What do TJ Reid, Richie Hogan, Pádraig Walsh, Michael Fennelly, Colin Fennelly, Jake Morris, Barry Heffernan, and Eoin Kelly have in common?
The answer isn’t found in any of the record books or statistics.
The what which links them all together is actually a who.
The elite bunch are amongst those who use the Star Hurleys which the Dowling family has been making for over 60 years from their Kilkenny base.
“Our great grandfather was a hurley maker, Tom Neary, on our grandmother’s side,” explained David Dowling who oversees the business with his brother Stephen.
“My grandfather Ramie Dowling started this business in 1957 and was based in Patrick Street in Kilkenny. That property was sold last year so we moved out to Jenkinstown Park in January which would be Conahy Shamrocks territory. But I’m originally a Tullaroan man,” he added.
David and brother Stephen took the helm after Christmas, the next link in the chain from their uncle Brian and his son Mark.
All was going well until the country and the world was plunged headlong into the coronavirus crisis.
“We are more or less on lockdown here at the moment like the rest of the country,” David explained.
“Last week we had a few orders to catch up on, so we posted those out and are up to speed. We have some timber in stock now, so the plan is to make up a few hurls and have them ready to go whenever this crisis lifts.
I have a degree in social care, so I am hoping to go back and assist in the Good Shepherd Centre in Kilkenny later this week and cover some shifts.
Such an act would have been impossible a few short weeks ago. Hurley making is a full-time job when things are going well. “Stephen and myself would be working six days a week. At peak time, we would be looking at producing 200 hurls a week. Kilkenny would be the main market for us but we sell well in Carlow, Laois, Offaly, we recently posted a batch down to Mayfield for the primary school.
“Actually a few weeks ago, we posted 10 dozen hurls to Australia. Eoin Guinan, a former Kilkenny panelist, is down there and he ordered a bunch as did Joe Caeser who played for Tipperary.”
Ironically Dowling has been bracing himself for another challenge to his livelihood — ash dieback disease — a chronic fungal infection that is threatening to wipe out up to 90% of the ash tree population on the island of Ireland.
“A fair few plantations have already been destroyed with this disease. It isn’t that much of an issue at the moment as we still have a good supply of ash coming from Ireland, and to a large extent from England. But I would say that we will see the impact of it all in the next five years.”
The secret of a good hurl is like beauty: it is all in the eye of the beholder.
“A good grain in the wood is the most important thing. After that, it is what people want.
Some want it springy, but free-takers by and large don’t want that. For others, it is all about weight. We finish them by hand here to try and get the type of hurl that the customer wants.
The regional differences in requirements are also quite different. Dowling can nearly guess the county of origin based on the specific requests.
“In Kilkenny players want more of a light hurl, lighter down the handle, and down the bás.
“The Cork hurl in general has a bigger, thicker heel and a little bit more in the handle.
“Tipperary requests are more in the middle, they like what we call ‘timber in the handle’, but the hurl itself has to be a little bit lighter.
“Waterford like their hurls light as do the lads in Wexford and Dublin.
“You’d need a bit more timber in the Clare hurley and the same goes for most of orders from Limerick.
And finally, a question to settle an argument that swirls back through the decades: which is it, a hurl or a hurley?
“You’d struggle to find anyone down around these parts who would call it anything other than a hurl!” Dowling adds with a laugh.