That grim prospect is a probability, according to GAA director of games development and research Pat Daly, having seen ash dieback wipe out the tree entirely in Denmark.
Increasing reports of the fungal disease in Ireland, which has similar ash to the Danes, have compelled Daly to commission studies into how technology may address future supply issues.
A “hybrid” hurley is one option where ash would be moulded onto the bás of the hurley with the remainder made of fibreglass. Such considerations are becoming more of a reality as Daly concedes there may be a sad situation where no ash graces the hurling field.
“If we look at what happened in Denmark, yes, if the disease spreads as rapidly as it has there, you could potentially be looking at that. But it’s not quite that way because there are plentiful supplies of ash elsewhere in Europe. If it does bottom out here, there will be plentiful supplies.
“What is going to happen is technology is going to change, the production process is going to change and the potential will be around a carbon fibre hurley or fibreglass hurley or some man-made element of hurley incorporating fibreglass and ash. I think that could become a realistic option.”
With other strong stakeholders like Coillte, the Irish Guild of Ash Hurley Makers and Teagasc, the GAA established the Ash Society to look at ways of protecting their interests.
Currently, there are 19,000 hectares of ash in Ireland although 75% of the wood in the country now has to be imported. The total ash demand here per year is between 300,000 and 400,000 hurleys, which equates to upwards of 900 hectares.
With little or no ash being planted in Ireland at present, Daly appreciates there may come “a tipping point” where hurleys made from the tree are no longer economically viable.
At present, there are alternatives to ash such as the Cultec hurley used by Dublin forward Ryan O’Dwyer.
“The Irish Guild of Ash Hurley Makers would be fairly insistent that ash should continue and the sole product used for hurley manufacturing,” said Daly.
“If it was that simple, fine. They also appreciate costs are escalating. You’re going to meet a tipping point at some stage where the cost, the supply, is countered by some alternative. That’s what we’re looking at. We’re not actively promoting it but we have to look at other options. You could pass that turning point in terms of supply of ash, cost of the hurley. Other alternatives have to be looked at.”
Daly was speaking yesterday at the launch of the GAA’s Hurling Development plan, 2015-17. He concedes the hierarchy in hurling isn’t going to change any time soon. “For as long as we’ve been around, a small number of counties have monopolised the championship. They’ve had success in the championship with the odd breakthrough here and there from the other counties. Is that going to change any time soon? I doubt it.
“We’re doing our best with Offaly, Laois, Westmeath, Carlow and Antrim in terms of providing them with additional support. But it’s not going to be easy. What can we do to change it? We’re doing our best with Offaly, Laois, Westmeath, Carlow and Antrim in terms of providing them with additional support but it’s not going to be easy. We’ve set out our stall, we want to keep a dozen teams as competitive as we can make it but ultimately, after that, it’ll come down to what’s happening in the counties.”
Meanwhile, Daly raised doubts about the promotional power of the GPA-led Super 11s variation of hurling. Almost 30,000 watched the recent Dublin- Galway game in Boston’s Fenway Park but Daly remarked: “I look at Super 11s as being some kind of exhibition stuff. In terms of future, I’m not sure what the future plans are or how you would grow and develop that. We’re talking about the top end of an elite game. Can that grow and develop? I’m not sure. There’s a good bit more work to be done at grassroots level that I think would need to be prioritised than say trying to internationalise your game. We will have the world games here between August 7 and 14 next year and the number of native born teams in both hurling and camogie are increasing all the time.
“Ultimately, what we have to do is grow the game there (US) as we’ve grown it here. There is an appetite for it, for the game as we know it, and I think that’s where the challenge lies. The people in America are saying to us that’s what they want to do, that’s the game they want to grow and develop, it’s the game they know.”