Hurling runs deep in Galway. You travel the narrow stone-clad roads in the east of the county and you know it's hurling country.
Boys and girls walk to school with hurls in their hands. Maroon-and-white flags fly at every gateway.
You stop near the village of Duniry, where the local club is Tynagh-Abbey/Duniry. It’s tiny, three hamlets, quiet, peaceful and deeply rural. There used to be a mine here, which employed 300 men. Now it’s mostly farming or a commuting belt for Loughrea, Ballinasloe or the city.
Tom Treacy, who is in his 50s, was never a great hurler, but he is an ardent student of the game. He recalls the glory days for Tynagh, when the club won six in a row. He gives a fantastic contemporary account. It's only as he warms to his narrative you realise he is talking about the 1920s, almost a century ago.
“Some of those finals were not finished. There was the Civil War at the time. There was something over a final between ourselves and Ardrahan – there were no goalposts. We claimed the six anyways.”
Tynagh supplied six players to the famous 1923 Galway team that won the All-Ireland, including its longest survivor
. Now three of its young stars are on the panel, including Shane Moloney who scored the winning point in the semi-final. To show the depth of the pedigree, his great-grandfather was
who was on that 1923 team and his uncle Tom Moloney was on the Galway team that won a minor title almost 30 years ago.
Ollie Robinson comes from the Duniry side and is also steeped in lore. He points out Jim Power's house (he lived into his 100s) and says three hurley manufacturers operate within the club's boundaries.
In small places like this, there is no major competition: hurling and camogie (Davitts is the camogie club) dominate sporting and social life. Moloney was a fine hurler in his day too. Training has changed and the modern hurler needs to buy into a lifestyle, including strength and conditioning training, he says, but the fundamentals, the “natural” skills, have to be intrinsic.
“You cannot put a first touch into somebody. There is a certain amount you just cannot teach.”
You travel 10km in any direction and you will pass another dozen clubs with equal traditions and a capacity over the years to produce amazingly skilful hurlers. Even 50km to the west in the city, hurling has a strong foothold.
At Ballyloughane in Galway city Brian Keville and Seán Morrissey stand outside the pitches and facilities of Liam Mellows GAA Club, one of four strong city clubs. Morrissey (23) is a PE teacher and the club's schools coach. Mellows has been in existence since the early 1930s but even before it, teams from College Road in the city won county cups.
Writing in The Irish Times in 1977, Breandán Ó hEithir recalled the shortest hurling match of all time, a derby between Mellows and Castlegar.
“Our school team had been beaten by St Jarlath’s, Tuam, in the curtain-raiser, and as we rushed out of the dressing room to watch the West Board hurling final between Liam Mellows and Castlegar we met the hurlers coming in. Some of them looked as if they had come from a faction fight. We were told that the ball never got past midfield.”
Keville is vice-chair of the club and brings a dynamism and ambition to the conversation. He says the club draws players from all over the city.
We have very different types of competition from rural clubs. “It’s not just soccer and rugby. It’s a myriad of other activities. There could be 50 different distractions for kids every weekend.”
Mellows has followed the template of the successful Salthill-Knocknacarra GAA Club and gone into schools and put in place underage programmes. Coming from a different place, city clubs like Mellows have also produced great players, including county captain
So why the failure?
There are few more qualified to cast a cold eye than John McIntyre, former Tipperary hurler, former Galway manager and sports editor of the Connacht Tribune. "I suppose prior to the mid-1970s, Galway hurling was not really a power. There were isolated near misses in the 1940s and 1950s.
“The three triumphs in the 1980s became the benchmark that all teams were judged by subsequent to that, whereas before that they were not a power. Since the 1980s there have been hard luck stories. In other years, Galway were not good enough.”
He identifies the same qualities that drove Ó hEithir to distraction: flakiness, erratic displays, swashbuckling hurling, wristy skills, inability to be ruthless.
“I think a Galway player can hold his own with anybody from a traditional hurling county. But, over the years, the mental side of things betrayed a lot of good teams.”
Of 24 All-Ireland final appearances, Galway have only won four.
Everyone I interviewed, including McIntyre, pointed to a new steeliness in the semi-final game against Tipperary.
This time it is different, they all say.
We will know on Sunday evening if they are right.