Saturday 21 April 2018

Performance art reveals its poetry in slow motion

Tommy Conlon

For over 40 years, Irish television showed games of hurling while managing to keep the game itself a mystery.

A couple of cameras and the sporadic use of replays were never going to be enough to expose all its riches. So much happened in a game, and so little of it was revealed. Television in fact frequently failed to capture routine scores, losing the flight of the ball and leaving the viewer in a state of suspense until the umpire reached for the white flag. Sometimes the ball would end up in the back of the net with the viewer still wondering how or why it ended up there.

And if it missed material as basic as this, all the myriad details that make up the game's tapestry were destined to remain in obscurity.

It has taken a long time for television to catch up. RTE was sleeping on the job, and so was Croke Park. It is only in the last few years, with the proliferation of cameras and the use of super slow-motion technology, that television has finally started to unlock the secrets of the game.

RTE's editorial coverage, in both hurling and Gaelic football -- though getting better -- still needs a lot of improvement. But its technical coverage has been transformed in recent years. What was once a frustrating experience has become a visual pleasure. It is now also a reliable source of information: if viewers want to understand precisely how a particular passage of play unfolded, there are usually sufficient camera angles to explain it.

But hurling, with its rich array of micro skills, aerial exploits and dramatic incidents, is finally being revealed to the watching audience in all its marvellous complexity. Television has dived beneath the surface of the game and is coming up with gems which hitherto would have been lost.

Last Sunday, for example, we got to see a tiny detail that came and went in the blink of an eye but which captured the essence of the game's appeal: a highly refined piece of skill, executed in a frenzy of physical endeavour.

The ball had scuttled loose near the Cusack Stand sideline in the 22nd minute. A pack of Dublin and Tipperary players were converging on it. Tipp's Seamus Callanan was marginally closer to the ball. He needed to get it into his hand and had a fraction of a second in which to do it. The ball was scurrying away from him. If he had time he'd have jabbed his hurl under and flicked it up. Instead he chopped down, one-handed, on the back of the ball, reversing its direction.

But "chopped" is too crude a word to describe the subtlety of this touch: it was, rather, a dip of the bas, a deft peck, done with the delicacy of Ronnie O'Sullivan at a snooker table. Except that Ronnie wouldn't normally have three fellas trying to horse him out of it while playing a tricky stun shot. It was one of those moments in which top hurlers wield a three-foot length of timber as if it were as light in the hand as a conductor's baton.

The ball popped back to Callanan. He stooped to grasp it with his left hand and swivelled 360 degrees to buy himself a yard of space. The whole move was done in one fluid manoeuvre. And yet it still wasn't enough, for as he attempted to strike the ball he was crowded out, his clearance blocked.

Every top-class game of hurling is liberally embroidered with such skill-jewels. But the true beauty of such moments is that they are not there for decoration. They are executed out of necessity. They are functional as well as ornate. They are practical solutions in a highly stressful environment. And it is why they are so commonplace. There is no room at all for ornamentation in a sport so competitive; and yet it is packed with such ornaments.

Which is why hurling can be plausibly described, among many things, as performance art. It is performance art that people want to see.

As it happens, RTE didn't show a replay of this particular moment. The game was moving on and, anyway, there would be something else to reprise a minute later. But at least one of their cameras provided an angle that captured it and stored it for posterity. What's more, and to his credit, Marty Morrissey on commentary

was able to appreciate it and acknowledge it in real time too.

They did show copious replays of the many spectacular catches on the day, both in the minor and senior games. Again, a common and hitherto neglected feat that is finally being unveiled in all its luxurious slow-motion glory: players gathering for the leap, hands up and fingers splayed -- and one among them stretching a telescopic arm to make the grab. Dublin's Paul Ryan made a catch in the 19th minute that drew audible gasps from the crowd.

Those with a taste for Asian cinema might see in these aerial contests, cluttered with arms and hands and clashing timber, some parallels with the athletic combat of martial arts movies -- just substitute ash hurls for bamboo sticks.

There is more to learn, more to be revealed. The game is being discovered anew, one hopes, by people who didn't before see what the fuss is about; and who might find themselves, to their own surprise, declaring that it is indeed lovely hurling.

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