Interview: Paudie Butler, former national hurling coordinator

He was true to his word. He didn’t stop. The job may have finished up but the work didn’t. 

When Paudie Butler’s term as national hurling coordinator was expiring around this time four years ago, he said he’d keep spreading the word and the love.

He didn’t need the title or any money, as long as there was still a need from others.

“The phone has just kept ringing,” he says. So he has just kept going. 

We meet in a hotel in Newbridge, a couple of hours before he meets a nearby school on how they might teach a PE programme through hurling. He has his diary out after being asked what the past week has been like for him. 

Okay: on the Monday he was in Galway for the last night of a level-one coaching course, giving a presentation on how to develop confident, competent children.

The Tuesday he was in Limerick. The morning was out in Doon, speaking to Leaving Cert students about self-awareness and what they really want to do after school and in life. The evening was in Mary Immaculate College, giving another coaching course.

The Wednesday he was in Westmeath, another course for 15 coaches. He took the Thursday off to prepare for a coaching conference in his native Tipperary on the Saturday attended by over 200 coaches, while on the Friday he squeezed in a night down in Sarsfields, tutoring 75 east Cork coaches on how to optimally use a ball wall.

That was a fairly typical week, only there was nothing up north or in Wexford where he’s a coaching advisor to Liam Dunne’s team. And yourself: keeping busy? He’s actually cut back. When he had that job with Croke Park, every waking hour was devoted to it.

Liam Sheedy’s Hurling 2020 committee has recommended the restoration of the post but Butler himself is unsure if he’d be the person for it now. Before, any Easter or school break was taken up coaching. Now, he mostly spends it with Miriam.

While he’s a retired school principal, she’s an active one and any downtime she does get, he wants to share it. “I probably gave too much of myself that first time. I don’t know if I could go back to that.”

Sometime too, he knows, what he’s doing now will have to stop. But before this fisherman hangs up his rod, he has other men and women to teach how to fish.

“What I do on a national level, loads of people are doing on a local level. I’m no different, only I go to different places. And every night I meet people who say to me they give something back because of the magical time they had as a child through hurling. I’m the same. It was our whole parish way of being.

“In summer’s evenings we often hurled for seven hours and there was a magic in that: of being physically tired and getting such a lovely restful sleep because you were spent but mentally you were so fresh and you’d wake up and you could go hurl again the next day.

"The winning and losing wasn’t big for me. It was the playing of the game that was everything to me – and the health of the parish. I want that vibrancy to be in every parish. I want every child to have the chance to hurl because they’re Irish.

“I have this belief our game is a treasure like the Ardagh Chalice or the language. It’s ancient and something unique to ourselves. And we each have this treasure for only a short time. I will be in this world a short time more and I’m helping mind this beautiful chalice. It’s my time to mind it.

This is my mission now, while I’m still healthy and well, to get as many teachers and people coaching the game.”

Spend any time in Butler’s company and you realise right away why he is so much in demand.

Five minutes into our sitdown, he takes a phonecall and starts conversing as Gaeilge. Once he hangs up, it prompts a question about the native language. Turns out he’ll speak it to anyone who’s fluent in it. And coach them. Connemara, Kerry, Ring in Waterford, he’s been down to all of them.

“Our new [foundation coaching course] booklet has been printed in Irish now too,” he informs us. “That was important. They were compromised enough as it was.”

Naturally, Butler helped with that project. That’s him, that’s his appeal. People see he has no agenda other than the promotion of hurling. His enthusiasm for the sport is only matched by his knowledge of it.

It means that he is uniquely and best positioned to comment on the general state of the game. So what does he think? Overall, he feels the game has never been better. The standard. The numbers playing it. The interest in coaching. There’s just more that can be done, for the game and by extension for Ireland itself.

“Ten years or so the game was under pressure. Society was changing and hurling had to get sophisticated. Any crudeness or ugliness had to be taken out of it. It had to become the game it was always meant to be. which is elegant, fast, mysterious. If there was any more blood or violence, the young mothers of Ireland were going to reject the game for their children.

“That was overcome by such things as cleaning up the rules at adult level. All the good stats have gone up – the speed levels, the scoring rate, the time the ball is in play – and all the bad stats have gone down – fellas going off with bandaged heads and broken fingers.

“Before the fella who gave a callous chop could be a hero in his own place. He’s no hero or warrior anymore. All these boys are going to college together now. You can’t face another fella and say ‘I broke your finger.’ It’s not socially acceptable. You can’t do it! Whereas in the past they weren’t mingling. The other fella could be the enemy and we could hate Cork and hate Clare because we never met them.”

There’s still ugliness though that he detects and despises. In the GAA, in wider Irish society.

“We’re still way out of line with dignity. You continuously hear it on the radio. People finding someone to blame and not taking enough responsibility for things. A coach shouting at and blaming his players as if the way they were playing had nothing to do with him!

“As a country, our drinking is way out of proportion. Young people drinking just to be totally out of it: to me that’s sad. What are they trying to blot out? As a social organisation, we [the GAA] should really be making a better impact. I think here is where coaches and teachers can have great influence, being there for these young people, once they understand the player is a real person with their own imagination and distinctive way.”

For Butler, a lot of the best coaches are social workers. The problem is they’re often judged on their trophy count. “That’s another form of the crudeness. That you’re useless if you don’t win after you’ve dedicated your whole year to your parish.

“I think something that’s exacerbated it is the amount of betting now on Gaelic Games. I don’t like when some journalists continuously quote odds. It’s subversively giving it air. And people who are losing money on games are taking it out on managers. We shouldn’t be trucked with that. It’s against us.”

The good thing though is that more and more people are still lining up to coach, especially at underage. Although the Croke Park and Haddington Road agreements inexcusably excluded sport among the extra 33 hours a year that secondary school teachers need to put in over an academic year, enough of them still have a sense of duty to ensure second-level hurling has never been stronger.

At primary level, concerns over the lack of male teachers have been unfounded in Butler’s experience.

“The young female teachers are so dedicated and capable and confident, they will take teams. As long as we give them any support at all, they’re brilliant. There are about 20,000 of them nationwide. If we can get 6,000 of them doing PE well, everyone benefits. In Dublin with Cumann na mBunscol we’re on our eighth coaching course. That’s 400 coaches that have come through that system. And it’s driven from the ground up. At the moment we can’t meet the demand.”

If anything, the real challenge is coaching older coaches. Those reared in a previous generation can sometimes experience difficulties, even denial, in realising the game that’s played now isn’t the one they played.

“There is a danger if you were a good player that you will replicate the past. We have seen some people go through big changes but to coach a game you didn’t play is a tricky business. [Brian] Cody and Davy [Fitzgerald] have been able to do it; Davy being a goalkeeper might have always had a different view anyway.

“Eamon O’Shea can coach the game he played because that’s how he himself played. He was unbelievably quick, the fastest player in Ireland but in Tipp we didn’t have a system to fit him.

That would be like [Clare U21 manager] Donal Moloney not being able to harness Tony Kelly and get the ball to him. If Eamon was playing now he’d be a multiple All-Star.”

George O’Connor played the old game. As head of games development officer in Wexford he recognised through Butler the need to coach a new one. Back in 2007, Butler took the county U14 development squad for a coaching seminar, just as he did with their Clare counterparts the same summer. Last year, both counties contested the U21 All Ireland final.

“Everything comes from your idea of what something should be. When you’re growing up as a boy, what is your archetype of being a man? If in Clare it was of the strong, slow tough hurler, they were on their way to producing hundreds more of them. If they wanted to produce more Jamesie O’Connor types, they could do that too.

“That night I met those Clare young fellas, I could see they were mad for hurling. I suppose it’s like a fella going to the horse sales. If you have a keen eye, you’ll pick it up. I said ‘If I had that group, I’d be expecting to win All-Irelands.’ But they were going for big, slopey runs. And they were slow on the swing. That would be grand in your own company but against a Kilkenny they’d snig you every ball.

“There were 200 coaches there that night. None of us knew how the fast the game would get. It’s at an unprecedented level. Clare have driven that. You see their players shorten their hurleys up to almost 17, 16, inches for scores, hitting the ball 70, 80 yards. Some of the goals Conor McGrath’s scoring, he’s using only half the hurley and it’s still not stopping him from getting speed on the ball.

“When we met Jack Guiney and his crop down in Oulart-the-Ballagh and they could have stayed the traditional Wexford way. But George O’Connor is the ultimate good human being who wants Wexford to play with the pride and speed and delight the game is being played with now. And the 21s are doing that.”

The seniors are getting there. About once a fortnight for the last few seasons Liam Dunne has been bringing Butler in to do a technical session with them, speed up their hurling, improve their touch. Some of the older players would struggle. “The younger players are freer,” he notes.

Going around the country, he can see other stronger traditional forces have changed and raised their game.

“The change is on in Cork. They relied too long on tradition and downgraded coaching because they thought ‘We’re big and we’ll always have enough.’ They’ve realised they let their tradition down. There’s a lot of good people in Cork who are sorry about that and who are fighting back.

They have really got their act together at grassroots level and revamped their development squads.”

In most hurling counties he can report the game is in good health. In Tipperary there’s hurling in almost every national school and every secondary school is either hurling at A or B level. He’s been struck by the “exuberance and flair” of the 19 and 20 year-olds on Derek McGrath’s Waterford senior panel, representative of the work being done in that county.

Limerick, better than anywhere, captures what can be done. This year two city teams, Castletroy College as well as Ard Scoil Rís, reached the Harty Cup semi-finals.

“Only 10 years ago people were saying there was never going to be hurling in the city again. Now every primary there is hurling. You might have 130 kids go into first-year in secondary school and 80 of them have hurled in primary.”

In Galway, inroads are being made in the city. This year Westmeath and Laois had combined colleges teams which will mean when they come through to county minor and U21 level they’ve already been exposed to A-grade hurling. Last month a Carlow team reached the Leinster college semi-final for the first time.

Of course not everything’s rosy. Some areas remain wastelands. Some football folk would be happy to put a knife in any visible sliotar. The non-continuation of the combined Ulster colleges team rankles with him. Too many football counties, and to an extent even Croke Park itself, seem a little too happy to run off the Ring, Rackard and Meagher Cups off so early to save costs and free up time.

Even a dual county like Offaly can neglect its hurling and coaching tradition, with Butler finding them the county that calls least.

Still. Twelve years ago there wasn’t even a Ring, Rackard or Meagher Cup. Football heartlands are opening up to the game.

Recently Butler gave a course to 104 coaches in Dunmanway in west Cork. Areas that may have three or four football teams are now coming together to form a hurling team. The children are demanding one. The game they see on the box is that attractive.

It still intrigues Butler. He talks with a sense of wonder about something he saw Tommy Walsh do a few years ago in Croke Park.

“He let his opponent rise the ball while he ran alongside him. And then he took it! Well, when I saw that I said to myself, ‘Here’s a boy on another time-scale. It’s as if he has time slowed down.’ “Hurling is going to continue to reveal itself so slowly. It will always fascinate us. We’re lucky to be alive now. At a time when 1-28 isn’t enough to win an All Ireland. When we can go to a match almost any Sunday not far away and see the quality of game we do now.

“The other week I was reading one of the great American coaches where he spoke to his players about honouring the game. ‘Will we honour the game today?’ Well, hurlers are honouring the game a good while now. To me, the Brendan Mahers, Henry Shefflins, Conor McGraths, every time they take the field they honour the game. That’s a lovely thing to be able to say.”

In his own way Butler honours it too.

PAUDIE BUTLER ON...

CAMOGIE

“It should be called hurling. I hope that’s not taken as a slight on women. They could take offence and rightly so because of our traditional neglect and over-dominance. They’ve had to protect themselves and their identity.

“But sometimes in protecting yourself you can actually prevent yourself from being equal. The term ‘camogie’ can be restrictive in the wrong head. ‘We won’t take that seriously.’ And I think girls should hurl with boys up to 11 or 12. Already it happens in some rural primary schools. It’s the natural way.

“I taught sixth class for most of my adult life and the girl at that age is a good bit ahead of the boy physically. She’s taller, stronger and she’s more socially alert, so she’d bring a lot more subtle skills to it. Everyone would benefit. The girls would improve their technique and speed. The boys would have to be more skilful and less crude. In some parishes, crudeness is still acceptable. Slow and tough is still the model being presented, which is hopeless. It’s a game of skill and speed now.”

THE 2020 HURLING COMMITTEE AND RULE CHANGES

“They did well. They were politically astute, communicated well and recognised how healthy the game is and that only a few tweaks were needed. The one-v-one penalty is super. It suits the gladiatorial nature of hurling.

“The one change I’d make is to reduce the flight of the ball by about 20 percent. The ball is often going 100 metres now. If it could go only 80 that would make for a lot more play.

“I wouldn’t make it heavier; at the moment the player is remarkably good at catching a ball because the shape and size is right. But I’d reduce the buoyancy of the ball. With technology that could easily be done.”

FOOTBALL

“It’s gone down a cul de sac. We’re not able to reward the great features of the game. There’s all kind of counter tactics that are mainly preventive. They must be from people who think they’re not as good at it, it’s coming from a kind of negative psyche.

“I was in the Lár na Páirce museum in Thurles last month. Mick O’Connell was on the screen, in his glory, taking the ball at the highest point and delivering balls 50 yards, left and right, into a Kerry chest. It was so uplifting and delightful. Surely you could get 100 people who understand football to examine how can we get this game to where it could be?”

CLUB FIXTURES

“It’s the enemy within really. The county player’s life isn’t so much on hold because most of his games are fixed and they stand. The club player’s fixture rarely stands. He could nearly plan his holiday for the day his match has been fixed for. We need to get ourselves together and sort it out. We just have to take it as the rugby do and allocate weeks for one and weeks for the other.”


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