It's hard to believe now but the use of head and facial protection was once frowned upon
Once the decision had been made, the only surprise was why it took so long. Ten years ago, at GAA Congress in Sligo, delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Kilkenny motion seeking to make the wearing of helmets with face guards compulsory for all players. The new measure extended an existing rule that applied to players up to 21, introduced in 2007. It would come into effect from January, 2010.
There were times when those urging this course, championing the need for universal compliance, were accused of being troublemakers delivering the damaging message that hurling was a dangerous game. Now the wearing of helmets is second nature and those who played when it was discretionary are a diminishing and endangered species.
Cork's Donal Clifford holds the distinction of being the first outfield player to wear a helmet in an inter-county match, the 1969 National League semi-final against Tipperary. That year Ray Cummins sported one in the All-Ireland senior hurling final along with Clifford, breaking new ground, and 40 years later, Michael Kavanagh became the last outfield player not to wear one in an All-Ireland senior final. In essence, it took half a century to see that transformation, from the early experimental phase to where it was standard practice.
The first player to carry protective headgear was Micheál Murphy when hurling for UCC, first spotted in the county final when entering as a substitute in 1966 wearing a motorbike helmet. In 1969, he had a consignment of Cooper ice hockey helmets imported from Canada which a half dozen of the college's players, including Cummins and Clifford, wore for the Fitzgibbon semi-final and final that year. Murphy's pioneering interest is explained by a head fracture he suffered when hurling a few years earlier.
"He used to get an awful time from the wags, they called him the spaceman and this kind of stuff," says Dr Paddy Crowley, who was a UCC team-mate and medical student at the time and later a key figure in developing a hurling helmet for the Irish market. "And as you can imagine, traditionalist Cork hurling people at the time, they were to the right of Genghis Khan."
Crowley also wore a helmet from early in his career, having suffered a serious head injury during a time of fierce and sometimes vicious rivalries in the Cork championship. Crowley went on to hurl for a few years with Cork, before heading to North America. He spent some time in Canada which gave him a better appreciation of the positive impact of headgear in reducing injury in contact sports.
On returning home, Crowley helped establish Mycro helmets, as well as practising as a GP. The year Mycro started, 1985, hurling was shocked by the tragic death of Dublin player Paul Mulhare after he received an accidental blow to the temple during a National League game against Laois at Croke Park. Mulhare had been wearing a helmet at the time but his death opened up discussions on the game's safety and measures needed to reduce serious injury.
Crowley remembers the GAA director-general of the time, Liam Mulvihill, getting a grilling when he appeared on RTé's current affairs programme, Today Tonight, to discuss public concerns. In 1979, when Mulvihill took over as director-general, Crowley returned from abroad and immediately made a point of opening up lines of communication with the GAA. Keen to launch a suitable product on the Irish market, he found Mulvihill receptive but the GAA had still some way to go to convince players they should pay more attention to head safety.
In the meantime, Crowley and others worked on a prototype and obtained grant support from the IDA. He had detailed medical research to back his ambitions. In 1984, of 817 hurling injuries treated at Cork University Hospital, 28 per cent were to the head or face, with a further 33 per cent to the hand. Usage of helmets was not factored in at the time because few wore them.
A few years later, a study of patients admitted to St Luke's Hospital in Kilkenny looked at 350 hurling injuries. Forty per cent were to the neck, head and face, with 35 per cent involving the hand or wrist. By then, 1988, an increase in helmet usage was noticeable, with around 45 per cent of players wearing them.
Another study followed in 1992/'93 in a Cork A&E, over the course of a year. Head injuries were shown to have reduced significantly, accounting for 20 per cent of all hurling injuries. Hand injuries had increased to 56 per cent. The findings noted a major increase in voluntary use of helmets by players.
The data showed categorically that helmets, and more so if featuring a faceguard, significantly reduced injuries. In 1995, a study taken from a number of Cork hospitals showed that of those admitted with hurling injuries who wore a face guard, only five per cent had injuries which were to the head.
Crowley's brother, Tim, who won three All-Irelands with Cork and was a famously tough and fearless player, didn't wear a helmet which illustrates the culture that his brother was fighting to change at the time. "He never wore a helmet once," Paddy Crowley laughs, "he has no teeth left."
He says initially there was "almost universal opposition" because of a fear that "it was going to change the face of hurling basically". The death of Paul Mulhare refocused minds on safety. "That unfortunate incident opened the whole thing up," says Crowley. "That was a high-profile and terrible accident.
"It became so obvious that the benefits were outweighing the negatives and the insurance claims were absolutely rocketing. That also contributed to the change in thinking. As well, you would get a national school teacher having mothers coming in, saying, 'You are responsible, for bringing Johnny home with a broken tooth'. Young coaches and teachers were in a very invidious position."
Camogie was no less affected. "I met a lot who were injured," says Crowley. "I remember one girl telling me in tears that she had applied for a particular job and then they discovered she had a facial scar. All front-line posts were out because nobody wanted a receptionist with a scar on her face."
GAA Congress in 1968 first heard a motion on hurling headgear, which came from UCC, having passed through Cork county convention. It called on the GAA to form a sub-committee to develop and promote appropriate head gear for hurlers. Derry Maher, proposing the motion, made it clear he was not suggesting that there were a large number of serious injuries in hurling, mindful no doubt of the potential for negative connotations.
Mossy Walsh, a former Waterford All Star, had retired from hurling after suffering a serious facial injury in the 1980s when the emergence of Mycro's new helmet with a faceguard, cutting edge at the time, persuaded him to go back playing the game. He was the first player to use one in a senior championship match, when Waterford played Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1986. The most high-profile head injury in an All-Ireland final was Tom Walsh's in the 1967 All-Ireland final, which led to him losing an eye.
Crowley was adamant when Mycro was formed that a helmet with face guard should be mandatory for juvenile players. But the GAA took another 20 years to make that call. Four years later in 1990 a Congress motion calling for helmets to be made compulsory for all players under 18 was lost despite a strong plea from Mick Loftus, the former president and a doctor by profession. Among those who went against it were Cork's Con Murphy and Clare's Brendan Vaughan. They both raised concerns about the cost involved. The motion had majority support but not the two-thirds needed.
Later in an interview Murphy argued that to impose a rule like this would be to admit that hurling was a dangerous game and would detract from the learning of the skills which lessened the chances of injury.
In 2003, the South Eastern Health Board decided to write to the GAA after four people lost the sight in an eye as a result of injuries sustained in hurling activities in Waterford and Cork in June. The previous November a meeting of the South East branch lambasted the GAA for failing to make wearing helmets compulsory. "Some day they will be taken to the cleaners and only then will they act," said one consultant.
But old habits die hard. Ten years before, after an All-Ireland semi-final between Tipp and Galway, Tipp county secretary Tommy Barrett said an incident in that match had underlined the folly of making helmets compulsory. He referred to a head-on clash between team-mates Ramie Ryan and Paul Delaney. Ryan's injury was made worse by contact with Delaney's helmet which also had a facial mask. Ryan suffered a broken nose and concussion. Barrett maintained that a player could suffer serious injury if he collided with a player who is wearing a helmet, made worse if they also had a visor. "These visors can be lethal because of the wiring that's contained in them," he said.
There are some niggling issues today. Ear injuries are still a problem with the ear left exposed. Crowley says the Mycro helmet has an add-on attachment which can shield the ear from harm. "Where the ear is protruding it is so easy that if you get a clip on the helmet you can divide the ear," he says. "The ear is quite easy to divide."
Crowley is determined that all products available here should comply with Irish safety standards and he feels the National Standards Authority of Ireland and the Irish Consumers' Association need to continue to be vigilant in this regard.
But the war has been won, a few skirmishes aside. Protecting the hand may be the next battle, with gloves like the one worn by TJ Reid offering added protection from injuries. It can take time for these fashions to catch on, and sometimes it needs rule enforcement, but with a player like Reid offering his endorsement those may soon be popularised as well.
Sunday Indo Sport