Home Features MacKenna On Monday: Hurling’s Unesco Status Is A Reward For Failure

MacKenna On Monday: Hurling’s Unesco Status Is A Reward For Failure

Three moments. All from last month. All significant and telling for very different reasons.

The first took place on the night of November 3rd. In the history of Connacht club hurling, no team from Leitrim had ever won out. Such a wasteland is the province that there hasn’t even been a senior inter-county competition this millennium. Yet, here were Carrick and their captain James Glancy carrying the junior trophy back across the Shannon and into their patch.

The second was eight days later in Sydney. It was around €40 into Spotless Stadium and €6 for a programme, with Galway taking on Kilkenny in an exhibition that was decided via a free-taking competition. No attendance was given. Perhaps that was to save face.

The third was from Boston as the Fenway Classic was played out between teams that of course came from the top table. A junket. And an ugly, bastardised version of art, as if painting Picasso by numbers, with scores like 38-30 to dumb down what isn’t complex.

The former is what hurling should be about. The real glory. The real storylines. The real heroes that keep the show on the road for all the right reasons, but that are still treated like a nuisance by officialdom in what isn’t a national sport but a minority sport. The latter efforts are what it is about though. A shiny veneer to cover over the vast rot.

This is where the sport has a dilemma for it means that it can never truly win. Its greatest days only highlight its underlying weakness. Any and all cause for hope is also cause for despair. The only reason it doesn’t get to laugh is because it is the punchline.

It’s against this backdrop it was just announced as a Unesco protected cultural activity… Josepha Madigan, Minister For Culture said: “hurling is a key element of Irish culture”. However pick away and ask how can that be true when it’s played so sparsely?

GAA president John Horan added, “at a time of unprecedented popularity for the game here, we owe a debt of gratitude to the generations of people who preserved, protected and promoted the game so that it would survive and thrive.”

But drill down for how can that be when only 10 teams contest the All Ireland?

The instinct around the award was that this was an honour.

What is lost though is that it’s a responsibility too, one readily passed up.

* * *

Just like our language is honoured by Unesco when we can barely hear it, just like Sceilg Mhichíl is honoured when you’d struggle to step foot on it, hurling now falls into that weird crack.

It’s praised but not played.

Meanwhile, through it the GAA look for attention and recognition rather than growth.

The notion that the grass is always greener on the other side is merely an excuse. The reality is it’s greener wherever you bother to water it.

But so much of hurling’s landscape remains barren. What’s most insulting is that there’s no great difficulty around helping the game expand beyond the final few holdouts who have yet to give up on it. Granted, the paradox of simplicity is that making things simpler is hard work.

In this area, all you’ve to do is look at Dublin which gets a terribly hard time for some reason. With relatively little interest and relatively little history when you consider their long list All Ireland wins were, to a large degree, down to the efforts of those from traditional counties stationed in the capital, initially, it’s a dwarf when stood next to the football giant.

Yet since 2005 they’ve won six Leinster minor titles when up to that they’d won just seven in all the time after the war. Since 2007 they’ve won four Leinster under-21 titles, when before they’d only ever won three across history. In 2013 they won a Leinster senior title, something they hadn’t previously done since 1961. There was a 2011 league win as Stephen Hiney and John McCaffrey became the first players from there to lift such a national title. In the club scene, All Irelands in back-to-back seasons even went to Dalkey via Cuala.

All of that was unprecedented, showing massive strides that not long ago were unthinkable when the side was getting rattled by Down and Kildare and Laois. What was the ingredient added to hard work though? Money. Lots and lots of money. The same sort that the rest are crying out for but that’s squandered on far away exhibitions and a mystery tour that is anything but magical.

It’s why Carlow hurler Paul Coady took to social media to bemoan that Galway-Kilkenny clash. Totting up costs, he looked at two squads of more than 30, two management teams hitting double digits, referees and an RTÉ panelist, and he, therefore, estimated 100 souls. With flights and hotel conservatively put at €2,000, that’s €200,000. “Who the f**k funds all this,” he asked, ”and if they have much cash to spare please send some down so we can try develop hurling in some counties before it’s dead.”

Presumably, there’s a lot of corporate sponsorship attached to this and that other GPA-inspired freak show in Boston, but if the money can be found, why not for what matters? For instance, where Dublin had €1m a year since the mid-2000s used to fund coaches, back in 2013 it was announced that Antrim, Carlow, Westmeath and Laois would have €900,000 to split over five years – just €45,000 a year each, or barely enough to hire a development officer. The rest meanwhile were expected to divvy up €100,000 between them, a fraction of the Australia cost.

This isn’t about getting into the rights and wrongs of the association’s investment strategy in Dublin, rather to show what cash can do even in hopeless cases. Only it’s not there for the rest. No one is saying that the game would prosper everywhere but the GAA hierarchy should at least try. For those down low are trying and there are little victories in spite of, not because of, the running of the association.

Back in the 1990s, a league game between Kildare and Armagh had to be stopped in Naas as the sliotar got lost underneath the goalmouth mud but look at those two now. And look elsewhere. From Carlow to Kerry. From Meath to Sligo. Less than a decade ago Naomh Colmcille was the only club in Tyrone with a pitch dedicated to the sport but now they are in the middle of an ambitious five-year plan to grow the game right across the county; Derry city is a success story; even at the bottom Cavan are back competing.

What could they do with some semblance of a helping hand?

For example, should there not be a day where there are several hurling coaches paid in each of the weaker counties, going into every primary school, exposing youth? Should every primary school not have at least one teacher who can coach the basic skills? Should extra funding not pay for these specialised coaching courses? Should a set of hurls and helmets not be given to every school? Should this not lead to all second-level schools fielding combined teams in elite competitions as Dublin Colleges did, as experts say 15-18 is where it mostly falls apart?

Hurling should be angry about this.

Real angry.

Instead, though it gets enticed by and enamoured with the spectacular quality that ignores the quantity.

It’s meant that more minutes of a challenge game in Australia were shown on national television than the entirety of combined coverage of Joe McDonagh, Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups this year. In fact in the days after that, speaking with one intercounty player in Kildare who is a teacher, he said he would love to coach hurling in PE but they haven’t got any helmets.

Yet we celebrate Unesco status and the games abroad?

The first is a reward for failure. The second a chance to run from that failure.

About Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna
One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.