‘It’s the clash of the ash, not the clash of the carbon-fibre’

Charleville hurley maker Tony McCauliffe lives and breathes GAA. He inherited the North Cork business that makes custom hurleys for some of Munster’s biggest stars from his father, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

‘It’s the clash of the ash, not the clash of the carbon-fibre’

Charleville hurley maker Tony McCauliffe lives and breathes GAA. He inherited the North Cork business that makes custom hurleys for some of Munster’s biggest stars from his father, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

When Limerick inter-county hurling star Cian Lynch scored his dramatic point from midfield in Croke Park during last year’s All-Ireland senior hurling championship final, it was a make or break moment for the team, who went on to take their first title in 45 years with a point win over Galway.

It was one of the many outstanding moments that led to Lynch being crowned PwC Hurler of the Year for 2018. During the campaign, he played with one of Tony McCauliffe’s hurleys. Leaning up against a wall in Tony’s workshop in Charleville lies the template for a hurley’s bas (the part of the hurley that makes contact with the sliotar) and neck with Lynch’s name on it. Alongside it lies a broader, heavier-looking bas.

It’s the hurley of Limerick goalie Nickie Quaid. Express surprise that a Cork man would be making hurleys for the Limerick team, and Tony’s smile dispels the notion that the fierce tribalism over county divides that is part and parcel of the GAA would extend to the craftsmen who equip the teams with the tools of their trade.

“We’d actually probably have more from the Limerick side than the Cork side because we’re so close to the border,” says Tony.

It’s not all hurleys for stars — McCauliffe’s have been crafting hurleys for general sale since Tony’s dad, Willie, started making them in the 1970s, and the family business has gone from strength to strength, manufacturing thousands of hurleys a year.

Yet they’re all still hand-finished in the workshop behind Willie McCauliffe’s house, where Tony, and occasionally his dad (although Willie is officially retired) skilfully sand down each camán.

It’s a surprisingly fast process, as Tony demonstrates: Selecting a piece of ash that has been machined at the McCauliffe’s other workshop at the outskirts of the town, he works it to a smooth finish for approximately seven minutes on sanders of two different grades. He explains:

Players will have different preferences,” he explains. “They might want it narrower here, a bit more timber there, or they’ll want a big handle or a small handle, or heavy or light. Hurleys are all about personal preference.

That’s why the McCauliffes have templates in-store for the senior players they supply, so that they can custom-build each one to the player’s preference. Willie is in his 70s now. Things have changed in the sport and, by association, in the family craft since he started the business. Tony says the trend towards customisation is a change, as is the style of hurley favoured.

“Going back 35 years, clubs would buy big orders, but now, players will have their own preference from an early age,” he says.

“It’s a different game from what it was 20 years ago. There’s a shift towards shorter hurleys at the moment, with a 35 inch hurley now being used by most adults. Before, people would play with a 36 inch or even 37 inch. That’s to do with a change in the style of play.”

Hurleys, of course, are made of wood from the ash tree. Hurley ‘butts’ are harvested from the bottom 40 inches of the tree, where the trunk meets the root. It’s vital that there’s a curve in the grain that follows the curve of the neck of the implement into the bas, Tony explains; this is what gives the wood its unique strength.

Ireland doesn’t grow enough ash to meet the increasing demand for wood for hurleys.

“The vast majority of the wood is imported,” says Tony. “There’s ash being cultivated in Ireland at the moment, but it’ll be eight to 10 years before it comes on stream so about 90% is imported, mostly from Poland.”

When the fungal disease called ash dieback reached Irish shores in 2012, in plantations of imported saplings, it was hoped that the disease could be eradicated by destroying and re-planting young ash that was vulnerable to the disease, increasing Irish reliance on imported wood for hurleys.

So far, there’s no sign of the disease abating. In fact, last year the Minister for Agriculture announced that Ireland would have to come to terms with “living with the disease”. But other countries where the disease is present, such as Poland and Croatia, are still growing enough to export. Tony is optimistic about the future.

“Everyone would like to be working with something from their own country, but it’s just not available at the moment,” he says. “To be honest you wouldn’t see any difference in quality. We’ve plenty of ash and business is good, so we can’t complain.”

And business really is good: Unlike some traditional Irish crafts, which are struggling, if anything, Tony said, there are more hurley makers now than there were 20 years ago.

According to the GAA, 400,000 hurleys are used each year. Most counties have at least one hurley maker, while counties with a strong hurling tradition, like this year’s All-Ireland winners, Tipperary, have up to five. A surprising amount of the McCauliffe’s business comes from outside of Ireland.

“It’s gone global, completely,” he says. “Last week, I was sending hurleys to Germany and France. There’s Irish lads all over the world, and wherever you’ve Irish lads, you’ve hurling. It’s nearly as big outside the country as it is inside now.”

Tony at work sanding a cut of ash on the belt-sander. Pic; Larry Cummins
Tony at work sanding a cut of ash on the belt-sander. Pic; Larry Cummins

When ash dieback arrived on Irish shores, some predicted that the sport would have to investigate synthetic alternatives to wood, such as the carbon-fibre used to manufacture bikes and other sporting equipment. Waterford centre-forward Tom Devine used a carbon-fibre composite hurley in the 2018 championship.

“Look, it’s the clash of the ash, not the clash of the carbon-fibre,” Tony says with a grin. “It doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?”

It’s not all in the name; Tony says carbon-fibre hurleys have to be mass-produced and can’t be customised as easily as the traditional ash. He also says that ash is strong, but not too strong: Anyone who’s seen footage of a player getting a hurley broken across their shin during a game can easily imagine that, with a stronger material, the injuries sustained by players could become even more serious.

The McCauliffes themselves, unsurprisingly, live and breathe GAA. Tony is involved with training the underage teams at Charleville GAA club.

“No week goes by where I don’t see a couple of matches or do a couple of training sessions,” he says. “I was born and bred into it and I just love everything about it.”

There’s a strong social element to his work. A steady stream of customers drop by McCauliffe’s, not only to buy hurleys and get them repaired, but to talk about the sport.

“You meet very interesting people; it’s not like going to work at all to be honest with you,” he says. “Everyone who comes in the door has an opinion about Cork hurling or Limerick hurling. When Limerick got beaten in the semi-final, everyone knew why they got beaten. Everyone’s an expert.”

Tony’s passion for the game and dedication to his craft are a marriage made in heaven that makes for a happy life, he says. And while the sport continues to thrive, the craft will too.

“While hurling is played, we’ll be needed,” he says. “I can’t really see that changing.”

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