With the use of synthetic hurleys becoming an ever increasing trend in GAA circles, will the traditional ash implement soon become a thing of the past? Shane Kenny discusses his discovery into the world of hurley making in Ireland.
This year, as part of my final year architecture thesis project in the Cork School of Architectural Education (CCAE), I decided to undertake an investigative project into a scattered, traditional craft in the rebel county. What began merely as a curious analysis of craft hurley making turned into the major driving influence for my final design.
In the space of a few short months, lengthy days spent travelling the back roads of Munster searching for these reclusive craftsmen, transformed into the potential concept for the first Hurley Making Fabrication Laboratory and Ball Alley in Sunday’s Well, Cork City.
As a GAA member of my local club, Churchill in County Kerry, where football is religion and hurling continuously plays second fiddle to anything incorporating a Size five O’Neills ball, I knew that my credentials for this design would come under intense scrutiny.
The actual attraction of hurling for me came from its lack of accessibility in this football dominated landscape, and the sight of any camán was usually saved for the Sunday Game in the summer months. Even though I had never experienced a live match, and caught more of the fresh air than the sliotar when I rarely got my hands on the sacred objects. Its incredible skill, passion and flair won over my appreciation, which is why, having finally been given the chance to develop my own unique brief after four excruciating years of designing non-sporting related buildings, I jumped at the opportunity to offer my own creative skills to the ancient game.
Almost as incredulous as the story of a Kerryman designing a hurley making facility, was the actuality that most of my groundwork stemmed from the tireless efforts of another Kingdom native, JJ Bunyan.
In previous years JJ saw the need for a more concerted effort amongst hurley makers to protect the cottage industry from future shortages in the supply of raw material. He also recognised the ever growing popularity in the synthetic alternative, supplied by companies such as Cultec in County Offaly, who manufacture graphite hurleys.
Having rigorously sought alternatives to native ash stocks, which has suffered substantial losses due to a ravenous outbreak globally of Ash Dieback disease, JJ travelled as far away as Slovenia with hurley making representatives. Although he returned with positive feedback from various ash suppliers on the continent, the exercise proved to be a fruitless one.
The hurley makers were unwilling to buy ash planks in bulk, because they refused to work with the same ash as their many competitors. Incredible to think, that in order to support their own businesses, they would place the entire industry in jeopardy.
JJ had since given up this unenviable undertaking, and was fully supportive of me to take the reins and try to bring some hope to an industry on life support.
I wanted to get a real sense of a hurley maker’s daily routine and was eager to conduct many interviews and workshop studies to form an architectural brief which would satisfy the industries needs and rectify concerns. I visited two hurley makers in County Tipperary, two in County Cork and one in County Limerick.
Each individual had wonderfully evocative workshops, where the scent of rich sawdust was dense with history, while proud, faded photographs of famous intercounty customers adorned the walls. What I found most striking about their plight was that they received absolutely no financial assistance from Croke Park for their labour of love, incredibly difficult to fathom considering the millions of euro that the top brass receive annually from the game. A game that would arguably cease to exist were it not for the expertise of an elite band of craftsmen dotted across the land.
My correlated research led, after many iterated designs, to my final proposal which was intended to help hurley makers safeguard their craft for the future, by educating the public and apprentices in their own workshop while providing modern research and development facilities for the craft to adapt if required. The facility in Sundays Well would also incorporate community amenities such as flexible meeting rooms, exhibition spaces and a ball alley for visitors to practice the skills of hurling while a shop is provided to sell fresh hurleys and equipment to customers.
Indeed my attendance and discussion with Paudie Butler, former national hurling co coordinator, at a wall session in Douglas one evening was instrumental in my design of the alley, with its dimensions facilitating various drills which he performed at the practice. Efficiency would be encouraged through the use of a wood burner where ash offcuts could be burned to heat the building, while bags of offcuts could also be sold to the elder members of the community during the winter months for kindling.
The concept, much like the building program, was to encourage community interaction, and in this case, inspire hurley makers to work together to solidify ash hurley making for generations of craftmen to come. I would hope that this reclusive craft will forever retain its appeal for the GAA fraternity at large, but in truth I fear for the future of its existence.
We now live in an era where the plasticised is easily produced and mimicry continues to thrive, so long as we continue to accept blissful convenience. Trying to promote designs such as mine may prove to be a hopeless exercise in a quick turnover society, but what ultimate price may we have to pay by blatantly allowing this wonderful craft go by the wayside?
“Ni neart go cur le cheile”* is as applicable a seanfhocal as I would encourage for both the GAA and the hurley makers to abide by. If my research and design can get people putting this philosophy into action, then maybe it won’t be in vain after all.
Shane Kenny, Pundit Arena.
*There’s strength in numbers.
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