When the Cats had to move over
An Irishman’s Diary about hurling giants – and others
Contenders: Not just the big three. Photograph: INPHO/Cathal Noonan
If sport thrives on uncertainty, then the 80s and 90s were glory years for hurling. A golden age for the clashing ash saw half the All-Ireland titles escaping the clutches of the “big three” – Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary. Clare, Offaly, Wexford and Galway brought an exciting new dimension to the sport, particularly when the first three of these combined in laying claim to a historic five in a row of All-Ireland titles in the 1990s.
Since then, however, Liam has routinely returned to the core hurling areas, with the “noughties” being most notable as the first decade since the inauguration of the hurling championship that no county outside the “big three” rose to All-Ireland glory. Latterly, a terrifyingly successful Kilkenny claimed six titles in seven attempts and for a time it seemed as if Brian Cody might go down in history as the man who single-handedly abolished competition for the McCarthy Cup.
The All-Ireland series began to lose its sheen, while the Leinster championship became a meaningless pastiche of its Munster counterpart; doomed it seemed, by a series of spectacularly uncompetitive encounters as the “Cats” commandeered every title but one between 1998 and 2011.
An interloper from the West finally broke this stranglehold by defeating Kilkenny in the 2012 Leinster Final. Galway didn’t subsequently become All-Ireland champions, but a psychological barrier had been breached. In 2013, Anthony Daly’s super-fit Dublin blew the All-Ireland series wide open by defeating Kilkenny in the championship for the first time since 1942. They didn’t go all the way either, but the metropolitans undoubtedly accomplished some heavy lifting that helped an exultant Clare to the 2013 title.
Within two years, Clare, Galway and Dublin had altered the hurling landscape and made it seem that any one of about nine counties could win the title. Free lunches are rare, however, and this charming summertime prospect for supporters of Ireland’s beautiful game comes, as always, at considerable cost to the players.
With the crucial exception of pay-for-play, hurling is now effectively a professional sport. Any county with designs on Liam will have their panel working out through the winter at a level of intensity normally associated with professional sports. Come springtime, the intensity heightens and the life of an inter-county hurler becomes increasingly austere. Players become teetotallers and train up to six times a week And, of course, as amateur sportsmen, they are expected to work as well.
There was a time when a well-regarded county hurler would slip easily into the Garda or experience few difficulties obtaining well-paid employment with a financial institution. These pleasant securities have, however, evaporated. The employment market is now a harsh place and the demands are such that it is virtually impossible for an inter-county player to hold a full-time job without a hugely understanding employer.
Such employers must be willing to accept that top-class stick men routinely turn up for work exhausted, that they will regularly need special time off, are acutely prone to injury and constantly under pressure to perform at the standard of fulltime sportsmen.
Unsurprisingly then, inter-county players find themselves shoe-horned into a narrow range of professional activities.
A cursory examination of player profiles will show the majority are third level students, unaccountable yet to the discipline of the workplace. Teachers are also well represented – long summer holidays are clearly a huge attraction for ambitious young camán-wielders.
Others, presumably, have an understanding employer as they work directly for the GAA, while sales representatives and the self-employed account for most of the remainder. Airline pilots, hospital doctors, journalists, hospitality sector employees and many other demanding, unsocial-hour employments are severely underrepresented.
These days a commitment to Gaelic games at the highest level not only curtails social and family life, it also greatly circumscribes career options. So, as you enjoy next Sunday’s hurling quarter-finals, remember that the players s are genuine amateurs who are expected to give no less for their local area in a dismal November club game.
It is this self-sacrificing attachment to place and community that elevates Gaelic games above other sports but also makes participation hugely demanding.