Tackling New York’s virus problem but Dowling’s first love remains hurling

Michael Dowling’s been busy the last few weeks.
Tackling New York’s virus problem but Dowling’s first love remains hurling
Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health: The Limerick man has been busy with the Covid-19 outbreak in New York but finds time to promote hurling. Picture: Chris Ware

Michael Dowling’s been busy the last few weeks.

The way he tells it, that’s not unusual in itself, but the scale of activity has ramped up significantly in the last month and a half for the Knockaderry man living in New York.

“I’ve been working closely with the Governor on the coronavirus issue and have been at a lot of the events with him.

“We’ve seen more coronavirus patients than anybody else in the region — our hospitals have been pretty well packed and we also run the Javits Center (in Manhattan) so we’re integrally involved, we’re doing a lot of the testing and so on.

“So it’s busy, but I like it that way. It’s better to be busy than not busy.”

The reason Dowling has been seen so often at Governor Andrew Cuomo’s side is his day job. President and CEO of Northwell, the biggest provider of healthcare in New York, Dowling oversees 73,000 employees, 23 hospitals, 800 outpatient/non-hospital facilities, medical school, nursing school, research centres, home care and nursing home facilities.

“It’s fair to say it’s been pretty hectic the last six weeks or so. It’s getting better, things are improving, but we’re still quite busy.”

For diversion, there’s always hurling. Dowling speaks warmly of his time wearing the skull and crossbones of UCC in the Fitzgibbon Cup and the friends he made there, like Dr Paddy Crowley (“I wish him all the best”).

“I look back on my time at UCC as some of my best years, some of my most enjoyable times.

“Not only because I was in college and had good friends, but the experience of training in the Mardyke, playing games with the team, travelling to those games on the bus with the lads, winning the Fitzgibbon.

“Those were enormously satisfying times, and productive times. Hurling was very important to me, but the only problem I had was that every summer I was in New York, I had to work during the summer holidays, so I was never there for the height of the hurling season because I was over here.

“My time in college was absolutely fantastic, though.

“Great people, and I still stay in contact with the college, I visit UCC pretty regularly: whenever they have meetings over here I try to help out as much as I possibly can.

“A particular memory? Sometimes the memory fades, but to me all the games were great. We won the Fitzgibbon, that was great, and winning the county title in Cork (1970) was hugely enjoyable.”

Decades in America haven’t dulled his appetite for the game, even though proselytising on its behalf can be challenging.

“It’s very difficult to explain to people in America what hurling is — and what it means to people. “Sometimes if you don’t explain it correctly they mistake it for curling, so what I sometimes do is I bring up clips of the game on my iPhone to show them.

“Years ago it would feature occasionally on one of the sports shows on American TV, Wide World of Sport, and some people can still remember that.

“They’re fascinated with the fact that — when I played at least — few people wore helmets, and when you explain that there’s a wooden stick that’s three feet long which you can use to strike the ball anywhere, at any time and that you don’t wear much protection...

“That’s inconceivable to them. They’re enamoured with the idea that everyone has to have helmets and padding and protective gear of every sort, so when you explain about hurling they look at you as though you’ve lost your mind.”

What helps is to give a context to hurling, he adds: “It’s hard to get across that sense of the importance of representing your home place, but people respond when I tell them it’s thousands of years old, that hurling is part of the heritage of the country — that it’s in Irish people’s DNA.

“The camaraderie, the competitiveness — that entire culture is hard to get across, but it’s striking how many people will go home after I tell them about it, and look it up, and when they tell me how much they enjoyed it I tell them they should go to Ireland and see a game in real life.”

He got back to see his own county when they won the All-Ireland two years ago.

“I was back for a couple of the Limerick games and when the team came out here on holidays I met up with them and with the coaches, the backroom staff — I had a picture taken with the MacCarthy Cup.

“The game’s changed now, of course. There’s not as much ground hurling now, and very little overhead play, which we specialised in. There’s too much possession play — holding onto the ball is different to the old days and dropping the ball into the square for lads to contest it.

“They’re faster today, the sliotar is lighter and travels further, the bas is a bit bigger on most of the hurleys, there are a lot more scores — and too many of them from frees, in my opinion.

“But everything evolves. We all look back and say ‘it was better in my day’, whether it was or not. I was back in UCC recently enough and went down to the Mardyke.

“In my time there was one little building for us to tog out in, and now, to look at the facilities, I think ‘if I’d had these facilities I’d be really good’. It’s a different world.”

Still some things never change. Some values remain constant.

“When I explain the game many Americans don’t understand the intensity, the desire involved — to play for a place, to play hard and not get paid,” says Dowling.

“That it’s a national sport, and that the All-Ireland final is one of the most important days in the country, that it’s professional without the payment — an amateur sport played at the highest level, just without remuneration.

“Those are hard ideas to get across to people who aren’t familiar with hurling. When I explain it I’m often asked if I ever got hurt, and I’d tell them yeah, I got stitched in the forehead and I lost a few teeth, and the question I’m always asked is, ‘why would you play that game?’

“And my answer is always the same. You play it because you love it."

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