Monday 23 April 2018

Tommy Conlon: Aesthetic of the synthetic is surely no match for the clash of the ash

The Couch

Photo: Stock image
Photo: Stock image

Tommy Conlon

They're going space age with the hurleys now, apparently, jumping from the ash tree to aeronautic technology in one fell swoop. A business that has been making the traditional stick for decades has come up with a synthetic version using materials previously pioneered in the aerospace industry. It was launched in Dublin last Wednesday with the imprimatur of top contemporary wand wizards Richie Hogan, Séamus Callanan and Neil McManus.

Presumably there were a few mandatory jokes about the ill-fated Wavin plastic prototype that was launched as the industrial alternative to a medieval implement in the 1970s - a time when progress was all the rage in Ireland.

This quixotic experiment was soon abandoned. The pre-eminence of the venerable ash stick was restored for another generation. But, as we know, technology is no friend of tradition. In 2008, another company, Cúltec in Offaly, fabricated a camán that has established a small but stable market share. The product has official GAA approval; it is manufactured in China.

The latest polymer model is designed by Reynolds hurley-makers in Newry. It will be manufactured in Ireland; it has been submitted to the GAA for official approval.

So, somewhere along the way from Wavin to Cúltec to Reynolds, the fabled wooden staff of the Gael has made the quantum leap from its pre-industrial roots to post-industrial materials, with only a brief pause at the industrial phase in between. It is moving from organic to genetically modified. Like Dylan at Newport in '65, it is going from acoustic to electric.

Now, we're all for innovation and research and development, manufacturing and jobs. But one wonders if there is actually any need for an alternative to the traditional product in this case. The ash hurley, in its simplicity and elegance, is already a small masterpiece of design. It is environmentally wholesome, pure in its provenance and needs no industrial treatments, chemicals or other toxic processes. It is very low on air miles, or any sort of miles, between maker and customer. It has worked beautifully and naturally for 500 years. Maybe a thousand years, maybe 5,000 years. Nobody knows for sure.

But in their defence, the latter-day technological innovators could go all the way back to the boy warrior Setanta to show that hurlers didn't always wield a timber wand. Our mythical hero carried "his hurley-stick of bronze and his silver ball" when he went out roving, according to a 12th century manuscript that documents the ancient saga of the Táin Bó Cuailgne.

In another 12th century document, this time pertaining to the law, it is stated that a "cammán" belonging to the son of a king should be ornamented with bronze, while the mere son of a lord should have his stick ornamented with copper.

"We have no idea what precisely this 'ornamented' means," writes Aidan O'Sullivan, Professor of Archaeology at UCD, in an online blog. "(They) could be bands to strengthen the cammán but they could also be decoration on the handle . . . Clearly though, the ownership of a cammán was expected of boys of status." (Which might help to explain that lingering aristocratic hauteur still extant among hurling folk today.)

This societal prestige for the hurler in Gaelic Ireland naturally waned somewhat when perfidious Albion fetched up on our shores. Hurling was infamously outlawed under the Statutes of Kilkenny, during the reign of King Edward III, in 1367. It was deemed dangerous and wasteful at a time when the peasantry should have been practising martial skills such as archery.

"It is ordained that the commons of the land of Ireland do not, henceforth, use the plays which men call horlings, with great sticks and a ball upon the ground, from which great evils and maims have arisen, to the weakening of the defence of the said land."

The reaction in recent years, among UK viewers on Sky Sports, would suggest that the game of 'horlings' is still viewed in Britain with a similar sort of mystified horror. Indeed it probably serves as outright confirmation that dear old Paddy remains at heart, after all those civilising centuries of colonisation, a mad bastard.

Undeterred therefore by either law, or the prospect of "great maims", he continued flailing and flaking at ball and man. The oldest known hurley was found in a bog in Offaly. It has been radiocarbon dated to some time between the late 1400s and early 1600s. It is included in the Folklife Collection at the National Museum of Ireland. It is made not from ash but alder.

Ash, however, has been the wood of choice for well over a century. The top players choose their hurleys with the tactile sensitivity of a musician choosing her instrument. One would've thought that virtuosos like Hogan and Callanan would seek the equivalent of a Stradivarius violin.

The synthetic stick will perform more consistently than its organic counterpart, given that each ash tree will be subject to the subtle nuances of its breeding in soil and climate. But presumably it will also make for a more generic, homogenous product.

Reynolds also say that their new hurley "consistently produces greater distance of strike when compared to ash". Perhaps the day is fast approaching therefore when the GAA, like golf's authorities, will have to start monitoring the impact on the game of new technology in its equipment.

It should not forget the rhythm, the percussion, the hallowed timbre of timber upon timber either.

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