So here’s a thing: There are three counties left in the Munster Senior Hurling Championship and three counties from the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship are still in contention to win the All-Ireland.
Each of these six counties — Cork, Limerick, Clare, Kilkenny, Galway, and Wexford — competed in the first ever All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship.
And if you add in the two fourth-place teams in each of the provincial championships — Dublin and Tipperary — you have the full complement of counties who entered (in any real sense) that first ever All-Ireland championship back in 1887.
How is it that after 130 years, the spread of hurling should remain largely unchanged?
Obviously, the other two counties who competed in the provincial championships this year — Waterford and Offaly — must be considered in any serious understanding of the extent to which top-level hurling is played in Ireland, but the point on the geography of hurling stands regardless.
And that point begs a fairly obvious question: If hurling is — as its devotees claim — the ‘greatest game in the world’, why then is it not played by more people in more places across Ireland?
There is obviously no straightforward answer to that question, but the fact it begs to be asked is most revealing.
Part of the explanation lies in a general understanding of how the geography of sport works. The story of the geography of sport is largely that of organisations dominating an area by getting in first and laying formidable foundations. Establish clubs, set out pitches, play games.
And get them when they’re young — patterns of play are inherited: The habits of a sporting lifetime are formed in childhood.
This basic fact is crucial to understanding why Rugby League dominates certain of the conurbations of northern England, and why Rugby Union thrives in south Wales and in Limerick.
If ‘Getting in first’ matters, so too do even older traditions. Every year the All-Ireland hurling championship is at least partially defined by what happened in Ireland between the visits of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century and Queen Victoria in the 19th.
Indeed, draw a line from Dublin to Galway, and everything to the north is a wasteland when it comes to All-Ireland contenders. But history and tradition does not suffice as an explanation.
Nor is the prosperity of rugby or soccer or video games or general apathy to physical activity — although all of these things are relevant.
Instead, the main impediment to the spread of hurling has traditionally come from inside the GAA and not from any outside force.
In the summer of 1887, PP Sutton — a Wexford man who hurled with the Metropolitians club in Dublin wrote: “The revival of hurling is heavily handicapped in comparison with that of football.
"The implements for playing it are far more expensive and more difficult to procure, while the practise necessary to attain any degrees of proficiency with the camán is vastly greater than that required for football.
“As regards football, all that is required to play it is a ten- or twelve- shilling ball, and without more ado a whole parish may indulge in the game to their hearts’ content.”
Little has changed, although it is not money but interest and ambition that is the defining reason. The willingness to fight for hurling in every GAA club in the country simply does not exist.
In many clubs where football is the dominant game, hurling is most often an afterthought — if even thought of at all.
It is tolerated only insofar as it doesn’t interfere with the winning of football championships. In some clubs, there is scarcely-disguised disdain for the game, even to the point of subverting its potential for development.
The reason for this is obvious: It is not in the interests of powerful football clubs to allow hurling to develop. The best hurlers are almost always good footballers.
Serving two masters — even at club level — is now hugely difficult. Players are being forced to choose between games, either directly or by circumstance. Most often the choice made is football.
It is perceived as the logical decision of competitive sportsmen who want to win championships.
If you doubt the logic of this, flip the coin on its head and look at what happens in Kilkenny.
When it took to hurling, Kilkenny did so with the zeal of the convert. The hurling clubs of that county are now ruthless in their discrimination against football.
Look at the way the minor footballers of Kilkenny have been treated in recent years and you get a fine idea of the scale of this ruthlessness.
So what should the GAA do to spread hurling beyond its current boundaries? It is clear television is not the answer.
It is true that saturation television coverage has promoted the playing of soccer in areas where it never previously prospered, but soccer is a fundamentally different game.
Hurling requires more than a ball, a few coats and a patch of land. Hurling doesn’t have a marketing problem — the public relations people in Guinness saw to that from the mid-1990s onwards.
Showing sport on television inspires a shallow lust, the type that puts tennis rackets in children’s hands during Wimbledon, only for those rackets to disappear as quickly as they arrived. Hurling, by contrast, demands a deep commitment.
The permanent revolution in the formats used for championship and leagues is no solution either.
As early as the 1880s journalists were already referring to ‘weaker counties’ in hurling and Michael Cusack announced the donation of a special challenge cup worth 25 guineas to be played for only by teams from Ulster and from west of the Shannon.
A line can be traced from here down through the ‘B’ championships and on to the current Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cups.
This is merely the traditional lipstick-on-a-sow approach — and once the cosmetics wear off you’re left with the same old sow.
In attempting to spread hurling the GAA is fighting against history and against itself. Getting hurling into areas where it is not played would be difficult enough even if the GAA was dedicated to hurling alone.
Nonetheless, the obvious growth of hurling in non-traditional areas in recent years offers a certain hope. It is something that can only be achieved through house-by-house, school-by-school combat to draw in those children whose parents never played the game.
This is how hurling has colonised parts of the southside of Dublin. The Dubs have won six All-Ireland titles, but only one Dublin-born player has won an All-Ireland hurling medal.
The teams were always filled with countrymen displaced in the city. This has now changed and the rise of Cuala and Ballyboden and Kilmacud Crokes is evidence of the spread of hurling across Dublin’s southern suburbs. So it can be done.
For too long the GAA did not commit its resources to hurling in a way that was anything other than piecemeal.
But there are now more and more hurling coaches employed across the country in clubs and in schools — Dublin is the model for this and the move to a more structured, persistent approach to coaching is reaping dividends.
There is no magic in this, just hard graft along basic principles — invest in coaching, get the game into schools, put in the resources year-after-year.
It’s the same approach that has driven the dramatic spread of lacrosse in North America over the last decade.
So, it has worked in an urban county — can the same be achieved in a rural one?
Or will the dominance of Gaelic football not permit of it?
Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin
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