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Proposal to omit weak hurling counties from league a seriously retrograde step

It’s possible to nourish grassroots hurling in these counties without punishing the very people who have kept the flame alive

One Sunday morning, nearly 30 years ago, myself and Dave Hannigan struck off for Mullahoran in my gallant 1983 Fiesta. Hungover, though Dave will deny it. Cavan were hosting Sligo in Division Four of the National Hurling League. Our plan was to interview the crowd.

Fifteen people turned up. A 16th arrived just before half-time and sat on his car bonnet for two minutes, but because he kept the engine running we disqualified him from the count. A rubber-necker. No money was taken at the gate.

Simply, we expected to find a few die-hards with stories of lifelong devotion to the struggle. Instead, the crowd was a caravan of family and faithful companions: two wives, one fiancé, one girlfriend, one brother, one nine-year old, two infants, six friends and one curious local who said it was his first time to witness a hurling match in the flesh.

The colony of die-hards were inside the wire. Both managers said they had to do a ring-around the night before to nail down numbers, and they knew that a few would be playing a soccer match that morning, or a Gaelic football match. But everyone they had asked honoured their promise to be in Mullahoran.


In the United States of Hurling, this was Alaska – part of the union and faraway. The players who took the field, and the people on the sideline who held the candle and cupped the flame, would have known how little people cared for their passion, and how few noticed. The result would have been read out on RTÉ Radio that day and carried in the following morning’s newspapers, strictly on the grounds of box-ticking.

Cavan finished bottom of Division Four that year with seven defeats from seven matches and a scoring difference of minus 116. Whoever managed the Cavan hurling team for the following season needed to convince about 20 or 25 other people that this path had a purpose of some kind. It was probably the same people. It must have been.

At every level of the GAA glory is available in some measure, even a dram. That wasn’t the deal here. There was nothing for them. At the heart of their resistance was a kind of heroism that nobody acknowledged or celebrated. They carried on.

Last week, it emerged that Cavan were one of five counties whose right to play in the National Hurling League is under serious threat; Louth, Leitrim, Longford and Fermanagh are the others. Under a proposal from the Central Competitions Control Committee the money that would have been spent on their league campaigns will instead be diverted to grassroots development of the game in those counties.

If this proposal meets the approval of Central Council next month, none of the counties will be restored to the league until they have at least five adult hurling clubs.

The response was predictable. The players and coaches and fanatics who keep the game afloat in those counties felt betrayed and humiliated. Other people who love the game called out the injustice – even though hurling in lower-tier counties wouldn’t ordinarily cost them a thought from one end of the year to the next.

In the middle of the argument were familiar elements of posturing and grandstanding. The reality is that nobody does enough. Hurling has been a minority sport in two-thirds of its birthplace for as long as the GAA has existed. In some counties, it wouldn’t rank in the top seven or eight or ten sports for participation numbers.

GAA people in those places made the choice to neglect hurling; Croke Park or the provincial councils have never done enough to stimulate change. So-called hurling people in recognised hurling heartlands have failed them too, miserably. Not enough people cared.

About two years ago, before Martin Fogarty finished up as the GAA’s director of hurling, he made his views plain in an interview with Declan Bogue. Focusing on Ulster, he said that hurling had been the victim of “sabotage” from Gaelic football clubs. It is a commonly held view, but not one that would ever be expressed by a member of the GAA establishment.

The drastic solution Fogarty suggested was to withhold funding until these clubs made a meaningful commitment to hurling.

“The only language people understand is money,” he said. “I have told them [the leadership in Croke Park] that the only way to stop the sabotage is to pull the funding.”

Of course, that will never happen. This is the longest running civil war in the history of Irish sport. Even in clubs where football and hurling are played at a high level you are more likely to hear stories of conflict than co-operation. Though they are siblings, hurling and football have never gotten along.

In any case, the plantation of hurling in Ulster or anywhere else simply wouldn’t work. You can’t impose feelings for the game where they don’t exist. Cultivating those feelings is the only solution. With goodwill and energy and support and leadership, that is always possible.

In Fermanagh, one of the counties targeted in the CCCC’s proposal, there had been just one hurling team for almost a decade; now seven clubs are fielding juvenile teams. Passionate, resourceful people came together and started teams from scratch.

The last thing they want is to be pitied or patronised. The work they do is for a game they love. Every game that thrives is blessed with constant gardeners. In places where hurling is on the margins those people have always existed, half-abandoned.

The CCCC will argue that the money saved will help the volunteers on the ground, but why should this be an either/or scenario? Why can’t the money be invested in start-up hurling teams while the players who have kept the show on the road for years in these counties continue to compete in the National League? Why should they be punished for generations of failure in Croke Park and in provincial councils and in county boards all over the country?

Cavan won Division 3B in the National League this year; they contested the final of the Lory Meagher Cup two years ago. Resilient people, making Saturday night ring-arounds, kept hurling going in these counties when all they had was blind faith.

This proposal is an act of aggression against the precious spirit of these people. It must be stopped.