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Independent.ie

Thursday 8 December 2016

Buying Irish ash and hurleys will help growers and hurlers alike

Joe Barry

Published 28/06/2011 | 05:00

Our national game of hurling has a long and honourable past stretching back over three millenia. Even Cuchulainn and Fionn MacCumhaill are noted in legend as having excelled at the sport.

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The status of the game has always been high and in the fifth century it was stated in Brehon Law that the son of a local king could have his hurley hooped in bronze, while others could only use copper. When presented recently with a hurley, the queen and prince Phillip expressed their delight at the gift, and it is a matter of great national pride that something so relevant to our history and our culture is available to give to visiting dignitaries.

Having been presented by Enda Kenny with a hurley stick at Farmleigh, Barack Obama suggested he might even use it as a weapon to deter members of Congress. One well known forester told me that when hitch hiking home to Wexford from university in Dublin some 40 years ago he always carried a hurley as it guaranteed you a lift. Presumably people felt then that any young man playing our national game must be okay to have in the car. Nowadays perhaps we might not be so trusting. Some might suggest, like Barack Obama, that it could be also used as a weapon but surely that couldn't be true. I doubt, however, that I would stop for anyone carrying a baseball bat. But in the hands of a skilled player, the hurley stick becomes a cross between a conductor's baton and a wizard's wand and I recall when at school one of my fellow pupils keeping his eye in by hitting a ball backwards and forwards in the air in the handball alley, whipping it from wall to wall at astonishing speed. His skill was awesome but then the same can be said of all inter county hurlers. The clash of the ash always excited players and onlookers alike and one can now add timber growers to that list as we anticipate a growing market for our hurley butts.

Hurley making is perhaps one of the last of our true cottage industries and sustains at least 400 full time jobs, the majority being members of the Irish Guild of Ash Hurley makers. The guild was formed in 1998 and one of their principal aims is to ensure the survival of this ancient craft and to fight back against the threat of foreign imports.

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In the past few years they have conducted research into the numbers of imported hurleys in use in Ireland and finally estimated that over 30pc of hurleys used here have been manufactured in countries which include Poland, Slovakia, China and even Pakistan. Clearly, the sooner our young native ash woodlands come on stream the better as roughly two thirds of the ash used by Irish hurley makers is also imported.

Self-sufficiency in hurley ash is forecast from 2018 onwards and with proper promotion, clubs will hopefully support and give preference to the Irish product which, though scarce right now, is, I am told, infinitely superior to the imported alternative. Each county has its own distinctive shape and style of hurley and this has continued to evolve with the game itself.

We no longer have the long, narrow bas which was suited to the ground hurling of times past. Nowadays, the hurley tends to be much shorter and lighter and the width of the bas is much greater than before.

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Hurley makers are responding to the demands of a much faster game today where tactics are based more on pace and possession than on the 'man to man' marking of earlier years. Ash is the most important commercial broadleaf in Ireland and when harvested and processed, the value of standing ash suitable for hurley making in Ireland is estimated at €10m.

At present, there are 19,000ha of ash in Ireland, with 75pc of this in private ownership. The Irish Guild of Ash Hurley makers are custodians of a great living tradition that is rooted in over 3,000 years of Irish history. By supporting them we ensure a future for both Irish farm forestry and the many skilled local jobs that hurley making generates.

Will the competition authority now raid my office seeing I have suggested that we purchase an Irish product rather than an imported alternative. If the news items of the past month are anything to go by, stranger things have happened.

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