An Irishman’s Diary on the camán
The art of the made-to-measure hurley
“Hurlers come into the workshop, where the smell of ash wafts from the curled slivers and sawdust lying on the floor. They take the hurley in their hands, feel the grip, run their hands over the smooth white surface. They look at the grain of the wood that curves with the bas, the wide striking area on the end of the hurley.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Surely one of the most finely tuned sporting implements in the world is the hurling stick – or camán – used by senior players, men and women.
These exponents of the many skills of the game, especially controlling and hitting the leather sliotar, take exceptional care to match their hurleys to the strength and suppleness of their wrists and the muscles of their arms and shoulders.
Many have their hurleys made-to-measure by master craftsmen in the art of fashioning hurleys from the wood of the ash tree. The exact pattern is agreed upon. The length, usually to hip height, has to be right. The weight has to be precise.
Hurlers come into the workshop, where the smell of ash wafts from the curled slivers and sawdust lying on the floor. They take the hurley in their hands, feel the grip, run their hands over the smooth white surface. They look at the grain of the wood that curves with the bas, the wide striking area on the end of the hurley.
These players, female and male, sometimes hop a sliotar to make sure they’re comfortable with the balance. They may even go outside and bash a well-worn ball against a wall, assessing the weight and resilience of the stick.
Sometimes, after much handling and swinging, they may ask for a little wood to be shaved off here of there. Or they may do it themselves later, sometime using a shard of sharp glass.
The bas gets most attention because one of the basic skills is to be able to hit the sliotar with the dead centre, not much more than about twice the size of a €2 piece.
When the sliotar is hit with the “sweet spot” it rebounds off the ash and travels quickly and accurately.
To strengthen the bas, vulnerable in clashing with other hurleys during a game, a thin, light metal band is tacked in place. Centuries ago, Brehon laws decreed that only a king’s son was entitled to a bronze band while all others must use copper.
One of the great Tipperary hurlers of the past, Pat Stakelum, once told me about his hurleys. “They were made for me by a fellow called Willie Touhy. He knew exactly what I wanted. You could blindfold me and put me in a room with a thousand hurleys but I’d still find my own.”
The shape of the hurley has changed to meet the way the game in played. The hurleys of 100 years ago were narrower and the bas only gently curved. At that time the ball was played along the grass a good deal of the time, there was less lifting and striking or catching the ball; players became adept at hitting the moving ball, over or along the ground.
Today the key action is getting the ball off the ground, often in a ruck of scrambling players, taking it into the hand and then striking it accurately towards another player running into position or putting it over the bar or into the goal. The bas is wider, more squarish to facilitate striking. Lifting the ball off the ground while running at speed is part of the modern game. To facilitate this, the toe or point of the hurley is narrow, almost blade-like.
Because hurlers have always worked to hone their skills, in ball alleys or at hurling walls, they can usually remember some special event when all the hours of practice reaped a reward. It may have been a crucial free taken 90 yards from the goal in a key game.
I once asked one of the most skilful Kilkenny hurlers of the past, Jim Langton, if he could remember such an occasion.
“Oh, yes. At a club final. We were awarded a free near the end. About 30 yards out. Seven or eight fellows lined the goal. I took a good look at them, the way they were standing; some had their hurls touching the ground in case I went for a low shot, other held them well up, to try to stop a high one. I decided I was going to put the ball in the top right hand corner, just under the bar. I rose the ball and hit it hard and it went right into the spot I had picked out. A goal.”
Hurling lore has stories about men whose hurleys meant so much to them that they kept them under the bed. The hurler was a local hero, admired for his skill, courage and endurance.
He might not have many advantages in terms of education or position but his hurley was a sign of his stature and standing in the community. It was at the same level as the teacher’s roll book, the sergeant’s bicycle, the doctor’s stethoscope and the priest’s Roman collar.