Kieran Shannon: GAA must grasp the nettle to save its hurling hinterlands

Kieran Shannon: GAA must grasp the nettle to save its hurling hinterlands
‘At the moment it’s more attractive to play with Tooreen than it is to play with Mayo, because we get to play in finals in front of big crowds,’ says Tooreen’s Cathal Freeman, pictured here escaping the attentions of Fr. O’Neill’s pair Deccie Dalton and Rob Cullinane. Picture: David Farrell.

They just refused to go away. Last weekend, Slaughtneil and Tooreen, those oases in the hurling wastelands of Derry and Mayo, emerged from the shadows and into the limelight, where they’d push sides hailing from the most fertile ground in all the land — Kilkenny and Cork — right to the wire, before ultimately losing out.

For Tooreen, it was the second time in three years that they had made it to an All-Ireland intermediate semi-final, having surprised a Kinvara — a team that featured Conor Whelan — in the Connacht final.

So as galling as last Saturday’s four-point defeat to Fr O’Neill’s from East Cork was, they have already proven that a great opportunity doesn’t necessarily represent their last.

Slaughtneil’s resilience is even more formidable, to the point of being nationally renowned and celebrated.

Between hurling and football, this was their sixth senior All-Ireland campaign in as many years, and while a national title in either code remains elusive, the esteem in which the Derry club is held has never been as high as it is now after their epic clash with All-Ireland champions Ballyhale Shamrocks being was televised live last Sunday.

The game didn’t just attract and enthral a national viewership. Over 5,000 people made and paid their way into Newry’s Páirc Eisler, not only to witness big names like Reid and Fennelly in person, but also to rally behind Chrissy McKaigue and his team-mates in the latest episode of their magnificent dual odyssey.

Such a scene triggered a heap of garlands and suggestions to be thrown, most notably from RTÉ’s match commentator, Pauric Lodge.

“The GAA should consider playing this year’s Allianz Hurling League final at an Ulster venue,” he proposed. “Met loads of families in Newry today — parents with hurling-mad children saying they rarely get a chance to bring them to a top-level hurling game in the province.”

It was a fine idea, but such a gesture in itself would be only tokenistic. What made Newry so magical wasn’t just that there were household names from Kilkenny in action.

It was that Ulster people could get behind an Ulster team going hip-to-hip against those aforementioned big names from Kilkenny.

More than once over the decade just past, the notion of a Team Ulster has been floated. I first touted the idea this month 10 years ago, ahead of another Ulster team— Dunloy on that occasion — appearing in an All-Ireland club semi-final. In the summer of 2013, Donal Óg Cusack strongly advanced the case on The Sunday Game.

The most eloquent, credible, and impassioned advocate for such a bold idea however has been Micky ‘Wing’ McCullough, a long-time player and coach in Antrim, who now coaches Ballyboden St Enda’s — guiding them to a Dublin county title in 2018.

In an extensive interview with this paper 15 months ago, he saw something like a Kilkenny-Galway game in Ulster as a desperate measure. “Unless we do something to address the problem, we’re going to allow hurling regress to the point it’s fucking extinct and it’ll be up here instead of Australia they’ll be sending Kilkenny and Galway.”

He’d much rather if Ulster people were playing against the likes of Kilkenny and Galway. It was possible, if the province’s counties would all come together to form a team. Or, if his native Antrim would prefer to keep ploughing their own furrow, fine, but let the other eight combine. Newry last weekend only reaffirmed that view. “Imagine the Slaughtneil lads with a few Down, Tyrone and Armagh lads. They’d rattle some good teams.”

McCullough’s view was informed by some other Newry experiences. Ten years ago, as a coaching officer with Ulster Council, he organised a Down combined colleges team that duly contested the province’s next two finals. Then, in 2012, he rolled out a similar model for all of Ulster. Trials and training sessions were held in Queen’s University, where 11 Down players, 12 from Antrim, two apiece from Down and Armagh, and another from Tyrone made the cut.

Prior to that intervention, it had been over a decade since the province last had a team enter the Hogan Cup, having lost every match in the 1990s by an average scoreline of 2-18 to 0-5. The combined Ulster team only lost to MercyCollege from Galway by 2-12 to 1-14 after an injury-time penalty from Jason Flynn.

Unfortunately, that was the last year of such an experiment; the GAA subsequently prohibited combined colleges. But the experiment worked.

Historian Paul Rouse, is as perplexed as McCullough that it hasn’t been rolled out atsenior inter-county level. In his brilliant book, The Hurlers, he observed that the territorial structures of the GAA were both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. While county boundaries had helped trigger magnificent rivalries in Munster and parts of Leinster, it had stifled the growth of the game in Connacht and Ulster:

“The GAA has not demonstrated a flexibility of thinking to get beyond that. Because you have to look at the country in two different ways when it comes to hurling — beneath the Dublin-Galway axis, and above it.”

Cathal Freeman resides above that Dublin-Galway axis. Although he has been on Mayo minor, senior, and junior teams that have made All-Ireland football finals, hurling is his game and that of his parish, Tooreen. Last Saturday, in an interview with this paper, he movingly described how his and Tooreen’s love for the game is as passionate as that of anyone from Cork or Tipp.

But it is a love in a cold climate. Only three other Mayo clubs play the game. In recent weeks when Tooreen and Mayo were training on separate pitches in the Connacht GAA Centre in Bekan, the county team had only a dozen players. The rest were training with Tooreen.

And yet a club that constitutes half a county panel were outgunned by a small club from East Cork last weekend. Freeman isn’t sure if the club or county game can continue to survive in Mayo under such conditions.

Freeman is in favour of a Team Connacht (without Galway) in the same way McCullough would be for a Team Ulster (with or without Antrim. “Jesus, it would be an unbelievable carrot, to have the opportunity to test yourself,” he says. “Because at the moment those opportunities are so limited.

If we don’t want the game to die, we need to give lads outlets to play at the highest level they possibly can. At the moment it’s more attractive to play with Tooreen than it is to play with Mayo, because we get to play in finals in front of big crowds.”

In all the talk about if football should have two or three tiers, there has not been adequate debate about whether hurling should have any more than two or three, instead of the five it currently has (MacCarthy, McDonagh, Ring, Rackard, and Meagher).

A kid from any country in the world could play in the Champions League. There are players from 38 different countries — from Angola to Switzerland — playing in the NBA, generally considered the most impenetrable league in the world. Only it’s not.

That would be the Liam MacCarthy Cup, the only sport that can tell a kid from Fermanagh or Roscommon that he can never play at its highest level because of where he’s from.

The converse of that also applies, by the way. If you play hurling in those counties then it is tougher not to make your county team than to make it. It isn’t an achievement, the way it is to make the Fermanagh footballers.

McCullough and his argument have been shouted down before. That it would be logistically too difficult — though operating out of Queen’s University it wouldn’t, no more than the Mayo footballers working out of Castlebar while they have players living in Dublin.

That they don’t get his fixation with such an ‘elite’ team — while they have no problem with a county like Cork having just the one team.

That it would mean scrapping county teams, when it wouldn’t necessarily; just as Declan Dalton was able to play last year for Fr O’Neill’s, Imokilly, as well as Cork, why shouldn’t a Freeman be free to play with Tooreen, Mayo, and a Team Connacht?

Slaughtneil and Tooreen have been feelgood stories, but no one should feel good that each is a hurling oasis. Water theirhinterlands. Spread the game. By opening your mind.

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