Clash of the ash as traditional hurley making is under threat

Clash of the ash as traditional hurley making is under threat
Cork's Tommy O'Connell is tackled by Waterford's Neil Sullivan and Luke O'Brien in the Munster U17 hurling final. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

The Christy O'Connor column

IN the recent Offaly-Wexford Leinster minor hurling quarter-final, Offaly’s only goal came off a booming puck-out from goalkeeper Ciaran Flynn. 

Aaron Kenny picked up the break before feeding Joey Keenaghan who rattled the net.

Flynn took the puck-out with a Cúltec hurley. Goalkeepers don’t use the carbon fibre stick as often now but there was a time when most underage goalkeepers did. It was like a Big Bertha; keepers took it out of the bag for distance. 

Yet anytime the same keepers went for precision, they would revert to their own hurley, like a nine-iron.

Most keepers still don’t trust it for accuracy. As hurling has changed more in recent years, where keepers are now more like quarter-backs, trying to get the ball past screens and to hit receivers in congested zones, the Cúltec has become less prominent amongst goalkeepers.

Jason McCarthy of Clare in action against Ryan O'Dywer, with his Cúltec hurley. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Jason McCarthy of Clare in action against Ryan O'Dywer, with his Cúltec hurley. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Apart from Dublin’s Ryan O’Dwyer, very few senior inter-county hurlers use the Cúltec anyway. More goalkeepers would have opted for the carbon fibre stick if the company had made a big bas goalkeeper hurley but they never did. 

In any case, the hurley is most popular with young players, with the Cúltec coloured hurleys one of their biggest sellers. Like a mobile phone cover, the different coloured options has been a smart marketing tool.

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. Made from a composite of synthetic epoxy, nylon and some graphite, they sold 800 hurleys in 2008. Nine years on, the company sell in excess of 20,000 hurleys a year, which has given Cúltec around 9% of the hurley market in Ireland.

Its reputation for only breaking under the most extreme force gives the Cultec a longevity ahead of ash but the market faces even more competition now with the launch of a new synthetic hurley designed by Reynolds hurley-makers in Newry. Using materials previously pioneered in the aerospace industry, Tipperary’s Seamus Callanan, Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan and Antrim’s Neil McManus have been heavily involved in the research and development of the product. The hurley purportedly behaves and feels like ash. Callanan said the new hurleys were ‘the future’.

Seamus Callanan, Richie Hogan, Neil McManus and Barry Reynolds at the launch of the new composite hurley. Picture: INPHO/Presseye
Seamus Callanan, Richie Hogan, Neil McManus and Barry Reynolds at the launch of the new composite hurley. Picture: INPHO/Presseye

With around 350,000 hurleys required in Ireland every year, there have been fears for the future of ash hurleys. Chalara, otherwise known as ash dieback disease, has spread to every county in Ireland since its first discovery at a tree plantation in Leitrim in 2012. 

In Denmark, around 90% of ash trees were wiped out by dieback disease. Figures released here before Christmas from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine showed how the disease was confirmed in 164 plantations in 21 counties.

The incidence of reported cases of ash dieback has dropped in the last 18 months but with issues such as subsidies and the lack of insurance for ash dieback, there have been concerns around the accuracy of those figures.

For the last number of years, around 80% of hurleys manufactured in Ireland are made from imported ash, mostly from Holland and eastern Europe. Before the disease was confirmed in Ireland, industry sources indicated that there would be a sufficient supply of ash here by 2020 to meet the rising demand. 

Yet numerous sources, especially hurley makers, disagree with those numbers. One prominent hurley maker said that timber is about 10 years away from maturation.

With the hurley making industry worth around E10 million annually, and with it supporting around 400 jobs in rural Ireland, a joint strategy has been adopted by the governments in Dublin and Belfast. When the disease first came to light here, the GAA established The Ash Society to try and tackle the crisis.

The Ash Society comprises a number of partners including Teagasc, the Forest Service, Coillte and the Irish Guild of Ash Hurley Makers (IGAHM).

Pat Daly, head of Coaching and Games in Croke Park outlined last year the three-pronged approach the Ash Society were taking; breeding a strain of ash that would be resistant to the disease; doing more with less ash; looking at some hybrid hurley where there would be some man-made material as well as some ash.

Traditional hurleys at full tilt in a Ballincollig GAA camp. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Traditional hurleys at full tilt in a Ballincollig GAA camp. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Last year, the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Food provided €350,000 in research funding towards breeding for resistance and to provide grant aid for the tending and thinning of ash sites. However, that still hasn’t alleviated the concerns of most hurley makers. 

Cork player Aidan Walsh at work in his workshop at Aidan Walsh Hurleys, Kanturk. Picture: Larry Cummins
Cork player Aidan Walsh at work in his workshop at Aidan Walsh Hurleys, Kanturk. Picture: Larry Cummins

Last year, Seán Kelly, former GAA President and current Ireland South European Parliament member Seán Kelly, hosted a seminar in the Munster Council offices in Limerick on this issue. There were representatives from all the usual stakeholders but the mood of the meeting was dominated by concerned hurley makers. In the opinion of many, the Government aren’t doing enough to address their concerns.

Many face an uncertain future. 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 exactly 40 years since the first synthetic hurley came on the market in Ireland, the infamous Wavin hurley which was launched in April 1977.

Made of plastic components, and with a suggested retail price of £2.40, the product never took off for one reason; a clash of hurleys resulted in a hand sting similar to a wasp-bite.

The technology is vastly different now. The synthetic products are vastly superior too but ash hurleys have also developed to new levels. Most players now know exactly what they want now in terms of weight, balance and exact specification. And hurley makers mostly meet those demands, especially for the elite players.

Despite the arrival of another new product into the market, most players still want the feel of ash in their hands.

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