Ash crisis runs straight to roots of GAA

Wed, Nov 21, 2012, 00:00

GAELIC GAMES:The ash dieback problem has the GAA authorities on high alert, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

The already clear and present danger of a sudden and potentially complete devastation of the ash tree continues to leave the GAA on high alert – and they’re not the only ones.

Although highly valued in various guises, the ash tree in the Irish context has long been associated with the manufacture of hurleys, not least because of the irreplaceably unique properties of the wood itself. In the worst case scenario, even the likes of Henry Shefflin and Joe Canning might find themselves looking towards the synthetic hurl, as strange as that might feel.

It’s just over a month since the first reported Irish case of Chalara fraxinea – more commonly known as ash dieback, a rampant, fungal disease that can effectively spread like wildfire. Around 35,000 imported ash saplings have now been destroyed, starting at a forest in Leitrim, then four other sites, after the entire consignment was traced back to the Netherlands.

The problem is drifting westward from continental Europe, with 90 per cent of Denmark’s ash population already wiped out, and reports too that the disease is now “out of control” in the UK, where there are 80 million ash trees. Over the weekend came further reports of the first outbreak of ash dieback in Northern Ireland, at five separate sites in Down and Antrim, where notice of destruction has been served.

Governments across Europe have reacted accordingly; the Department of Agriculture here last week passing legislation to ban the import of all young ash plants and seeds from any infected area, extending that to a ban on any ash wood not already de-barked and sufficiently dried.

“That recognition, and realisation, is there, and that need for legislation so that measures can be taken to ensure the spread is arrested, if at all possible,” says Pat Daly, the GAA’s Director of Games, and representing their interests on the matter.

“This has come out of the blue, really. So it’s difficult to say what the full impact will be, at this stage. The scare might pass over, everything contained. Or alternatively, in six months time, it could be even more pronounced. It’s just hard to say. What I can say is that every conceivable action is being taken to ensure it is contained.

“But of course it raises huge concerns about the supply of ash, and problems emerging from that could have huge implications for hurling. If the extreme happens then yes, a lot of people could be out of business in 12 months time.”

Indeed it comes as a sort of double-whammy to the GAA’s concerns about ash supply: around 350,000 hurleys are manufactured in this country every year, about 65 per cent of which are made from imported ash. The GAA had initiated a plan to be entirely self-sufficient in ash by 2017, although ash dieback might have a considerable impact on that.

“We’re still operating on that premise,” says Daly, “that there would be adequate supply in this country by 2017. We’ve been working with the Department all along, and with Coillte, to ensure there was that element of self sufficiency, and we’re happy we’re moving in that direction.”

Serious problem

Should the disease spread, however, the GAA could have a serious problem on its hands: of all the challenges facing hurling in the modern era – balancing the physicality, spreading the competitiveness, etc – this one runs straight to the roots.

“Hurley manufacture in Ireland is a big enough industry, no doubt about that, with a lot of people involved. Maybe 60-70 guild members, but twice as many again, operating on their own. Members of the hurling guild are already saying they’re finding it harder to get a supply, that it’s getting scarce, and that’s an evitable side effect to what’s happening.

“Prices are already rising, too. If the bark has to be removed, the wood dried, that’s an additional cost, and if there’s any scarcity then obviously prices will increase.”

Daly has been present at weekly meetings with the Department of Agriculture on the matter, and is so far satisfied with their recognition of the problem – including that of Shane McEntee, Minister of State at the Department.

“It’s being monitored on a daily basis, really, with ‘no stone being be left unturned’, as McEntee said,” says Daly.

“He’s coming from a strong GAA background, another reason why it’s one of his foremost concerns. We’ve had hurley makers represented at the meetings too, and we’d have ongoing dialogue, because there’s no doubt it’s a serious cause of concern for them,” he adds.

Truth is no one is entirely sure of the exact extent of the problem, or how long fears about ash supply might last. The GAA has already approved the manufacture of a synthetic hurley, the Cúltec, made from a mix of materials including nylon and graphite (with Dublin hurler Ryan O’Dwyer one of the few confessed users). Although only marginally more expensive, Daly believes players will always have a greater preference for the traditional ash hurl.

“We wouldn’t necessarily encourage the use of one over the other, but for most players the preference is still very much for ash,” he says.

If any good does come out the problem, however, it will be focusing the GAA’s efforts in becoming self-sufficient in ash supply. “If we can get four or five acres of ash planted in every county, every year, ensure they’re properly maintained, then we could reach that high level of sustainability,” he adds.

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