Camogie is the greatest game — just call it hurling

Galway’s Ailish O’Reilly gets her shot away in spite of the combined efforts of Kilkenny trio Michelle Teehan, Niamh Deely, and Kellyanne Doyle in the Littlewoods Ireland Camogie League Division 1 final at Croke Park in March. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach

It’s summer and Sunday evenings in local pubs are dominated by hurling talk. Common themes everywhere I would expect; the player that isn’t up to that level and they’ve ‘always known it’, the new player who proved them right, ‘they have IT’, the mad decisions on the line, and always, the awe at the moments of brilliance in all hurling games.

The hurling and camogie championships have kicked off and while it might be harder to find someone to dissect the women’s game with, they are both the greatest of sports. The games yes, but also the characters, the legends, the myths, the rivalries, the epics.

Dan Shanahan and Briege Corkery, Christy Ring and Emer McDonnell, Cú Chulainn, Galway and Tipperary, Cork and Wexford; men and women, the male and female code inclusive. Regardless of gender, it’s hurling in my head and it’s hurling that I see, so... let’s call camogie hurling.

Some weeks back, a window salesman was at my house and he was urging caution about trying to drag an old-style bungalow into a modern home. He said, ‘a house is of its time and to keep that in mind’.

I was a bit put out; I had something in my head that was up to date and fresh and straight away set about trying to prove that I could have the windows I wanted. 

When I did calm down and reflected, it reminded me of Gaelic games and the grief officials can sometimes get about being slow to change, and maybe being too loyal to tradition.

The GAA review themselves and their games regularly and do try new things, but change is slow and will possibly never satisfy or address the level of scrutiny and commentary the organisation gets.

Briege Corkery
Briege Corkery

The latter isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s good to be questioned and challenged and some ideas that are put forward have a monumental impact, such as Joe McDonagh’s initial calls to drop Rule 21, and Sean Kelly’s push to open Croke Park to other sports.

For camogie, changing to 15-a-side was a big deal while ladies football has shown an energy to try new things, such as the countdown clock and sin-bin. Self-review exists but both games do not experience the same level of inquiry as in the GAA, and I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing.

We quite regularly hear female athletes would like the same level of critical analysis as their male counterparts, well, this should extend to off-the-field issues as well.

And so we return to camogie. I read Paul Rouse’s excellent book The Hurlers and had nothing but awe and admiration for those who championed hurling but even more so for those women who set about organising and playing camogie. 

This was at a time when the leaders of the GAA felt their games were only for men — despite the fact the leaders of our nation knew we must treat our men, women and children equally.

Thankfully, there were great women who brought that message with defiance onto the field to play our greatest game of all. 

Camogie was very much borne out of, or perhaps even alongside hurling but yet it had its own set of playing rules; perhaps reflective at the time of the general view of hurling being a man’s game. The most notable redress of that was in 1999, when camogie moved to a 15-a-side game, which proved an absolute success.

There are a few sports with differing rules for men and women and for the most part, I think this is positive.

But, there are always exceptions, and it’s good to have the autonomy to do something different, and in many cases, develop things that would be good for the game, regardless of gender.

For example, there are specific rules in both camogie and ladies football that reward skill and enhance the game; such as two points for a scored sideline and the pick up off the ground in ladies football; both would work well in the men’s games.

At the same time, we accept, wholeheartedly, that sport is for all and female athletes are capable of technical and physical excellence in any sport. We accept also that female athletes can show aggression and be combative in ‘contact sports’ and coach them accordingly.

However, in camogie and ladies football, there are rules which place limitations around physical contact.

These are in place to protect players but also, it is argued, that they ensure the games prioritise skill development and technical ability.

The latter must be the priority in sport but all the while, athletes, females included, are more aware of, have greater access to, and invest more in sports science so levels of conditioning are high and central to all training. We are left with great athletes (technically and physically) but in the camogie context in particular, the resultant great game is not always manifesting.

I am a massive hurling fan; for me, it is the greatest game in the world and likely everyone who plays and most of those who support the game agrees. Hurling is fast, skillful, physical; it is also cool, popular and desperately hard to master.

Since the game started, it has thrived in small pockets only, reflecting the specialist sport that it is and also an indicator of how hard it is to promote. The county game is the front door to the sport and critical to its longevity and at the minute it is playing a blinder.

Camogie has the same needs as hurling but by comparison, is not thriving.

Camogie needs hurling, it needs a joint-promotion strategy, it needs an image enhancement, it needs another big leap towards hurling, 20 years after the last one.

It needs to look at what is making hurling great — and this includes an appreciation of the need for some physical contact in the game. This may not be an introduction of a shoulder, it may instead be a review of such rules that prevent a player ‘deliberately interfering with the hurley or body of an opponent’, or a ‘charge (pushing or moving into an opponent’s body)…’.

Think of all the times that Gearóid McInerney breaks through a tackle by pushing through an opponent’s body displaying his strength and making space for the execution of a particular skill.

And the words ‘deliberately interfere’ pretty much contradict the skill of hooking and makes things difficult for referees. 

It seems sometimes that any contact is deemed deliberate and there isn’t enough appreciation of the amount of incidental contact in the game that is needed to let the skills flourish.

In contrast, hurling rules have conditions where a charge is permissible and also specify a push as being ‘a push with a hand or hurley’.

I don’t think I’m alone in this: It was hurling I played in my head, it is hurling that players generally train for but it’s not the game they always get to play. I think camogie rules need a rethink, which thankfully seems to be forthcoming, and a chance to see if it moves closer to hurling.

To that end, I would also like to see the game called hurling. To be a hurler is to be a unique part of Irish culture, to be a player of, and possibly a master of the greatest game, to be brave, skilful, strong, to be heroic. 

The heroes in my head were all hurlers; Therese Maher, Kate Kelly, DJ Carey and Brian Whelahan; it’s time to make them all one tribe in reality as well.

The house I am renovating was ‘of a time’ but some finance, skilled workers, a lot of planning, advice from the experts, and a few well-needed nudges from time-to-time will bring it quite happily to a new way of being.

I love the game of hurling, and had the best times of my life playing camogie.

I want to see the game jump forward; my ideas may be flawed in parts and not popular but my only wish is that camogie plans, gets the best people in the game into a room, allocates resources, seeks advice and, above all, isn’t fearful of change.

Aoife Lane is the former chairperson of the Women’s Gaelic Players Association

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