Grainne McElwain: We must harness the spirit of Cú Chulainn and spread the hurling gospel

Gráinne McElwain

Gráinne McElwain

Grainne is a columnist with The Irish News. She is a sports broadcaster with experience working with Sky Sports, TG4, RTÉ, BBC and Eir Sport.

Youngsters from Slaughtneil and Kevin Lynch Dungiven clubs taking part in a mini match at half time during the Derry Senior Hurling Championship final played at Owenbeg on Sunday 17th September 2023. Picture Margaret McLaughlin
New GAA President Jarlath Burns has said he wants to help expand hurling beyond its traditional areas but volunteers on the ground are vital to making those dreams a reality Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )

Those who are familiar with Irish mythology, fell in love with the game of hurling, when we heard about Setanta felling the terrifying guard dog of Culainn with a sliotar and a camán.

It’s fair to say a lot of people wanted to be Cú Chulainn as he was the best hurler in the land.

That image and feeling of where we and the game have come from defines us as we watch our own modern day heroes and heroines play.

We feel that sense of pride and cultural identity with our past.

One of the world’s oldest games exists because passionate people ensure that it prevails by teaching the skills to the next generation.

However, this is not the case in every county. Since the foundation of the GAA in 1884, the hurling gospel has not spread to an elite level beyond pockets outside of Leinster and Munster.

In fact, in certain areas hurling has not spread into football strongholds at all. There is a belief that there is no interest in doing so but I think that is unfair.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the GAA and many clubs struggle to get help regardless of whether the club plays football or hurling.

A lot of football clubs would be very happy to have hurling in their clubs but they ask the question, who is going to do it? When you are depending on the same volunteers to help out, it is a very pertinent question.

While it is important to spread hurling in counties where the sport is not strong, for me, there is a need to spread it beyond the existing clubs in dual counties too.

I live in West Galway in the Gaeltacht and outside of three clubs, An Spidéal, Mícheál Breathnach and Maigh Cuilinn, there is no hurling in the area.

Hurling is not in the schools and there are no Game Promotion Officers visiting the schools either.

This is not a blame game but a reality and it is not because certain clubs do not want the sport, which I accept can be the case in some instances, but for the vast majority of them, they don’t have the people power or skill to implement it.

“It is not simple,” says Paul Bellew, chairperson of Galway GAA.

“The first port of call to make it succeed is that it needs to start in existing clubs at nursery level for boys and girls. There are schemes already in place in Connacht to help clubs but there needs to be an interest in the club in the first instance to promote the sport. Someone needs to take ownership and drive it”

Galway skipper David Burke hoists the Liam McCarthy Cup on the steps of the Hogan Stand at Croke Park Picture by Hugh Russell
'When Galway won their All-Ireland in 2017, the cup did not come back to the schools in the area I live in. There may have been a perception that people wouldn’t be interested but that perception needs to change'

New GAA President Jarlath Burns has spoken of a new hurling initiative he will bring in to help promote hurling in clubs and counties called Tiomáint.

There is an acceptance by all that it will be a long term project but phase one “will be spent creating a toolkit for the development of new clubs, stand-alone clubs, the creation of dual clubs within football clubs and underage clubs where there is strong demographics”.

“I welcome Jarlath’s intent and that he is realistic about it being a long-term project. It has to start though within existing club structures as setting up new clubs is challenging and cost prohibitive,” says Bellew.

We have to start somewhere but it inevitably comes back to volunteers. Who is going to do it?

Clubs need help and investment and practical aid like providing hurls and sliotars for everyone.

Also, there needs to be qualified Games Promotion Officers sent out to schools and clubs to help them. Promotion is all very well but visibility is key.

For example, when Galway won their All-Ireland in 2017, the cup did not come back to the schools in the area I live in. There may have been a perception that people wouldn’t be interested but that perception needs to change.

“The metric should be participation and growing the game. We need to set expectations and ensure that everyone has access to playing hurling.”

—  Paul Bellew

Can county boards organise hurling camps in non-traditional hurling areas during Easter and summer time to promote the sport and allow children to try it?

Could free children’s match tickets be given to schools and clubs for hurling games in traditional football strongholds?

All of this costs money and if the GAA are serious about this, how the GAA incentivises clubs and rewards them will be key in making this work.

Also, for dual counties more help is needed. The old adage, where there is a will, there is a way may be fine to say but modern day realities look more like show me the money.

Everything is possible but volunteers need to be convinced by it.

“The metric should be participation and growing the game” says Bellew.

“We need to set expectations and ensure that everyone has access to playing hurling.”

There needs to be a mindset shift as to what constitutes success.

It’s extremely unrealistic to expect counties and clubs starting out to be rivalling Ballyhale Shamrocks and Limerick in the next 10 years.

Success will look different to each club but I do believe that every child should be able to connect to this great game and hold a hurl and a ball in their hand. It would be great to look back in 10 years’ time and for every child to say, “I’ve played hurling. I know what that game is.”

Who knows, in the great untapped areas of the country, the stories of Cú Chulainn can inspire another generation and perhaps the next group of superstars come from areas that haven’t produced players before.

As Walt Disney said “If you can dream it, you can do it.” It’s up to everyone with an interest in spreading the game to make it happen.

Small steps but often doing something is better than doing nothing at all.