An Irishman's Diary
Next Saturday the National Hurling League throws in at Páirc Uí Rinn, Cork, when two of the sport’s big beasts go head to head. The meeting of Tipperary and Cork, under lights, marks the true beginning of the inter-county hurling season and is the time when every inter-county hurler can dare to dream extravagantly of glory in September. For most it’s a pipe dream, of course. There are four, perhaps five, realistic challengers for the McCarthy Cup, with some cynics – or pragmatists – suggesting that there is really just one smoothly feline shoo-in.
This wasn’t always the case. Once, the season of clashing ash would begin with a compelling and often realistic vision of a “weaker county” gatecrashing the all-Ireland party. But these days few believe this vision is anything but an attractive apparition straight from cloud cuckoo land.
Yet, most of the 15 competing counties will have their inter-county hurlers training through the winter months at a level of intensity normally associated with professional sports. This although, in a well-meaning but dissolute attempt to allow players a closed season, the GAA stipulates that county teams should begin training only in January. All-Ireland fever is such, however, that this rule is commonly circumvented, with most teams now preparing unofficially from November onwards.
Post the festive season, the intensity ratchets up with many teams training three nights weekly and playing warm-up games at weekends. Then, as sundown gets later, the life of an inter-county hurler becomes increasingly monastic. Players become virtual teetotallers and train up to six times a week, while still required to turn out for club and county matches most Sundays. And, of course, as amateur players they are expected to hold down a job as well.
Now, there was a time when this presented few problems. A well thought-of county hurler would be welcomed into the Garda Síochána , or experience few difficulties obtaining well paid employment with a financial institution or as a company sales representative. Otherwise a big name might enter the pub business and, trading on past glories, live comfortably ever after.
These pleasant securities have, however, long been undone by Ireland’s profligate era of national financing. And for most camán wielders, they have been replaced with a harsher reality. The Garda Síochána hasn’t recruited for years and is unlikely to do so soon. Banking is a mess, with most institutions desperately downsizing, while everyone knows the sad state of the licence trade.
So county hurlers must somehow find the time in their exhaustingly busy lives to trawl through our much contracted labour market and a national profile is no longer a guarantee of employment. In his recent biography, All in My Head, Tipperary hurler, Lar Corbett writes of how his self-belief was severely dented by an inability to find work. “Up in Dublin mixing with the great and good at all those banquets, it was forever at the back of my mind that I’d be back drawing the dole the following Tuesday.”
And, of course, Corbett isn’t alone. Many others have undoubtedly experienced, but not articulated, the same difficulties. And indeed one wonders about the number of employers willing to provide a job in difficult economic times for someone likely to appear into work exhausted after a harsh evening’s training, who will then regularly need time off for matches, is chronically prone to injury and is unforgivingly expected to perform on the big stage to the same standard as fulltime sportsmen such as Brian O’Driscoll.
Corbett eventually rationalised his unemployment by pretending to himself he was being paid social welfare to play hurling. And, of course, the inter-county game now requires such a brutal work ethic, that in any sphere other than Gaelic Games, it would be regarded as a full-time occupation. So why do county players sacrifice so much in terms of career, family, social life and travel opportunities, when the vast majority will never come anywhere near the acclaim enjoyed by Corbett?
The answer was, perhaps, best articulated recently by Dublin, dual player, Ciaran Kilkenny, after he abandoned a lucrative opportunity to play Australian Rules football and return to Ireland. “Much as I enjoyed the lifestyle of an Aussie Rules player and relished the challenge of achieving in a different code, I realised that it would never matter as much to me as the sense of community and joy I get from togging out and playing with the people with whom I grew up and live.”