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Martin Breheny: 'Hurling is on the endangered list - yet the warning signs go unheeded'

Martin Breheny

Breheny Beat


Cian Lynch of Limerick battling Tipp’s John McGrath in Division 1 of the NHL – away from hurling strongholds the sport struggles to keep pace. Photo: Sportsfile

Cian Lynch of Limerick battling Tipp’s John McGrath in Division 1 of the NHL – away from hurling strongholds the sport struggles to keep pace. Photo: Sportsfile

Cian Lynch of Limerick battling Tipp’s John McGrath in Division 1 of the NHL – away from hurling strongholds the sport struggles to keep pace. Photo: Sportsfile

Twenty years ago this month, I spent a few fascinating hours with Liam Griffin, listening to his vision for all things GAA.

We stopped off at a wide range of topics, with Griffin showing equal passion for them all. We went on some colourful tangents too, one of which prompted him to invoke David Beckham's lifestyle as a reason why the GAA shouldn't go near professionalism.

"Don't tell me he has a good quality of life. It's crap. He has endless money, Posh Spice and four cars, yet he got married on something that looked like a bad set from Dallas," he said.

Inter-county players were beginning to agitate for greater recognition at the time and Griffin was fully behind them, albeit while staying well clear of pay-for-play.

"We haven't nearly enough respect for players. They are there to be used and if they complain, they're shot down. There's a 'them and us' situation. The GAA is run by older men, many from the pre-showband era, legislating for young lads. They feel isolated.

"Bill Gates wasn't 60 when he started Microsoft. You might get a philosopher who is only coming into his own at 60, but he never played corner-back for Mullinahone. Young people change the world, so we have to give them responsibility," he said.

There were other gems too, but it was one on the promotion of hurling that has always stuck with me.

"If someone can market coloured gripe water, call it Coca-Cola and clean up worldwide, we should be able to sell hurling in Longford," he said.

No fewer than seven counties, including Wexford under Griffin's leadership in 1996, had won the All-Ireland senior title in the previous 12 years, so there was a feelgood factor around hurling. Griffin was pleased by the title share-out, but retained a deep scepticism about the overall state of the game.

Six years earlier then Kilkenny chairman Nickey Brennan had issued a stark warning in a speech at Congress.

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"Hurling is dying on its feet. There is a great deal of work to be done if it is not to disappear altogether," he said. I thought of the comments by both Griffin and Brennan as I came away from an interview with National Hurling Development Manager Martin Fogarty last week.

Being from Kilkenny, he knows all about life at hurling's top end. He led the county's U-21s to two All-Ireland titles and was a senior selector between 2005 and 2013, a period in which Liam MacCarthy spent six winters in Kilkenny.

He has no fears for hurling in the bottom half of the country, but his experiences over the last four years have shown him just how difficult it is to make progress north of a line from Dublin to Galway.

"Hurling is an endangered species in many places. As an organisation, the biggest challenge we have is to help clubs in the wilderness," he said.

So there you have it - stark and honest. The GAA's top hurling officer presents a grim warning that the game's future is at risk in many parts of the country.

Will anything happen as a result? Will he be invited before Central Council to go through his fact-based analysis? Will Congress break away from its turgid agenda next month to discuss his concerns? Not a chance.

Fogarty isn't one for wild claims or theories. He is very much of the 'let's fix it' rather than 'let's talk about it' mentality. So when he calls up a map of the top half of the country on his laptop, he gets real satisfaction from showing the red dots that equate to areas of new juvenile activity.

Actually, there's quite a lot, but then the starting base was low. There are black dots too, equating to senior clubs, ranging from one in Fermanagh to eight in Derry. Leitrim, Longford, Mayo, Cavan, Tyrone, Louth, Monaghan, Donegal, Sligo, Roscommon and Armagh are in between.

Between them, the 13 counties have just 63 adult teams. Ideally, the red dots would eventually mature into black, but Fogarty fears that unless more supports are put in place, enthusiastic kids will drift away as they get older.

He believes it wouldn't take very much to keep them aboard, suggesting that €5,000 per year for disadvantaged clubs, start-up grants of €3,000 and a €500 per team incentive for football-dominated clubs to enter hurling teams would be a start. Of equal importance, he wants structural change, mainly in the form of effectively scrapping county and provincial boundaries in order to encourage club development.

Fogarty is diplomatic ('let's put it this way - the enemy isn't always on the outside') on the question of whether football-dominated county boards want to keep hurling down, but we know it's very much the case in many parts of the country.

Yes, they are happy to be in Croke Park on All-Ireland hurling final day, spouting about the "best field game in the world", but when it comes to finance, fixtures and real engagement, it's 'big ball' all the way.

There was plenty of guff about how great it was for hurling when UNESCO added it to the list of internationally protected cultural activities in 2018. Fine, but what does it mean if the game continues to struggle in half the country and when a man like Martin Fogarty admits he couldn't genuinely say he would be involved in the game if he came from one of its weaker counties.

Bottom line? Hurling continues to be let down, often by those who claim to care for it. It has always been thus and there's little sign it will change.

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