Paudie Butler: the hurling evangelist

HIS term as hurling’s missionary — also known as national coordinator — expires this weekend, but Paudie Butler remains true to the creed. “I’m going to commit the rest of my life to supporting coaches and clubs who want to develop hurling. Because I know that we’re winning.”

HERE’S a passage towards the end of one of Paudie Butler’s favourite books about another top coach but could just as easily apply to Butler himself. In Sacred Hoops, Phil Jackson recalls his sister-in-law once dropping by the Chicago Bulls’ locker room after a game to tell him she had been tearful watching him on the sideline that night. “I realised this is exactly what you were meant to do,” she said. “You’re so comfortable out there. It just seems so right.”

Watching Butler operate at a coaching forum in Limerick last month, addressing coaches and instructing kids, we refrained from welling up, but as he moved from oratory through comedy and back to oratory again, we were struck by the joyous conclusion that here was a man in his absolute element.

He was funny, in a deadpan kind of way. “Success,” he’d tell the assembled coaches, “involves loads of failure. On average a child has to make 4,000 attempts to climb up a chair. Then once they do it, what do we say? ‘Will you get down off that chair before you kill yourself!’”

He was entertaining, eloquent, challenging (“If you’re a crank of a coach, then go away and be a crank on the golf course!”) knowledgeable, and passionate. When Sean Kelly’s Hurling Development Committee (HDC) created the position of a national hurling director five years ago, it was other, higher-profile evangelists like Liam Griffin and Justin McCarthy that were linked with the job. As it transpired, the HDC went for a man from Griffin’s beloved quiet fields, and now it’s impossible to think anyone else could have been doing the job these past five years.

“All of my life was leading to this,” he says, “I just didn’t know it at the time.” He had played for Tipperary in their famine years, coached their minors to a couple of All-Ireland finals in the late 90s, then taken the Laois seniors for a couple of years. That was about as much of the national limelight it seemed he would get and it was as much as he wanted.

He didn’t even see the ad for the job until a friend told him about it. Why would he have seen it? He already had a job as principal in The Ragg, five miles outside Thurles and was happy to see out his career there while taking local teams and giving coaching courses for the Munster Council. But once he heard about the job, he and his wife Miriam realised it was made for him, and so did an inspired HDC.

He wasn’t meant to start the job proper until the first day of September that year but he actually began the moment he closed the key in the school door for the last time — June 28, 2006 — driving straight to Maghera in Derry to present medals to the team that had just won the All-Ireland B colleges for the first time. He’s been on the road since. We meet in Ashbourne, after he’s spent the past week up north, from Donegal over to Down. In this, his last month in the job, he slept just four of the 30 nights at home. In some quarters, such manic flurrying to this outpost and that might smack of firefighting, a Don Quixote tilting at random windmills, but he recognised that before there was any Pope, there was John the Baptist, and before there was any GAA, there was Michael Cusack.

“One of the first things I did was I went away and read about Michael Cusack’s life. I wanted to get myself grounded in how could this man have affected Ireland so much, in a very subtle way, on his own really. When hurling was almost dead after the Famine, he had this burning desire to save it and save Ireland through it. Maurice Davin was the one who made sure that football was included in the meeting at Thurles and when you think of it, there were only seven people at that meeting. In any other organisation that would have been viewed as an unmitigated disaster. But Cusack didn’t see it like that. So what I got from studying him was that a single idea and a total commitment to that idea can be very successful even though the odds might seem so high against you. If I committed myself right and got my head right, we could make a massive difference for hurling.”

He was offered an office in Croke Park but he didn’t want one. “I wanted to be where the people who were giving their whole lives to hurling were, especially those going against the tide. I saw this as a real opportunity to reach out to them and I think they recognised that they now had a direct link to Croke Park. And over the last five years we’ve made real progress — which shows me how much more progress we can and have to make.”

The game is infinitely better coached now, primarily because those who play it are understood far better now.

“A lot of young mothers thought hurling was dangerous and coaches hadn’t been taking that on board. And if she thought hurling was dangerous, then it was dangerous. So we brought in hurling by a different way; by plastic hurleys, and making sure the child has a good experience from the very first day and went home with a good report, no cuts, no damage done, no failure.

“The biggest enemy of the child was the heavy hurley. Give a kid a hurley and he should be fascinated. But often he was frustrated. Hurling is a wristy game; the child should be able to move it freely with one hand, through the wrist. If his hurley was any way heavy or long, he was deprived of the game’s basic enjoyment before he’d even started.

“So much of what was in the Murphy and Ryan Reports were horrific but the reports themselves were brilliant because they clarified in our minds the rights of the child. Children die every day from hunger, even though the UN charter for human rights says they have the right to food, because the adults that could stand up for their rights don’t stand up for them. And what happened in Ireland was that adults who should have stood up for the children instead stood for an institution or backed off out of fear. “But now we’ve learned, the child must be heard. Every child in Ireland has the right to play and what we’re doing now is guaranteeing that every child up to 12 will be guaranteed to play our games.”

It’s a right he didn’t always stand up for, out of fear of losing. When Butler told the coaches of Limerick last month that “so many of these mistakes, I made myself”, he’s thinking like the time he coached his club Drom-Inch to their first U12 county title and 10 of the kids never got to puck a ball in that championship. “We won but we lost most of those 10 kids.”

He still meets some opponents of the GAA’s Go-Games model who believe it dampens kids’ competitive nature but all the time he finds such resistance is weakening and his resolve only strengthening.

“Some of the strongest enemies of the Go-Games are its strongest advocates now. I think they’re a lot more aware that at that age it’s not so much about beating your neighbour as enabling Gaelic Games to be the sport of choice for another generation of Irish children. They’re realising that it’s a mistake to cull kids at seven or 10, because if you keep the few and say to hell with the rest, it could actually be the champions you’re culling.”

He talks excitedly of Peter Casey in Clare who recently had almost 1,000 primary-school children playing blitzes over five days; without the guarantee they’d all get to play, he might have had only 150 there. Or a big primary school in Ballyboden which a few years ago was happy to field just one team that would go and win the Herald Cup; now they’ve three teams and a couple of camogie teams as well. But, he accepts, there’s a long way to go. Strong clubs in big urban areas continue to field just one under-14 team, neglecting another 20 kids who could enjoy the games for the rest of their lives.

The game itself has never been better than it has over these past five years. He’s convinced of that. The 90s might have been the revolution years and democratic and romantic to go with it, but they awoke some giants that haven’t just dominated the landscape but graced it too.

“Brian Cody realised the old ways were over, that Kilkenny had been only half-fit so he brought in the specialists — Martin Fogarty, Mick Dempsey, Noel Richardson — and transformed the game. And picking the likes of Aidan Fogarty; that skewed the game in a completely new way — through blinding speed and continuous work rate. You have to give huge credit to the likes of Donal Óg [Cusack] and the O’Connors as well. Here they were, from a tremendously traditional county, yet these three youngsters saw a new vision of how hurling could be played.”

The Waterford team of Ken McGrath have a special place in his heart. For some, hurling only hit its zenith in the last two All-Ireland finals between Kilkenny and Tipp, but Butler observes those games were played in the temperate heat of September; could anything really top the operatic heights that Justin McCarthy’s Waterford and his native Cork used served up in the sweltering sun of June and July?

“Hurling in recent years, it’s almost like the Fiannaíocht; epic stuff. You look at what Lar Corbett did in the All-Ireland final; what Henry Shefflin and Ben O’Connor have been doing every year — their skill levels, their footwork, their calmness under pressure. You see other sports where there’s vitriol in spite of the great money they’re getting. Then look at Shefflin and Ben O’Connor and their sheer dignity. Go back to last year’s All-Ireland final. Henry Shefflin gets hurt. And the whole stadium, friend and foe, rise to him, rise to honour our hurling hero. There’s a particular honour in the game now. Before there was a certain honour but there was also a licence to pull, indiscriminately. And there was blood. You never see blood in hurling games now. The little Richie Hogans and the Lar Corbetts are finishing games without being maimed.”

He’ll often read hurling is in crisis, that it’s dying. It’s been the history of the sport. It was dying back in the 1880s; that’s why Cusack formed the GAA in the first place. Butler recently came across an article from 1934; the sport was apparently dying then too. It is alive today.

It could be much livelier, granted. He points out more adult club teams need more championship games. “Whatever the top team in the parish is, they’re the heartbeat of the parish,” he says. “Because if they’re training, the kids will be in the field and they’re learning this way of life. If that team gets beaten early in the year, the field can go dead.”

He maintains ground hurling is only dormant, not extinct. “A coach will realise ground hurling is the fastest way hurling can be played. Managers will openly admit they’re encouraging everyone to go with the hand, to make sure. But hurling isn’t about the fear; it’s about the possibility. A manager will take the risk and say ‘I trust ye; let it fly.’”

Gaelic football is not the enemy, but it does upset him when he comes across club pitches with ‘GFC’ inscribed on the gate. “That is totally contrary to our beliefs. If a boy walks in under that gate with his hurley, is he to think he’s in the wrong place? If there’s a strong preference for football in an area, let it be the preference, but let hurling be played there as well, and vice-versa.”

If you care to look, there are feelgood hurling stories in so many ‘football’ counties. Causeway in Kerry are now regularly winning Munster A vocational titles. The Dubs are on the verge of having a second team in a national league final. Camogie is thriving in Derry; hurling, in ever-increasing pockets of Armagh. Last Saturday he was at the Bredagh club in the Down side of Belfast, and over 200 kids and 35 coaches were waiting for him. Everywhere he goes, it’s universal, the intrinsic thrill of hitting that ball. Last Sunday morning in Bredagh he was working with the senior camogie team and a few of them were still under the impression the secret to a good strike was power. But Butler showed them it was in the wrists, not the arms. To then watch the penny clink, and that ball fly and their smiles and spirits rise, that’s why he does what he does.

The gig officially expires this weekend and the position won’t be filled. Páraic Duffy recently implied that a more strategic, calculated approach was now required when saying “Paudie was one of a kind, an evangelist, but maybe you need a different way of doing it now.” The key word is now. Butler was just what was required then and he’s still needed now, just in a different way.

“I don’t know what I’ll do work-wise but I’m going to commit the rest of my life to supporting coaches and clubs who want to develop hurling. Because I know that we’re winning. But I also know we’ve only been scratching the surface. Michael Cusack’s whole goal was to add value to Irish life through expressing ourselves in a cultural and sporting way. If children choose to play soccer and rugby after they’ve tried our game, I have no problem with it. But if they never had a choice to catch a hurley, then we’re all condemned.”

And so the missionary’s mission continues.

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