‘You can’t get away from the fact that hurling tends to evoke emotions which are extraordinary in people’

SCAN AN EYE back over the sporting tale of 2018 and some of the most vivid images that jump off the page revolve around hurling.

It was an extraordinary season at a time of major change in the sport. A new round-robin structure in the provinces, the All Ireland semi-finals played on the same July weekend and then the finale in mid August in a break with tradition.

When the curtain fell, Limerick were the last men standing after the show as their 45-year suffering ended.

Paul Rouse watched on during the summer as engrossed by the thrilling action as every else.

A native of Tullamore with a lifelong affiliation with his home club, he’s immersed in underage teams in the capital with St Oliver Plunkett’s Eoghan-Ruadh where his children play and 2018 yielded an unexpected spell at the helm of the Offaly footballers.

“It was a monster surprise and an exceptional experience,” he says of his time as Offaly boss.

“It was the most enjoyable couple of months I could have possibly imagined. I learned a huge amount from the players and the other people in the management team.

“It was a great thing to be a part of. For me it proved a point there are serious footballers in Offaly and Offaly is able to be competitive if organised properly and if they can get the best players out on the field. It was an incredible life experience.”

Offaly football Paul Rouse during their qualifier against Clare in the summer.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

It was not the only major event in his sporting year, witnessing a hurling project come to fruition was a landmark.

1 April last marked the 130th anniversary of the first All-Ireland hurling final as the 1887 championship closed.

In September, Rouse’s offering ‘The Hurlers’ – an exploration of that first All-Ireland championship and the how modern hurling was made – was published.

The origins can be traced back to 20 years ago when Rouse, who currently lectures on history in UCD, was working as a reporter in the Midland Tribune in Offaly and stumbled across the story of that first final.

He originally planned it as a two-page feature for Christmas before the project expanded. He felt a first draft ten years ago was lacking in detail but people like his friend Liam Fleury and Thurles man Micheal Maher helped him fill in the gaps.

“It’s been a labour of love but I got to work on stuff that I’d be doing as a pastime anyway. I enjoyed it. I like talking about it. Research is hard, it’s grind and not straightforward. But it is not demanding the way other people have demanding jobs.

“I have a very rewarding job and I work in a great university with students who are top quality. The whole thing has been a great experience from beginning to end. 

“I think where we probably got exceptionally lucky is that the stock of hurling has never been higher. For two reasons, I think the championship was extraordinary this year and the RTÉ documentary The Game gave hurling an added lustre.”

Watch The Game on @RTEOne from 30 July. The ultimate story of hurling, as told by @CTLFilms with stunning live footage, enthralling interviews and rare archival footage #RTEGAA #GAA #TheGame pic.twitter.com/O60aJpL823

— RTÉ GAA (@RTEgaa) July 16, 2018

Rouse reflects on the status of hurling in the early 1880s.

“The game had been pushed to the margins. It never disappeared, this is one of the great myths of history. It is present for 1000 years that we know, documented through the written word and the discovery of hurling balls which have been carbon dated.

“The notion that it was about to disappear is a bit much. The game was being played in little pockets everywhere but what it hadn’t done was modernised.”

The process to modernise it began at a time of remarkable upheaval in Ireland.

“It is a reminder that the 1880s, with the exception possibly of the decade of revolution, is the most extraordinary decade in modern Irish history. With the Land War, you get the beginning of a social revolution which transforms the ownership of the land from landlords to peasants.

“Charles Stewart Parnell led a constitutional movement which looked set to deliver Home Rule for Ireland. It didn’t quite happen but it set the tone for modern Irish nationalism in a post-Famine era.

“And the third strand of it is incredible really as radical nationalists killed the two leading British officials in Ireland in 1882 when they were walking in Phoenix Park and they also put a bomb into Downing Street.

“It’s an extraordinary time and wrapped around that you have huge social change, lead by the spread of newspapers in the 1880s.”

Amidst that backdrop the GAA was founded on 1 November 1884. The then secretary Michael Cusack and president Maurice Davin are central figures in the book.

“Michael Cusack is one of the makers of modern Ireland because of his vision. The energy and the vision which was Cusack’s genius was also his undoing. He was a believer who ultimately believed too much in many respects.

“He had an exceptionally difficult private life. His wife dying and his eldest daughter dying and he ended up, if it’s the right phrase to use, in an episodic alcoholism. He ultimately died a very young man, his life had unravelled essentially.

“It’s striking that in the middle of 1886 the GAA is thriving. But the people who are running the organisation throw him out in the summer of 1886 because they can’t get on with him. That speaks volumes. He managed to get himself thrown out of the organisation that was thriving that he founded. That’s a fair achievement”

If Cusack is a well-known protagonist in the early years of the GAA, Rouse feels that the role of Davin is not as familiar. The work of Moneygall man Seamus Ó Riain, the grandfather of former Dublin player Shane Ryan, was integral to shining a light on the achievements of Davin, who now has a stand in Croke Park named after him.

“The story of Davin is not well known. Davin in his own way was as fascinating as Cusack. The fact is that he was the greatest all round athlete at his age despite only taking it up when he was 30. It’s an incredible story.

“One of the great pleasures of being involved in this book is that the stories are unbelievable. I just had to get out of the way of the stories. That was the trick, just put them together and let it run on.”

The Davin End in Croke Park is named after the first President.

Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

It is striking to reflect on that first All-Ireland decider and link it to the modern day hurling scene. Sides from mid Tipperary (Thurles) and east Galway (Meelick) contested that game in the south Offaly town of Birr. All three remain hotbeds of the game and illustrate the geographical imbalance in hurling.

“The two counties then where hurling was not being played in the 1880s who became significant powers were Waterford and Wexford. The game was in a place like Kilkenny and it pushed into those areas from there. The geography of hurling remains an untold story. The great failure of the GAA is that it has singularly failed to push the game into other counties at a significant level.

“It’s a basic fact, no county above the axis Dublin, Galway, Offaly has won the All-Ireland hurling championship. After 130 years that’s a fair statement. There are exceptions everywhere but they tend to prove the rule rather than undermine it. Gaelic football thrives in all four provinces and hurling thrives in one province, in half another province, in one county in a third province and barely thrives at all in a fourth province.”

The recent wave of success enjoyed by Cuala, the south Dublin powerhouse that have stitched together back to back All-Ireland club hurling titles, is instructive in Rouse’s view.

“Cuala’s win was so significant. The growth of hurling in Dublin city is the template of how it can be done. Now it’s only a template to a point because it has population density. There are more kids carrying hurleys in Dublin that ever did.

Cuala players celebrating their All-Ireland club final victory.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The challenge is to bring it from there to have truly competitive teams year after year in Dublin at senior level and for Dublin to win a senior All-Ireland, which they will ultimately at some point you’d imagine.

“So how did it happen? Over a couple of decades, deep and consistent investment in equipment, coaching and schools and in clubs. Human investment and financial investment. It’s so simple in terms of understanding what they did.

“I think counties do depend on the quality of their administrators for how they do. When you have an organisation with the wealth of the GAA, there is no reason why every county cannot be properly run and that is about a willingness to create an organisational structure that permits for that to happen.”

The recent hurling expeditions to Boston for the Fenway Classic and to Sydney for the Wild Geese Festival have sparked plenty of debate.

“It doesn’t sit uneasy with me at all that these games are played in Boston and Sydney. There’s a long tradition of hurling matches being played in these communities. The American tours in the 1800s are an amazing story.

“If you look at the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, trips to America were fundamental rewards for people who won All-Irelands, they’d go play games there. Equally Wembley Stadium was booked out throughout the 1960s for hurling matches to be played.

“I’ve no problem with players going on these trips. It’s great for them and it’s great for Irish emigrants who are there. It is fantastic that players get to experience these countries and get looked after. Nobody can argue with this.

“What I object to is the spew that surrounds them, where people imagine that the playing of these games is going to create a culture of hurling abroad and draw people into these games.

“I think what spreads games in an area is investment in people and in money. The evidence is obvious, if seeing games being played on telly and being able to go to high quality games was enough to spread the game, why is hurling played in so few counties on a serious elite level?”

Limerick players celebrate their Fenway Hurling Classic victory.

Source: Emily Harney/INPHO

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Galway celebrate their Wild Geese trophy win.

Source: David Neilson/INPHO

Researching and writing the book, Rouse was struck by the notion of hurling elitism being at the heart of the sport for a long time.

“I don’t believe in a moral hierarchy of games. I don’t like hurling snobbery. Gaelic football is a great game to play. When it’s played ultra-defensively it’s grim but when it’s played well it’s a tremendous game to watch.

“You can go back to reports in the 1700s and see it from then. You can’t get away from the fact that hurling tends to evoke emotions which are extraordinary in people. Especially when it is played with an intensity and ferocity.

“But the relentless need for people to have their games validated by praise from outside, to me it’s a pity. Hurling doesn’t need comparison with others for people to understand its genius. It’s an amazing game but the world is full of amazing games.”

That amazing game was in full flow on 17 August as thousands watched on in Croke Park and many more thousands were glued to screens watching the breathless finale between Limerick and Galway.

All these years on, it’s salient to consider what Cusack and Davin would think of the game currently that they strove so hard to promote.

“What I will say is they were clear that what they were about was the provision of games for people to play. Now is that what’s happening and is that happening enough?

“The cost which it takes in certain parts to be part of a GAA club, in other parts to pay in to major events and to have to pay to watch games on television, that elitism is something they would have baulked against.

“But I would say when they started if they were to look at hurling and how it has emerged, they would be intensely proud that this game they took from the past, has such a central part of Irish life.” 

The Hurlers by Paul Rouse is published by Penguin Random House Ireland Press and can be purchased here.

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