John Arnold: Why hurling is my passion... and why I fear for its future

Hurling is still the absolutely best game in the world, says John Arnold - but he still has some worries about it
John Arnold: Why hurling is my passion... and why I fear for its future

SKILL: Alan O’Callaghan, of Blackrock, and James Sweeney, of Sarsfields, clash in the Cork Premier Senior Hurling Championship

“OH love is teasin’ and love is pleasing, and love is a treasure when first it’s new, but as love goes older, sure love grows colder and fades away like the morning dew...”

Ah yes, these are the words of a very old song about love and the vagaries of that emotion. Some may say that truer sentiments were never written, but personally I don’t agree!

In my life I freely admit, as another song says, ‘Yes I’m in love with two’. Don’t worry, this piece is not going to be a ‘ kiss and tell’ revelation about a clandestine and sordid affair perpetrated under cover of darkness in a seedy location behind closed doors. I’m in love with my wife and family and am not a bit shy in saying it.

Human companionship and the bond that entwines couples and their family and relations is one of God’s greatest gifts. Nothing else compares with family, though sometimes my relations remind me gently that my second love is not far behind the first!

I know some readers of this column over the years have berated me for writing about subjects that ‘you know nothing about’ and in all fairness that’s fair comment. Others say ‘why don’t you stick to things you’re interested in’, whilst another brigade will give out endlessly ‘all you ever talk about is sport’!

Who said you can satisfy all the people some of the time, some of the people some of the time, but one can never satisfy all the people all the time? Wise words well spoken.

The second love of my life is hurling - not my club, not my county, not the GAA, but hurling itself. 

Readers who have absolutely no whit of interest in any sport, good, bad or indifferent, please, please don’t throw away The Echo now. No, bear with me till I explain the intimate and intense and passionate and heartfelt connection I have with hurling.

Ok, if you’ve absolutely no interest in sport -if you shake your head at the idea of players on a field running around kicking or belting a leather ball - don’t despair because hurling isn’t just a game like tennis, soccer, golf, rugby or cricket. In recent years it has been aptly described as ‘The Riverdance of Sport’ and that’s perhaps as good a description as any of our unique, ancient game.

We describe hurling as our ‘National Game’, surely it is, but the actual game is much more than one team playing another and scoring goals and points. 

It is an artform and a real and special expression of our Irishness, yet hurling can be ‘learned’ and ‘picked up’ - look at the Ó hAilpín brothers with Cork and Iraqi-born Zak Moradi, who won a Lory Meagher Cup hurling medal with his adopted Leitrim in 2019!

But what makes ‘the game of the Gael’ so special? Why do ‘strangers’ gasp on seeing their first hurling contest? Though my ‘love affair’ with hurling has gone on for over half a century, I’m not still sure I know the answer to that question!

‘Clatter and clash in it, something with ash in it - surely a game’ was how one poet put it. Even the greatest hurler of all, Cloyne’s Christy Ring, when interviewed by Donncha O Dulaing, was unsure how to sum up the game he mastered and starred in for decades. Ring always maintained ‘the best hurlers are yet to come’- that was some tribute to future generations from a man who stood like a colossus on the hurling fields of Ireland. He always said ‘you never stopped learning’ when it came to hurling.

An attempt was made some years back to actually ‘count’ all the different skills innate in the game -they gave up after about 95! You might say then it’s a very technical or complicated sport, but in essence it’s a simple game to play.

One secret - maybe that’s too strong a word - one aspect of hurling that’s so essential is the unity of hand and hurley stick. The caman or hurley must really be an extension of the human hand and the hurler able to manipulate the sliotar so deftly and swiftly - often in a manner quicker than the human eye can see.

Last weekend, I attended four hurling games, one on a wet Saturday, two on a glorious sunny Sunday, and the fourth on a damp and drizzly bank Holiday Monday. In total 14 goals and 132 points were scored in these contests, what brilliance - leave me alone about a ‘thrilling’ 0 0 draw in a soccer game where the players often have more money than sense!

Back in 1884, when the GAA was founded, Kilbrin-born Archbishop Thomas Croke used a phrase to describe hurling - to show how it was different to other field games - ‘racy of the soil’ were the words he used. Even then, when hurling was close to extinction, Croke could understand the importance of the sport in giving vent to our native spirit and passion.

I truly love the game in all it’s manifestations. I was thrilled and excited by Limerick’s win and Kilkenny’s display a few weeks back in the All Ireland Final. Yet I was just as enthralled by what I saw last weekend.

Maybe the sliotar is too light nowadays, and maybe the hurleys are too big - but forget all these quibbles, the game is still the absolutely best in the world. Come any man, woman or child to challenge me on that statement and I’ll debate the ‘pros and cons’ til any amount of cows come home.

Though I’m gushing and enthusiastic about the game I’m mad about, I have some worries too. On the night of the All Ireland Hurling Final, on RTÉ’s Sunday Game, former Cork Senior goalie Donal og Cusack asked the question ‘Who is minding the hurling?’ A query I would re-echo loudly. As our National Sport and National Treasure much, much, more should be done to promote and cultivate the game.

Ireland is a small country, yet hurling is only played widely in less than 20 counties. We have to go back to 1981 when Offaly won the title to see a ‘new’ County winning the Liam McCarthy Cup. Of course, it’s not all about winning All Irelands - if it were Antrim, Waterford, Laois, Dublin and Kerry would long since have put away all their hurleys. However, there’s nothing like winning a title to raise the profile of the game and getting hurling played more widely has been an aim of the GAA since 1884.

Has it succeeded in that task? Unfortunately, the answer is in the negative. In this era of mass communications, social media and multi- channel everything, high-level exposure of hurling is vital.

I argued vehemently a few years back against the idea of ‘pay per view’ for hurling games on TV. I still think not one person should be forced to pay to watch an intrinsic part of our Irish culture.

Fair enough if one wants to view sports fixtures broadcast from all over the world - I’ve no quibble with that.

When these broadcasting deals were being struck, the GAA argued ‘pay per view’ was the way to go to promote our games among the Irish diaspora in Europe, America, Australia and elsewhere. So promoting the games was the big thing - now we won’t have a big hurling game on any TV screen, home or away, for the next seven months - so much for the promotion argument!

Time was when getting youngsters to play hurling, and Gaelic football too, was the essential core ethos of all administrators in the GAA - not any more I’m afraid.

Of course we need money to keep the GAA going and improving, but when there appear to be more commercial managers in the Association than those interested in the future of hurling, it’s a worrying time.

Truly, I love hurling and always will, but why our greatest sporting treasure isn’t valued, promoted and encouraged more remains a mystery to me.

Hurling is like a precious and rare flower - it’s existence is a delicate balancing act that needs very special treatment and care. I make no apologies to anyone for asking, no demanding, that this special sport gets that special treatment, it’s the least it deserves.

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