THIS is unquestionably an outstanding era for the ancient sport of hurling.
You have the likes of Henry Shefflin, Eddie Brennan, Eoin Larkin, Ben O’Connor, Joe Canning, Eoin Kelly and Noel McGrath lighting up the scoreboards or goalkeepers such as Brendan Cummins, Donal Óg Cusack and Damien Fitzhenry doing their damnedest between the posts to deny them,
And don’t forget stellar defenders of the stature of JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh, Seán Óg O hAilpín, Ollie Canning building up enduring reputations.
And yet there are problems, big problems.
Kilkenny’s dominance of this decade is the kind of thing that happens in all sports when a freakishly good side comes along, racks up the titles, but that in itself should never be seen as an indicator of a sport with problems.
In fact it should serve as the opposite, an incentive for all other teams to raise their standards, topple the champions, which Tipperary almost did this year.
The problems of hurling are far more deep-rooted and far more complex. In this, the 125th anniversary of the founding of the GAA, hurling is still pretty much where it was back in 1884; in fact it could be argued that in the intervening years Kilkenny itself is about the only area where the sport has really progressed.
At that time, and for many decades afterwards, cricket was the stick-game of choice in many parishes in Kilkenny, and it wasn’t until 1904 that the county won its first All-Ireland title. In the first couple of decades, however, hurling was strongest in Tipperary, Cork, Limerick, Clare, Wexford, Dublin, Galway, with pockets in Kerry, Laois, Offaly, Antrim, and Waterford coming through occasionally in Munster.
Where is hurling played today? Look to all of the above, with pockets also – always there anyway – in places like Westmeath, Carlow, Kildare, Meath and so on. For the most part, however, Gaelic football is now the dominant GAA sport nationwide, with hurling just a poor relation in most counties. With that stark fact in mind, then, the new Hurling Development Committee (HDC) established by GAA president Christy Cooney invited hurling people from every corner of the island to a forum in Croke Park on Saturday last, a brain-storming session on ways and means of growing Ireland’s most ancient sport.
“The sole aim of this forum,” said John Fenton – former Cork star and now a member of the HDC – in the opening address, “is the promotion of hurling. We’re not going to change the world overnight, we just want to get as many people playing hurling as we possibly can.
“Where hurling is already strong, we want to keep it strong, where hurling is weaker, we want to make it stronger. Today is an opportunity for people from the grassroots level to put forward their ideas on how that can be achieved.”
And so it began. After Pat Daly, one of the most progressive thinkers in the game, made a presentation outlining what those in full-time positions within Croke Park felt could be done, and camogie/ladies football dual star Mary O’Connor (Cork) had outlined the importance of bringing hurling and camogie along in tandem, it was down to the real business of the day: the workshops.
There were four major topics: 1) The Hurling Games Programme; 2) New Ideas for Development from Participants; 3) Promoting Hurling in Urban & New Areas; 4) Maintaining Traditional Strongholds and & Supporting Developing Counties.
For ease of discussion, and to prevent debate from wandering off into the stratosphere – as can all too easily happen in any wide-ranging gathering – each of those topics was then broken down into relevant sub-sections.
The meeting itself was broken down into smaller groups, about 20 tables, an average of eight to a table, with a strictly controlled timespan devoted to each topic, each group submitting written copies of its conclusions.
At the end of the meeting, then, all that input was collated, and a quick early overview of the feedback from those who had made the trip to Croke Park, was presented.
There were other ideas, all worthy and all of which will be examined in time by the HDC, but there is also a feeling out there that this is just another rearranging of the deck-chairs on the Titanic. While hurling isn’t necessarily a sinking ship at this stage, it is certainly floundering.
Apart from all the usual challenges of participation, finance, lifestyle choices and so on, the GAA has two huge problems not shared by any other major sporting organisation: the dual player clash and the club/county clash.
The above ideas would help to alleviate part of that problem, but until there is a complete overhaul of GAA games structures which sees an end to the 32 independent republics, and integration of all club and county fixtures in both hurling and football, the problems will continue, with hurling – the minority sport – suffering most.
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