the National Museum of Ireland to report a ball he had found years before on his land. It measured approximately 6.7 cm in diameter, and had been recovered from a trench he had been digging for gravel in 1980. On the same day he had located an old hearth, complete with charcoal at the same level. Mr Kelly kept the ball as a curiosity at his home for more than a decade, showing it to interested visitors and always intending to find out more about it. He suspected the mysterious object he had found was a type of hurling ball and following the Clare All-Ireland Hurling win of 1995, decided it was about time he contacted the National Museum.
Dr Anne O'Dowd of the Irish Folklife Division of the National Museum of Ireland confirmed the identity of the object as a hurling ball. To find a hurling ball in the football heartland of West Clare may seem strange today, but references in the Clare Journal of the 19th century indicate that hurling was once played in Kilkee.
Hurling is an ancient game and is attributed to the Celtic peoples of ancient Ireland, who appeared on the scene about 500 BC. The game of hurling is mentioned in the earliest Irish literature, written down by monks during the early medieval period, recording tales that originated in a much older, oral tradition.
Physical evidence for the ancient game of hurling is not unknown, and is found in the form of hair hurling balls, all made from the body hair of cattle and horses and all found at considerable depths in bogs. Eventhough they are organic in composition, these anaerobic (oxygen free) conditions provided by bogs, preserve them well.
Generally, hair hurling balls consist of a core of felted hair covered by a network of plaited cord made from the long tail hairs of the animal. These balls may have been used in earlier versions of the modern hurling game or in competitions such as the poc fada contests of today. Most of these balls have been located in Munster, with one found in Kilmihil in 1971, but an example found in County Sligo in the 1960's indicates a wider distribution.
However, Dr O'Dowd noted an unusual characteristic of the Mullagh ball: its surface was hard and shiny, resembling leather, but was entirely seamless. To find out more information, the ball was submitted to the State Laboratory for analysis. One of the functions of the State Laboratory is to provide technical and analytical assistance to museums concerned with the conservation and identification of historical artifacts. As the surface of the ball was slightly damaged during its recovery in 1980, a small sample could be easily taken for examination by the Laboratory staff. A report of the examination carried out on the ball was published by Conor Murphy, Joe Foley and Dr Anne O'Dowd in the Irish Scientist Yearbook of 1996.
The report noted that the ball was found to contain approximately 35% calcium phosphate, 5% Nitrogen, unusually high concentrations of Manganese, and traces of Iron. The high level of Manganese indicated a type of resin mix on the surface of the ball, perhaps as a preservative or colourant, while the calcium content suggested that egg yolk or a bone glue of animal origin was used to bind it together. It is thought that the seamless surface of the ball was created when coating was applied as a liquid or semi-liquid, which subsequently hardened. The traces of Iron suggested that the ball had been immersed in bog water at some point in the past, while the phosphorous content came from ground water it was exposed to while buried.
The depths at which hair hurling balls are found in bogs indicate the length of time they have been there and most of them have been found at least 5 feet down, indicating an age of 500 years or older. The depth at which the Mullagh ball was located, 18 inches, suggested to Dr O'Dowd that the ball was 19th century in date. In addition, Mr Kelly theorises that the find may be linked to the occupants of eleven mud-walled homes that stood nearby until the early 20th century.
This unique hurling ball roused great interest in the National Museum of Ireland, but was returned to Mr Kelly after its analysis in 1996. In an article in the Clare Champion in January 1997, Mr Kelly said he was disappointed the ball was not considered to be of a greater age, but added, "The important thing is that it is part of our heritage and I am determined to keep it here in Clare ". True to his word, in November 2001, Mr Kelly donated this unusual hurling ball to the collection at Clare Museum, where it is being kept for posterity. The Mullagh hurling ball is of a type previously unknown, and perhaps other examples are awaiting discovery.