A FEW months back, the TV programme ‘Ear to the Ground’ told the story of Tipperary farmer Mary McCormack, who was widowed at the age of 39 with four young children, and her decision to plant her 160-acre farm in forestry in 1998.
The programme revealed how McCormack could stand to lose up to €600,000 on the 40 acres of ash planted on her farm after the fungal disease Chalara – otherwise known as ash dieback - was discovered on a large number of ash trees.
"There is very little that is going to be salvaged,” she said. “I can't tell you the effect it has had on me.”
Since the first outbreak of ash dieback was discovered in Leitrim in 2012, the disease has strangled the life out of millions of Ireland's ash trees.
Scientists have discovered that a tiny proportion of the native tree in Ireland are largely unaffected by the killer fungus, but the discovery still won’t save thousands of hectares of infected ash trees.
It is estimated that about half of the 350,000 hurleys produced every year in Ireland are made from Irish ash.
There may not be a scarcity of ash at the moment among the 400 hurley makers around the country. But that loss of raw materials for the hurley manufacturing industry is inevitable down the line.
When the disease first came to light here, the GAA established The Ash Society to try and tackle the crisis.
They outlined a three-pronged approach; breeding a strain of ash that would be resistant to the disease; doing more with less ash, as in looking at different ways of making the hurley as distinct from the traditional plank; looking at some hybrid hurley where there would be some man-made material as well as some ash.
The ashback disease has changed the game but, in another form, those concerns from hurley makers have been around now for four decades.
It’s over 40 years since the first synthetic hurley came on the market in Ireland, the infamous Wavin hurley which was launched in April 1977.
Wavin officially released a ‘virtually unbreakable’ synthetic hurley made of plastic components.
After identifying a niche in the market for a synthetic hurley in 2002, Tom Wright and John Brennan began formulating designs in their garages in Ferbane, Co Offaly.
After six years of design and development, they started selling Cúltecs in the spring of 2008, which were made from a composite of synthetic epoxy, nylon and some graphite.
Three years ago, a new synthetic hurley was designed by Reynolds hurley-makers in Newry, which used materials previously pioneered in the aerospace industry.
Yet despite the arrival of another new product into the market at that time, most players still want the feel of ash in their hands. In that context, will any hurley other than ash ever take off? The flipside though, is still an obvious question - will there be enough ash in the coming decades to make enough hurleys?
Ash dieback is not going away any time soon. In east Clare, John Torpey has 30,000 ash trees on his own land but the disease forced Torpey to remove 10,000 of them over the last four months.
Torpey has been making hurleys for 40 years but, he and his son Seán began looking at an alternative option to ash at the end of 2013. They investigated bamboo, bamboo technology and ways of utilising materials that could make a bamboo hurley feel, sound and perform as well as any ash hurley.
Torpeys partnered up with Loughborough University, and their Sports Technology Institute, to ensure they were provided with the best testing data possible in their attempts to engineer their product.
Seeking to create something from the bamboo engineered material that simulates flexibility of ash to allow for a similar strike, a number of tests were carried out in Loughborough; robot testing examined the consistency of strike, and the impact such force had on the bos of the hurley; 3D motion analysis studied players swing technique to provide a greater understanding of hurley weight and connection.
The tests proved that bamboo doesn’t fracture in the bos. When Torpeys conducted a survey of 1,200 players last year, 81% said their ash hurley always broke up along the grain in the bos.
In order to keep the strength of the bamboo hurley, each hurley is engineered through a matrix formation, which enables Torpeys to be far more accurate in how they manufacture the product.
They can also make a hurley lighter without damaging its structure. In that sense, Torpeys feel they can repeatedly make the same hurley to suit a player’s preference in terms of weight, size and feel.
The hurley is made up 98% bamboo and 2% glue.
The glue is bio-based and the content of adhesive used is less than 1%. Bamboo is also environmentally friendly because it will grow five metres every year and is ready to be harvested after five years.
Of course, bamboo can’t be grown in Ireland.
Torpeys source it from the Far East but the innovative new hurley – which was launched on Tuesday – is aptly titled a Bambú hurley, which Torpeys feel is the hurley for ‘the next generation’.
It’s unknown if it will be because perhaps players will always want ash. How players react to the new product will ultimately prove how sustainable the new product can be, especially when they have been used to ash all their lives.
But the new hurley isn’t there to compete with ash – it’s just a viable alternative to a raw material that may no longer be there to meet the current demands for ash hurleys in the future.