Can hurling now become the true national game?

Keith Duggan: Or will it always be the same eight-nine counties at the banquet?

Galway’s Cathal Mannion and Dan Morrissey of Limerick in action during the All-Ireland final. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Galway’s Cathal Mannion and Dan Morrissey of Limerick in action during the All-Ireland final. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Is hurling a private members’ club?

When all is said and done, will it always be the same eight or nine counties at the banquet with the rest of Ireland just looking in through the window?

Could it ever become the true national game in all 32 counties? Or must it always remain an extension of those landlords’ tournaments of hundreds of years ago?

The holy game has just had its summer in Camelot. As the All-Ireland championship progressed through June into July, it was as if the very sport was trying to outdo itself in what could be reached in terms of skill, athleticism and pure human emotion.

Sunday after Sunday, hurling stole its own thunder. Through an extraordinary cast of players and coaches, it surpassed itself again and again. The season finished on the dreamy note of Limerick rescuing themselves from the maudlin limitations of past glories in a riveting All-Ireland finale which will always be remembered, too, as the afternoon when Joe Canning showed us all that you can be unbeatable without winning.

In the hottest summer for decades, hurling caught fire in the mind and, with impeccable timing, it was treated to an extended television exploration in Gerry Nelson’s evocative series for RTÉ, The Game. So, as the dust settles, you have to wonder where it can go from here.

Throughout the summer, a friend used to send a text shortly after whatever absurdly close championship game has just finished; points flying from all angles, new stars, fresh heroics and Cyril or Dalo’ ready to explode with happiness in the RTÉ studio.

“Too many scores,” came the sniffy verdict.

He was messaging from Up North; an exile in Gaelic football land and stubbornly loyal to the other, less loved championship, where scores seemed to be rationed like butter in wartime and everyone was scolding that one game was worse than the next.

If, by mid July, hurling’s evangelists were worried that simply declaring it the best game in the world was selling it short, then football’s army of critics were debating whether their chosen sport was still a game at all.

“How can you explain feeling?” asks Ger Loughnane in the opening episode of The Game, before happily doing just that, unabashedly riffing about the sublime sense of ash and leather running up your arm and into your soul. It’s that kind of trippy, mystical jazz you can get away with when accompanied by mesmerising slow-mo footage and orchestral soundtrack.

And it’s the kind of quasi-religious chat that leaves the football fraternity feeling limited and quietly ashamed. Football may have the big numbers out kicking ball. But hurling has the patent on “who we are”.

An opportunity

Why is that? After 100 years of organised championships, why hasn’t hurling spread from its strongholds in Munster and Leinster? Somehow, the reverberations of soul travelled through Galway without ever infiltrating the rest of Connacht. And after that, hurling is a cult pursuit.

Crossing The Line, who produced The Game, faced an all but impossible task in editing their material down to the three hours that were eventually broadcast. In depicting the evolution of the sport in broad strokes, it was inevitable there would much concentration on the holy trinity of Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary.

They could never please all of the people all of the time; for everyone peeved that they didn’t shine a light on hurling families in the Glens of Antrim, there are those of us who wish they’d just devoted a full episode to Lusmagh’s John Troy and be done with it.

Each episode was, of course, a joy, an effortless hour of viewing. Still, you can’t but feel that the GAA and RTÉ between them missed an opportunity to really go for it and commission a 12-part, 12-hour long series; a deep-dive into the stories and the mythical figures and, crucially, to those fringe places in Ulster and Connacht where hurling clubs carry on as steadfastly as the Amish.

One of the most fascinating sequences was those fleeting few seconds when Joe Canning and Henry Shefflin were talking about the challenges of starting out in the game as children; of picking up the hurley and, as Wexford’s Lee Chin, put it, most likely striking fresh air.

That difficulty – or perceived difficulty – contains the secret of why hurling is such an obsession in the strong counties and why it has not flourished in the rest.

It’s a dimension that the hurling crowd love to ham up - “ah, look it, if you’re not down at the alley hitting a ball off the wall for two hours every day by the time you are eight months old, you’re at nothin”.

It is easy to see how and why a child in Kilkenny or Galway, where the game is everywhere and visible, would fall under the spell of the rhythm of striking. But in the counties where there is no tradition, just picking up a hurl can seem forbidding – and pointless; as if it is the birthright of other counties.

Would hurling’s reach span across Ireland at all but for those people from hurling counties who moved to non-hurling towns and villages for work and who couldn’t live without it, harassing the football treasurer in the local club for a few quid for hurls and a bag of sliotars and doing their best to keep the game’s heart beating?

Coaching clinics

And the hurling fraternity are generous. They want the game to travel. Deep down, they are privately lost as to why everyone isn’t playing it, all the time. I know of a club in Donegal that has regular visits from some of the most celebrated names in the modern game. They come to give coaching clinics and talks and hand out medals.

One hurler, a multiple All-Ireland winner, discovered he had committed to travelling for a club night on the same weekend he was due to attend a wedding. He phoned up to explain. But he wasn’t backing out; he just couldn’t stay overnight. His father drove him the four hours up; he gave a talk and handed out end of season medals and stayed until everyone had their photo or autograph. Then he headed off into the late night with his father, probably unaware of how much his visit had meant.

The evangelists are right. Hurling is a rare gemstone; a gift whose capacity for perpetual surprise and delight and reinvention is genuinely mysterious. Maybe they bang on about it a bit too much. And maybe, sometimes, there are too many scores.

But rather than just set the revered past to more Hans Zimmer, the challenge now is to see hurling flourish on new ground. Has the game got the stuff to breathe life into outsider counties? Or, in 100 years time, will they still be wondering what it was that Mackey said to Ring?

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