David Dowling picks out a hurl from a rack and holds it flat in his hands as if getting ready to control a sliotar. The hurl has a long shaft, is mahogany brown, and is clearly of an ancient design. The narrow “bas” (or striking area) is almost at a right angle to the shaft. In fact, it looks more like a shinty stick than a hurley.
“This is the hurley the great full back Paddy Larkin used in the early 1930s when playing for Kilkenny,” says Dowling.
“My maternal great-grandfather would have made it. He was a hurley maker, Tom Neary, from Kilkenny city. He started making hurleys in the early 1900s.”
We are standing in the workshop of Star Hurleys in Jenkinstown, Co Kilkenny, one of the most renowned hurley makers in the country. Most of the Kilkenny hurling panel in any given year will use its hurleys.
David and his brother Stephen, who both run the company, are fourth-generation hurley makers. “The senior hurls would have more of a swing,” explains Dowling, running his hand along the grain to show its natural curve.
The part of the tree used for hurleys is close to the root, where the grain of the wood naturally curves. From that a “hurley butt” at least 1.3m long is cut from the tree, which will produce up to nine hurleys.
In the old days, the planks would have been stacked in a lean-to to dry over months. Now it is done in two weeks in a kiln with a dehumidifier. In the workshop, Dowling and a few young craftsmen finish off the hurleys by hand, sanding them, putting on the metal band, weighing them and holding them to make sure the feel and the balance is right.
There was a time when Star hurleys were sold only in Kilkenny. An explosion in the popularity of hurling and the internet has changed all that. The Dowlings can’t keep up with the orders.
“It’s been through the roof. It’s maybe three times what it was ... We would have sent a massive amount of hurls to America this year.”
With such demand, it’s hard to imagine hurley-making as a dying craft. But it is dying, slowly but surely. And it has nothing to do with the process. It has nothing to do with the demand. It has to do with the ash.
The reason why can be found a 45-minute drive south from Jenkinstown, in the undulating limestone lands of south Tipperary.
Mary McCormack drives 2km outside the small town of Killenaule to a forest plantation. This was once her family’s farm but in the 1990s all 69 hectares were given over to forest plantation, a mixture of Sitka spruce, sycamore and ash.
A few hundred metres up the forest path she stops the car.
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” proclaims McCormack, looking around.
Her despondency is immediately apparent. We are surrounded by an ash forest, but something is not quite right. The trees are tall and skeletal, some bald, others with a few withered leaves clinging on desperately. Some of the trees have already fallen. There is black canker on all of the trunks. Every single one of the hundreds of trees we are looking at is dead or dying.
These ash trees were planted in the late 1990s. “I think about 10 years ago I noticed there was something wrong. I thought it was the weather and [I wondered] if there had been some infestation of something,” says McCormack.
“They came into leaf and then the leaf would turn yellow and drop off. The trees were not putting on volume.”
The cause was a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. Its origins are in East Asia, where the fungus was harmless to ash trees. However, once imported into Europe it has been like the Black Death for woodlands. It is wiping out the ash population throughout the Continent.
The first recorded case in Ireland was in a plantation in Leitrim in 2012. A decade later it has spread everywhere. State agency Teagasc’s downbeat assessment is: “The disease is likely to cause the death of the majority of the ash trees over the next two decades.”
McCormack is a no-nonsense person but her despair is evident when looking at the trees. The scheme was generous and designed primarily to provide ash for making hurleys. The benefit of ash was that — unlike other hardwoods — it was quick-growing: harvesting could begin after 25 years.
“I thought it would suit me fine,” says McCormack, “so I planted all of my farm of 69 hectares and I had Sitka spruce as well, which has really grown so well.”
Ash dieback has affected her badly. It has damaged most of the hundreds of ash plantations dotted around the country. That’s only the beginning of it. Tens of thousands of ash trees dot hedgerows, roads, streets, gardens and parks. They may all die. And fall down, if not removed safely. What happened to another native species, the elm — which was practically eliminated by Dutch elm disease — is now being replicated.
“I think the wider context is ash across the country,” says Pippa Hackett, Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity. “It really needs a whole-of-government approach. There’s at least 25 per cent of them in hedges and hedgerows. You have ash trees along roads, in urban areas, in people’s gardens and along rivers.
“We need a concerted effort to address this. We don’t want trees falling down or inexperienced people felling diseased trees. That is a dangerous place to go.”
The problems coming down the track are manifold. Can the disease be arrested? Is there a future for ash hurleys? How can the injustice felt by aggrieved landowners with ash plantations be addressed?
At a general level, only 1-2 per cent of ash trees in Ireland are thought to be resistant to ash dieback. Teagasc has been working on trying to develop a resistant variety. But even if successful, it will take a generation to repopulate ash.
Regarding the future of his business, Dowling of Star Hurleys says: “I suppose we have some thoughts on what we are going to do.” He talks of utilising splices that would allow them to use straight rather than curved pieces of wood. He also speaks of experimenting with other woods, although few have the pliability and “bend” of ash.
“They say ash is the softest of the hardwoods. What’s the hardest of the soft woods? I don’t know,” he muses.
In 2014, Seán Torpey of Torpey Hurleys in Co Clare went a step further and began researching bamboo as an alternative material. He had a background in sports engineering and came up with a bamboo resin which replicated the feel and strike of ash for elite hurlers. Since being introduced only two years ago it has really taken off. “For every four hurleys we sell, three are bamboo,” says Torpey. Bamboo hurleys are used by elite players such as Clare’s John Conlon and Limerick’s Gearóid Hegarty, who scored two goals and two points using a bamboo hurley in last year’s All Ireland.
“The technology we have invested in means we can really make the most consistent hurley,” says Torpey. “If a player breaks their favourite ash hurley, that can be a big moment for them. They are attached to it and replicating it can never be 100 per cent done. There is always a difference between one ash hurley and the next. With the bamboo we can make sure it is consistent. If you happen to break one, you are getting the same hurley next time round.”
For those who planted ash, the State’s response to ash dieback has left a bitter taste. Originally, it was thought the disease spread could be controlled and a scheme was introduced allowing 10 hectares of felling. However, people with more than 10 hectares of ash got nothing for their other acreage. The ash trees they had nurtured for a quarter of a century were worthless. They had expected a return on their investment but there was none.
To add insult to injury, if they wanted to move to conifers they had to seek planning permission. “Trees planted now, broadleaved trees, will take 70 years to mature,” said woodland owner Simon White, who has led the campaign for compensation. The chairman of the Oireachtas agricultural committee, Fianna Fáil TD Jackie Cahill, consistently says these people are affected by a crisis not of their own making but have yet to get compensation. He said those replanting should be paid premium payments, as if they were starting afresh.
“I just want a level playing field,” says McCormack. If you look at any other crop, any other disease, whether it’s an animal or whatever, they will get compensation first of all.”
The Department of Agriculture has been accused of foot-dragging but Hackett says Government is working on legislation that will allow for a switch to conifers without planning permission. On reintroducing premium payments, she says: “I do think it probably does need to be revisited. Whether we can go the whole way or not, I very much doubt not as it is going to be far too expensive. I’m sure there is some landing spot [we can find].”
Everybody agrees the problem is systemic and long-term. McCormack says: “I cannot see ash being available to plant for maybe another 50 years. Nobody will commit their land to something that is iffy.”