Speaking last May during a Raidió na Gaeltachta interview, Dónal Ó Fatharta took to task Jeffrey Lynskey, his hurling counterpart. The crux was Lynskey’s insistence that potential panelists choose one code and stick to it.
The quantitative aspect looked odder again, since Ó Fatharta, from An Spidéal, claimed the pressure fell on “around 10 of them”.
We are used to such issues in Dublin, where talented young hurlers are continually lost to big ball attractions. This decade, Tipperary experienced similar tensions, as football gained traction. But Galway? County tradition maps football as north and west, hurling as east and south.
The compass needle is being reset. Their minor team, warmest of favourites over Kilkenny for Sunday’s All-Ireland final, contains likely lads from previously unlikely places.
These clubs include Annaghdown, Ballinasloe, Ballygar, Mountbellew-Moylough, Moycullen and Sylane. Dónal O’Shea, full-forward and son of former Tipperary manager Éamon O’Shea, hails from Salthill-Knocknacarra, a club far more associated with football.
“I think that interview now looks a bit different,” says Damian Curley. “After all, our minor footballers are also in the All-Ireland final, where they’ll be trying to stop Kerry collecting five in a row. They’ve done really well.
Jeffrey just wanted to know exactly who was aboard, so he could plan. You could argue the clarity meant other footballers got a chance, fellas who might not have been seen if ten or so players were on both panels. So the decision might have ended up strengthening both teams.
Curley is GAA development officer in GMIT. An experienced and valued figure, he acted as a selector during Anthony Cunningham’s last two seasons as manager of the Galway senior hurling panel.
For the summer break, Curley gets seconded to the county’s juvenile development squads. This year, he worked with the Celtic Challenge U17s.
The GAA got it right with this initiative,” he says.
“The Celtic Challenge tournament means we can work with three squads outside of our top 24 minors. Competitive games always tell us more than internal training matches. A young fella gets noticed more quickly if he goes well in a game.”
Curley elaborates: “Seán McDonagh of Mountbellew-Moylough is a case in point. He might play a big part on Sunday and is from a largely football club. Seán got fast-tracked up the ranks at minor because of how he performed in the Celtic Challenge. The beauty of this tournament is how it allows us to throw a much wider and deeper net.”
More diverse panels derive from a reorientation in recent years at development squad level. “We give a certain priority to promising lads from clubs where football is king,” says Curley.
“We know a lad of 14 from a strong hurling club will get plenty of hurling attention as he goes along. There isn’t the same certainty with a lad from a football background.
The development squads are most useful for levelling out this inbuilt disadvantage.
Michael Geoghegan is a former coaching officer with Galway’s Hurling Board. His own biography is eloquent. A native of Craughwell, emphatically a hurling parish, he married a woman from Annaghdown, long a football outpost, and settled there.
Geoghegan has worked for years at nurturing hurling in his adopted parish. Ironically enough, he currently manages Annaghdown’s senior footballers.
“We were all thrilled to see Diarmuid Kilcommins become a Galway minor hurler this season,” he says. “To have someone in a county set up catches other young lads’ attention. There is no better promotion of the game.”
Geoghegan offers a wider view: “Sometimes hurling in Galway in misunderstood. You have a clear geographical divide, historically, but there is hurling in most of the county. Not high-level hurling, maybe, or even middling level hurling. But there is hurling. Many football clubs field teams, even if it is at a low junior level. The development squads are there to address this factor.”
He continues: “Some of the most passionate support Galway hurling gets comes from Connemara people.
When the Connollys were hurling for Castlegar and Galway in the 1970s and ’80s, there was fierce pride in their Leitir Móir roots. Obviously, there is a big run of the county where football is very much the number one game, but I have never comes across a Galway person who is indifferent to hurling.”
Damian Curley cuts back to the quick: “The main thing is for our minors to win on Sunday. But the team’s make up is significant, without doubt. The fact it contains a fair sprinkling of lads not from your traditional hurling club has been a talking point.”
He remains clear-eyed about the broader stakes: “Winning is the biggest endorsement of all for a fresh approach. We would like to get to a stage where a hurler in Galway can come from anywhere, via a development squad. We are not there yet, not anywhere near it.
“But we seem to be heading in the right direction.”