Where once just Bandon was the last outpost beyond Cork’s city limits, a hockey revolution of sorts is spreading south and west of the county, giving optimism for further expansion.
In early December, Baltimore became the latest club to hit the turf, lining out against Clonakilty after six weeks of the Hockey Ireland Tricks 4 Sticks programme.
Along with Kinsale and Clon, they became the third new club in the region since 2011, boosting Munster hockey’s youth playing population year on year by between 5% and 7%.
Beyond stretching the reach and boundaries of hockey outside of its traditional strongholds in the cities and old garrison towns, Baltimore is part of Hockey Ireland’s evolving vision of how to grow the game.
Dee Griffiths, a former county player in England who now works in Rath NS, was frustrated that she could not pass on her passion for the sport to her 11-year-old daughter locally.
Not fancying a weekly 40-minute commute to Clonakilty — itself only formed in 2011 — she took on the challenge herself.
Nearby Ilen Rovers GAA had a “tiny bit of indoor astro” but it was enough to get started out. With the help of Hockey Ireland’s development officer Phil Oakley, they secured funding for pitch rental and equipment.
There, they had capacity for 16 players but they have already outgrown the venue and moved to Abbeystrewry — outside Skibbereen — to a larger astroturf facility to keep up with demand.
Again it is not a formal, full-sized pitch but Hockey Ireland is coming to the realisation this is no barrier to development.
Now the focus turns to the number of coaches available and this has become Griffiths’ next big challenge.
Clon was set up in 2011. For the coastal town, a key driver was the construction of the full-sized astroturf pitch at the Sacred Heart College. With a feeder school in place, Oakley says they needed “minimal support” from Hockey Ireland to get up and running and quickly grew to three senior women’s teams.
Many of the club’s 2009 All-Ireland junior winning ladies footballers would go on to play a part in their Irish Hockey Challenge glory in 2014.
Crucially, the senior club soon developed a junior section, “exactly what you want to see so there is a conveyor belt that makes it sustainable”.
Baltimore, though, is following the model a little further up the road in Kinsale. There, Kieran Harte has been pivotal in developing the club since 2012 with Kinsale now operating at a capacity of 155 children up to U14 level.
They have done so despite having access to an astro surface that measures about a third of a regular size pitch.
“It’s not a hockey surface but we found the ball rolled absolutely perfectly,” Harte told the Examiner.
Harte, a goalkeeper with Tyrone’s senior footballers in his day, was briefly on the committee of Saile Community Centre where the turf is located.
Along with Kim Kerins and Anne Murphy, the facility was looking to expand its reach and offer more sporting options.
All four of Harte’s children had become hockey aficionados during their time at Bandon Grammar. Twins Conor and David are both Olympians, the latter winning the FIH World Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2015 and 2016; Emer played for Ireland while Ciara also reached a high level.
It stoked a passion in Kieran to give something back but also left him with plenty of contacts to get the ball rolling.
He pitched the idea of hockey; after taster sessions with regional development officer Dave Egner in four of the local national schools and an end-of-term blitz, they had 69 players interested.
“Teaching skills proved to be no problem [on the turf]. It was just perfect,” Harte said, adding that plenty of other factors made the development of the club “really easy”.
“So many people have come to settle in Kinsale who have played hockey in school, a good portion of the population are blow-ins like myself and so we had plenty interested in helping a young hockey club so it was really easy.”
Oakley, though, suggests its success is more down to Harte and his way of getting things done — “he’s an incredible motivator and if you ask him to do anything, he will get to it straight away — if you had one of him in every club, we would be close to one of the biggest sports in the country.”
Funding was secured from Hockey Ireland, the Women in Sport Programme, Kinsale UDC and the Cork Sports Partnership matched this euro for euro.
They now have the third biggest boys section in Munster and entered their first leagues, the girls at U14 level and the boys at U13. All games must be played away and so, until a pitch comes in, they will remain a feeder for other clubs beyond these age grades.
"Unlike most other clubs, we are non-competitive. It’s about fun and enjoyment. I am a really strong advocate for fun and making strong memories for life. For years to come, we hope they can enjoy their hockey after they leave us."
Key to the growth is the commitment to coaching, something the club founder readily admits he does not get involved in but is one of the elements he is especially proud of.
“As the kids have grown up, I coached hurling, Gaelic football, badminton, athletics — I cannot actually coach hockey,” said Harte. “I find it so difficult so that’s why all our coaches have to know how to do it! If I have given the club anything, it is that.”
As of last year, each coach has some form of either coaching certificate while there are five level one coaches, four helping in the club, that have been developed.
Oakley ran a stepping stones course on December 12, a time when “nobody has any business usually running a course” and yet there were 13 Kinsale volunteers in attendance.
Gaisce students add to the volunteer levels while they have also expanded into the indoor hall.
David Harte helped source top-of-the-line indoor hockey sideline boards from the Netherlands.
The price tag was over €4,000 for the wooden blocks but the club managed to get 100% sponsorship for them — the club is supported by Life Science Consultants, Water Babies and Granny’s Bottom Drawer in addition to the regular funding bodies.
Kinsale have also added a beginners group on Thursday evenings for adults with a grade one coach followed by more experienced players later in the evening.
“It’s a lovely way of tying new people to the club. There’s a lot of young mothers in their early 30s and hopefully their kids will come up and join in when they hit eight, nine or 10.” Harte says widening the parameters of what is a suitable venue can have far-reaching outcomes.
“I think its wide open for expansion. Before the Olympics, I spoke to [interim Hockey Ireland CEO] Rob Johnson about all the things that could be done and highlighted the single biggest thing would be to introduce hockey on a multi-sport pitch. If you go to Macroom or Mallow or wherever there is a football pitch, we have found that for hurlers and footballers, it is the perfect fit for a winter sport and the guys absolutely love it.”
Oakley is coming around to that way of thinking.
“The exciting thing is we are now supporting hockey clubs that don’t necessarily have a hockey pitch to play on. That gives us hope for developing the sport elsewhere. We had a forum in Connacht last week and one of the things was how do we develop outside Sligo, Athlone, and Galway.”
Both also add that Ireland needs to finally start embracing indoor hockey properly.
The viewpoint comes off the back of January’s European Championships in Brussels and February’s Indoor World Cup in Berlin. The International Hockey Federation has copped that this variant of the sport can offer a unique fan experience while the technical skills on display become far more apparent on the smaller court.
“We don’t utilise indoor enough,” Oakley adds. “I had never seen a match properly before the World Cup and came away thinking ‘how come we don’t do this? How come we don’t have a national team?’ “It was phenomenal. And we can develop in areas where we don’t have a natural facility.”
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