A review published by the Journal of Ecology claims almost all ash trees in Europe will be wiped out because of the fungal disease as well as a beetle called the emerald ash borer.
The GAA have established The Ash Society in the hope of tackling a growing crisis although GAA director of games development Pat Daly has already acknowledged there may come a time when ash hurleys may no longer be used in the game.
Long-standing hurley-maker O’Connor is fully aware the wood is decreasing in supply and accepts it could have drastic repercussions for craftsmen like himself.
“That is a definite. You will have the hurley manufacturers going out of business. If they’re not available, you will have these plastic ones coming in. Now, I think they’re terrible but that’s for another day. There’s no doubt people will lose jobs.”
Newtownshandrum-based O’Connor claims the threat to the ash tree on the continent threatens a quintessential part of hurling. “To me, the whole concept of the game would be gone altogether. It’s all about the clash of the ash and anything else won’t be the same. Although, I suppose young fellas will grow up with it and they won’t really mind.
“The old fella will miss it and there might even be the odd fella who gives up hurling because of it but the young fella won’t know any better.
“The sound off anything but ash... there’s a different sound off it completely. It will have a big effect on the game in general.”
As of now, 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.
Little to no ash is currently being planted here and Daly has spoken about the idea of a hybrid hurley.
According to Daly, the Ash Society, which includes stakeholders such as the GAA, Coillte, Teagasc and the Irish Guild of Ash Hurley Makers, are taking a three-pronged approach. “Number one, breeding from resistance (to the disease).
“It may be possible to breed a strain of ash that would be resistant to the disease.
“Number two, doing more with less ash. In other words, looking at different ways of making the hurley as distinct from the traditional plank, which is a premium cut.
“The third thing then would be to look at some hybrid hurley where there would be some man-made material as well as some ash.”
Studies have shown the use of charcoal may interrupt the spread of the disease but there has been little let-up in the contagion with Denmark, where the ash tree is similar to that in Ireland, completely wiped out.