Sunday 17 December 2017

Comment: Ulster hurling in terminal decline

14 June 2014; A Wexford player places the sliotar for a lineball. Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Wexford v Dublin, Wexford Park, Wexford.
14 June 2014; A Wexford player places the sliotar for a lineball. Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Wexford v Dublin, Wexford Park, Wexford.

Declan Bogue

SOME weeks ago, a Donegal journalist tweeted from a match 'Donegal Under 17 management team refused to give me their starting fifteen. Worried about other counties getting too much info apparently.'

Management of Gaelic football teams is currently in a grip of paranoia. For the matchday programme of Monday night's Ulster under-21 final, there were four changes to the first fifteen for Donegal. Three subs not noted on print were added to the panel, two of whom started including Jason McGee - a young man that could well develop into their version of Brian Fenton - who wasn't even listed on the matchday programme.

You wouldn't get that in Ulster hurling.

Matter of fact, you could call up an Ulster hurling man on Christmas Day for a story and they would regale you with tales and never hurry the conversation along. 

Maybe it is just my contacts book, but it has always been an absolute pleasure to cover the hurling programme in this half-light between the end of the National Leagues and the start of the Ulster Championship.

The off-piste locations of the grounds, the early summer weather and the sport itself are a great combination, but there is a warmer feel to a hurling match. Hurlers are not a higher caste or anything, but they certainly appear more willing to share their time, wit and humour.

And so, to Inniskeen Road, April afternoon, last Saturday. Armagh produce a stirring comeback to defeat Down in the Ulster Championship semi-final. Anyone from the Orchard county couldn't have failed to be stirred.

Only, there's hardly anyone there.

Across the two Ulster semi-finals, less than 200 people attended.

It wasn't always this bad. A rare clip from @HurlingHotspot appeared on Twitter recently displaying a deft 'double' in the air by Derry cult hero Geoffrey McGonigle from an Oliver Collins sideline cut that sailed past Shane Elliott in the Antrim goals during the 1998 Ulster final.

There were thickets of people all along the old grass bank in Casement that day, like a picnic scene of Victorian England. The main stand was packed with fans and flags.

Less than five years later the grass bank was gone and I sat alone on the concrete watching the same two teams in another Ulster hurling final. Where had the crowds gone?

It leaves us to question why hurling has never truly taken root in Ulster, outside of a few strongholds.

One socio-economic theory held that in the ancient beginnings of the game during the 1600's, wealthy Anglo-Irish land-owners sponsored teams of hurlers that would compete against their peers in matches played in the flat lands of Munster and south Connacht.

Hurling in Ulster has another narrative. The accepted version is that the form of hurling that took root in the Glens of Antrim floated across with the flow of human traffic to the highlands of Scotland for paid work at harvest time. There, they became acquainted with the sport of Shinty.

They had a culture all of their own. It remains today.

Ulster hurling has always been a place apart, but the present fear for anyone this weekend is that this Sunday's Liam Harvey Cup final between Antrim and Armagh hosted in Owenbeg will be practically empty - just as it was last year.

It wasn't through lack of promotion. The Ulster Council staged a launch for the final and newspapers dutifully carried features on the main protagonists. Still, the crowds stayed away.

At lower level, the game is on life support. Cavan make a welcome return to inter-county action next weekend when they host Warwickshire. They took a sabbatical for a few years and put their resources into youth development. Let's be fair and give it time before making any judgement.

In Fermanagh, they are down to one senior club. A town like Enniskillen with a population of 14,000 has no hurling team. Neither has Omagh, with 20,000 inhabitants.

Would investment change anything?

We might never get to know.

Former GAA President Liam O'Neill once vowed to "Put a hurl in the hand of every child."

In Dublin, finance has made that possibility a reality.

Lack of finance has brought Ulster  to the inevitable. The obvious question to ask is, why are children in one part of the country more valued than others?

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