Historian Paul Rouse points out that one of Michael Cusack’s objectives in founding the GAA was to gain control of Irish athletics, which were hugely popular in the late 19th century.
Obviously that was an aim that couldn’t be put on the new organisation’s prospectus, but a wish to revive the old Irish game of hurling was a stated objective. Though the game is very successful in some counties, it doesn’t enjoy the far more widespread popularity of
Gaelic football. Could economics be a contributing factor? The day I met Paudie Butler, former national hurling director, I wandered into a local sports shop to look at hurleys for my three-year-old. The nearest I saw to her size was an O’Connor stick for €22.
The shop didn’t have any hurling helmets, but checking the Mycro website brought up an array of headgear, from standard at €75, to customised models at €90. The Quick Touch and First Touch Go-Game sliotars were €5 each. This was before you considered the price of shorts, boots and so on. The difference between Gaelic football and hurling though, is that you only need what’s in the second part of the above paragraph to play football.
Hurling can be a very expensive game to play: surely that’s been an obstacle to its popularity? Paudie Butler agrees. Up to a point.
“It was [an obstacle], until recently. In the Celtic Tiger time, the availability of money meant hurling became more accessible to people. Clubs and schools could buy helmets, and technology — the shatter-proof hurley — has made it particularly accessible in weaker counties, counties where a mother might buy a hurley for a child but wouldn’t replace it.
“Certainly the economics were a huge influence on the spread of hurling up to the time of the Celtic Tiger, but I think a lot of clubs and counties are well-stocked now. Nearly every school in Ireland has helmets, almost every club can access them — the manufacturers have been very good.”
Another potential difficulty is the technical challenge of the game for children: the obvious problem for kids is that their legs are stronger than their hands, so kicking a ball comes easier than manipulating a length of timber that comes up as far as their waists.
Butler sees the appetite among them for the game though, and the enthusiasm is mirrored by good primary-level coaching.
“From travelling around the country, what I’ve found is that almost every child in the country wants to play hurling or camogie. They want that chance. The children aren’t the problem, and TV has done wonders in that regard.
“We’ve done a lot of good work in coaching, particularly in primary schools, on introducing children to hurling, which is more tied to the primary curriculum than it used to be. In terms of expertise, and giving kids the right start, we have a lot of people doing the schools, and that’s going very well, but we don’t have the number in the clubs, and that’s a problem.
“I see that up the country, where you may have half a dozen people in a county who are interested, but they become overworked, and burn out.
“And if one of those key people gets sick or moves away the thing can fall apart. They’re not replaced automatically. There are positive developments. Hurling clubs are setting up teams to serve the clubs in several parishes in some counties, for instance, so if a player who wants to play hurling has an outlet — it’s something like the divisional teams in some counties.”
Other plusses include the relative disappearance of blood injuries in hurling now (“A real positive, particularly for young parents; the helmet, the laws and the general approach to the sport means there are fewer injuries”) and the infrastructural legacy of the boom. People can decry the attitude of the era, but something tangible was left behind.
“That’s something which could improve things a lot, the number of astroturf pitches, particularly on the western seaboard, when conditions can become impossible. You could have viable hurling leagues on those pitches at a time of the year when football isn’t up and running — provided they’re full length and lit.
“You also have indoor centres where U10s can play without being affected by weather and I think because of all of that it’s a good time for hurling.”
Ever the optimist, Butler can even see some sunlight peeking through the current economic storm clouds: “One upside of the downturn is that we have help available, with people offering their time. A man has to do something with himself, and if he’s unemployed, severe as that is, at least he can make a contribution at his club.
“With the Tiger you had money — and that went into facilities — but no time, while now we don’t have the money but people have the time.”
One county which spent money well, he says, was Dublin. Their rise to top-four status in hurling is often traced to the 60 development officers the Dublin County Board employ, and Butler says that paid coaches make a difference. Amateur ethos or not, having bodies in the fields can only help.
“The great majority of Irish people are living now in urban areas, no matter where their parents came from,” he says. “We have a tremendous rural model but that doesn’t transfer to the urban area. I could name 20 towns with 1,000 schoolchildren each — and one club.
“We need more clubs for those kids, because it’s not reasonable to expect one club to provide expertise and training for all of them. The Dublin plan, that’s what I think the big cities need. Cork and Belfast aren’t as big, but that template will work for them, a games development officer attached to clubs and schools. If he can get voluntary people involved, fine, but he’s the constant presence, there’s an affinity there and the kids see him as the face of the GAA. That’s the GAA in its best form, aiding and attracting: giving, in other words.
“It’s the nature of the GAA to give rather than take, and we don’t want to be seen as taking. If we can assist the schools, in particular, it’d be invaluable. You now have huge urban schools which are probably unaware of the existence of the local club in a way that wasn’t the case 15, 20 years ago, so you have to have a presence in those schools.
“I see no way other than having full-time people doing that job. In general, though, we have better methods and a lot to offer, we don’t want to be dependent on full-time people, we need them to be attached to the club. I think the Dublin model has worked. Every time I go to Dublin I see kids with hurleys, supervised or not.”
Other urban areas have not fared so well. The larger towns and cities have a captive audience which hasn’t been targeted, though he’s hopeful they can be helped.
“Cork city has only a couple of people, and the city needs at least a dozen coaches,” says Butler. “If I had unlimited funds, I’d focus on Cork. In a lot of places you have the tradition of hurling but not the numbers, rural areas where the population isn’t what it was. But you have the numbers in Cork and the tradition.
“That would be my first focus. Then Galway city and [places] like Tullamore, Kildare, Meath and Louth, because you have the population there as well. A couple of those counties are ready to take the step to the next level because they’re close to Dublin, they know the model and top class challenge games are available to them.
“It’s funny, by the way, that there was a time the Dublin clubs came down to us [Tipperary] and Kilkenny for challenges and we’d hammer them, but now they come down and hammer us, and we’re asking them to come up and play them.”
There are green shoots, he says. Not all the urban centres are wastelands. “Limerick city is on the way back, Na Piarsaigh and Ard Scoil Ris are showing that, while the Cork schools are two steps back, while in Waterford you have Colaiste na nDeise and De La Salle. The united colleges team is offering a lot to many counties, and the Dublin use of that model is one of the keys to their success. That’s not easy, you have kids being pulled in all directions, but the other side of that is to make it to the top level you must serve your apprenticeship.”
The blossoming at secondary school level is no accident, but he’s keen to see the good work progress when the kids leave primary school: “What you’re seeing is the fruits of a terrific primary school programme. We can’t abandon them at secondary level, as they come in competent to play. You might have only two or three GAA-oriented teachers in a school of 40 teachers, and they’re going to be overstretched.”
Unpaid coaches like secondary teachers face their own challenges, of course. The disappearance of the Christian Brother, effectively, from schools may have removed a cohort of GAA coaches from circulation, but Butler doesn’t look back on that era with rose-tinted glasses.
“There’s no question times have changed. The absolute trust in everybody has gone, and a male coach who comes in now must prove himself in every way — that he’s kind, gentle, has an understanding of the nature of children and above all, that he can guarantee the safety of the children in his charge.
“To that end he must bring in people with him to manage the team, because the day of one person doing everything is over. You’d like to see one of those people with expertise and the others with an air of care for the children; if the latter are with an expert they’ll learn to do things anyway. I don’t think anyone hankers back to the past, the day of one person knowing everything and telling people what to do — the ‘command and control’ model — is gone. Any teacher or principal will tell you that. It’s more healthy and vibrant now, and the old days of one voice, while it worked to some level, we saw the repercussions when the wrong people got into power.”
Again, though, the traditions of the game make their presence felt — and not in a helpful way. Butler has no time for the traditionalist view that only those from certain counties could possibly know anything about hurling. He says it turned people away from the game, pure and simple.
“That’s done hurling a huge disservice. Eamonn Ryan was the first person to draw my attention to that, the disservice we were doing by making hurling elitist. We turned off good people who wanted to give their free time, people who’d pick up enough...
“I saw it happen up the country, people from Cork or Tipperary or Kilkenny being given teams just because of where they were from. These were people who had no interest in taking teams back in their own place!
“But that is changing. I see young lads from Kerry making it in Australian Rules having played senior football for their county, or inter-county minors coming through as rugby internationals. So we shouldn’t be elitist. And being elitist didn’t do us any good with hurling.
“My driving force is that every child living in Ireland has the right to catch a hurley and play the game. Whatever they do afterwards is their choice, but at least as children they should have that choice.”
The economics of getting started are a little easier if the lead shown by some clubs were followed nationwide.
“With helmets, it’s not an everyday expense. If a child likes hurling, they’ll buy a helmet and they’ll have it for four or five years at least. And a lot of clubs are buying back smaller helmets when kids grow out of them, which makes buying the next helmet a little cheaper. We have lighter sliotars and shorter hurleys.
“That was one thing we underestimated in terms of the damage it did, by the way, bigger and heavier hurleys for children.
“We didn’t understand that that removed their enjoyment, and that was happening more in the traditional areas than anywhere else, and we didn’t understand why until recently.
“A child saw daddy coming home with his hurley and wanted that hurley, naturally enough, but it was too big and heavy for them to use. Now you go into primary schools and if you give children small, light hurleys, within 20 minutes they’ll be able to manipulate them, which is far better.”
He even finishes with another twist on the economics of hurling: the fact that at its greatest, both those on the sideline and the men in combat, are unpaid.
“As for Kilkenny dominating being good or bad for hurling... looking across soccer results across Europe this year, it was the same story — one or two clubs dominate in every country. You get waves like that, and people say, ‘if Barcelona win it’s not good’, but they also say ‘if Barcelona win ten in a row that’s not good’, so we tend to have a negative outlook.
“Ultimately, when their dominance is over, it will be seen as good for hurling. In the thousand primary schools I’ve been to, the kids all want to hurl and I put that down to the total excellence that’s visible on television.
“You have had an extraordinary manager develop, perhaps in ways he doesn’t understand himself, with terrific coaching, to produce players of extraordinary high calibre of discipline, mentality, togetherness and calmness within themselves.
“It’s a good replica for every youth in Ireland — there’s no loudmouthedness, no boasting, no trouble. There’s no foolishness or arrogance in any form, and they’re a counter-argument to the Tiger.
“I feel Brian Cody is as good a manager as exists in the world, and he’s a volunteer. That’s an extraordinary statement. Maybe we don’t do a lot of talking about that, talking that we should do. The same goes for Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Liam Sheedy, all of these people — if we don’t value what they do then we’re destroyed as people. If we value money more than that... the GAA has a lot to offer in that sense.”