Cú Chulainn had no puckout strategy but the myths endure

Anthony Nash of Cork in action against Seamus Callanan of Tipperary last year.

I read that they are planning to put microchips into sliotars now.

This was surprising news to me and I initially wondered whether the remorseless march of technology had gone too far, whether this was another modern thing we didn’t really need, like avocados, Fitbits and the internet (I still maintain that teletext was fine).

But it turns out that we do need these cybernetic sliotars after all. The microchips will allow the GAA to regulate the wild west sliotar production industry and, theoretically at least, prevent the nefarious practice of goalkeepers sneaking their preferred sliotars into the game at puckout time (Google ‘Cork’ and ‘Cummins’ for more).

While this carry-on was the stuff of pub-talk legend, when you consider that such is the speed of a championship hurling match that a goalkeeper could literally switcheroo any small spherical object into the action — Terry’s Chocolate Orange, magic 8-ball, lavender bath bomb — and you see why the GAA’s boffins needed to act.

The microchipped sliotar won’t be bleeping its way around the playing fields of Ireland until next year at the earliest. But as the 2019 Championship draws upon us in all its glory, this one intersection of technology and tradition provides as good a metaphor as you’ll find for what the annual jamboree has become.

For what is modern top-level GAA but the exoskeleton of modernity wrapped around an ancient body? Welcome to the Cyborg GAA Championships, uploading to your brain all summer long.

A few weeks ago the Limerick hurling star Aaron Gillane spoke to Off The Ball about the pressures of playing for three different teams — Limerick, Mary Immaculate College and his club Patrickswell. Rather than tell a tale of woe about being pulled and dragged in too many directions, Gillane explained that all his training and match data is collated and reviewed by Limerick strength and conditioning coach Joe O’Connor so that his ideal physical workload can be divvied up between each of his masters.

In this regard at least, O’Connor becomes less hurling coach, more IT geek, reviewing the performance of the hardware to see if it needs a server upgrade. 

Gillane and the rest of his elite ilk are in one sense no different than the generations that went before them: flesh and blood, committed to the cause, doing it for the county. But in another way they have become something else entirely: datasets to be understood and optimised, fine-tuned and extrapolated for maximum on-field effect.

And yet when the final whistle goes on All-Ireland final Sunday, as it did last August to deliver Limerick their long-awaited All-Ireland, something much more primitive is going on. 

Those moments unleash the deepest currents of mass emotion imaginable, great shaking tectonic plates of collective feeling; ghosts of dead generations seem to swirl around the place and it’s all utterly, uncontrollably mad, beautiful and human.

The essence of the Championship’s unyielding grip on Irish imaginations is to tether the ferocious pursuit of excellence to some greater communal sense of identity. 

These forces push and pull but one would not work without the other. The former validates using the sharp tools of modernity in pursuit of greater glory, but the latter says that it all still has to mean something.

While the Irish psyche applauds the GAA’s forward thrusts, at heart they still want to feel that there is something ancient and immovable going on here.

Dickied up and codified in the embryonic days of the association, hurling still has that sense of the mythical going for it, the perception that Irish people have been hitting things with sticks since the days when we went around looking like Tormund Giantsbane (and that was just the women). 

People know that Cú Chulainn didn’t have a puckout strategy per se, but they let him away with it.

Football was an entirely 19th-century confection, like most of the big ball field games, but cleverly incorporated the three key native pastimes — fighting, boxing, and skelping — to hugely successful effect.

Limerick's Nicki Quaid hits a puckout last year.
Limerick's Nicki Quaid hits a puckout last year.

Pour this heady mix atop the political sub-divisions imposed following the Norman conquest and, hey presto, you’ve got a highly marketable sporting phenomenon.

The GAA is admirably bold when it comes to pushing toward the future for an organisation that, in the popular imagination, is run by grey-suited middle-aged men with combovers. 

Hawkeye, GAA GO and the multiple Championship sponsor model were confident steps. At other times, like with the Sky TV deal, commercialisation and the club versus county issue, the forces of progress have strained at the covenant with grassroots authenticity.

Nothing sums up this tension better than the delicate prodding of the Championship structures towards something better suited to elite Gaelic games. 

The new provincial hurling championships rocked like a bastard last summer because they were essentially rooted in something beloved and brilliant — just bigger, better, faster, and more.

Football’s Super 8, right from the silly nom de plume (not an official GAA confection) didn’t quite sit as well. It felt a bit ersatz, going through the motions, too many draughty Croke Park non-events, the inevitability of Dublin. Football is not quite sure what it wants to do. 

Throw off the dowdy old cloak of the provincial championships and don the sleek jumpsuit of a tiered, meritocratic structure? Or hold on to the high summer days with old rivalries in provincial towns unchanged from when your granddad rode there on his bicycle?

That’s a question for another day and you’ll imagine they’ll get there eventually. When the mix is right, it’s very right.

This Sunday, four teams line out in the Munster hurling championship, all of them GPS-tracked, nutritionally-guided, tactically programmed, their bodies hewn with machine precision; the names of large corporations will adorn their chests and television advertisers will carefully calculate the commercial impacts; thousands of social media accounts will be poised, ready to clip, meme and gif.

And then the ball will be thrown in and the roar will go up and it’s still Waterford against Clare and Tipp-Cork and, of course, all utterly, uncontrollably mad, beautiful and human.

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