Limerick City’s hurling revolution
By John Harrington
These are boom times for hurling in Limerick city.
Year on year more and more children are playing at underage level with both clubs and schools, and most clubs in the city are tracking an upward graph.
It wasn’t always thus. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to describe the recent explosion in the numbers playing the game in Limerick city and the feel-good factor around the sport as a sudden revolution.
Because when Pat Culhane was appointed Limerick City’s first dedicated Hurling Development Officer in 2005, the vista was not nearly so rosy.
Just eight of the 36 primary schools in the city competed in the U-10 Cumann na mBunscol hurling games programme, and just five of the 15 clubs in the city had nursery programmes for their youngest players.
The low numbers wasn’t the only problem he identified, the win at all costs culture in those schools and clubs that were hurling hot-spots was another major concern.
So, when Culhane first set out on his role, he was as much trying to change minds as win hearts.
“Most of my work was in the inner city, coaching in schools and clubs, often in socio-economically disadvantaged communities,” he told GAA.ie.
“I’d drive around in my old Reanult Megane hatchback full of hurleys, sliotars and footballs, doing my best to inspire coaches and children to get or stay involved in the games.
“I felt that I played a key role in the development of a long-term strategy called ‘Lifting the Treaty’ regenerating how we managed underage Gaelic games in Limerick – everything from fixtures administration to the county development squad system.
“Children’s regular participation was almost doubled during this period. The culture of where winning and performance took precedence over participation had been reversed, for the most part.
“The beautiful irony was that when we started focusing more on participation, performance started improving internally in county championships and externally in intercounty and school competitions.
“I remembered John Lyle’s articles from my college days and in one of them he said that ‘Excellence in sport in a byproduct of effective administration”.
“We had settled for too long for mediocrity in Limerick – in a Gaelic games context, but also as a city and county.”
Culhane’s impact in his role was measurable. By 2010, the number of schools competing at U-10 Cumann na mBunscol level had jumped from eight to 22, the number of clubs running nursery programmes had jumped from five to 10, and participation numbers at U-8, U-10, and U-12 level had also increased significantly.
By 2011, according to the five-year Limerick Strategic plan, 57 per cent of primary school children in Limerick city were now playing Gaelic Games as opposed to just eight per cent five years earlier.
As Culhane points out himself, the work he did chimed nicely with ‘Lifting the Treaty’, Limerick GAA’s gaelic games development plan first outlined in 2008 and which in little over 10 years has done so much to transform Limerick hurling from serial underachievement to best in class.
There were many strands to the ‘Lifting the Treaty’ blueprint. It did away with divisional boards at underage level, introduced the Go-Games model for juvenile matches, and established the underage development squads and academy system that is now the engine driving gaelic games at an elite level in the county.
On the ground in Limerick City, a focus on quality coaching and establishing or strengthening club-school links became a real focus.
With the benefit of hindsight, from fairly early on in that process there were all sorts of signposts that pointed towards a brighter future for hurling in Limerick City.
For example, in 2007 Limerick City won the Mackey Cup, a competition for primary school divisional selections, for the first time in six years and featured future Limerick senior stars such as Cian Lynch, William O’Donoghue, and David Dempsey.
And as the game grew stronger and stronger at primary school level in the city, that then had a knock-on effect at secondary school level.
Ardscoil Ris established themselves as one of the foremost hurling nurseries in the country, winning five Harty Cups in nine years from 2010 to 2018.
Perhaps even more remarkable was Castletroy College’s transformation from a renowned rugby school to one that also excelled at hurling.
They were Munster Schools Senior Cup rugby champions in 2008, but within a few short years many of the best sportsmen in the school like current Limerick hurling star Gearoid Hegarty were opting for hurling rather than rugby.
“No, I never really played any rugby,” Hegarty told GAA.ie. “I was involved in the first ever Harty Cup team in Castletroy College. When I was sixth year I captained the first Harty Cup team that Castletroy had ever entered into.
“I was lucky that there was a load of us who are now on the Limerick panel that went to Castletroy. We weren’t all in the same year but we were all close. Dan Morrissey was a year ahead of me, Barry Nash and Tom (Morrissey), they were two years behind me, so we were all close enough. All of those lads would have been on that Harty Cup team. It was kind of a good batch that came through at the same time and kind of changed the culture of that school.
“It was unreal to be involved in the Harty Cup. When you’re in sixth year Harty Cup is the biggest thing ever in the world at the time.
“It’s great to get that exposure to top-level hurling when we were in school. I think you can see that a good few of us who played in Castletroy College are still on the county panel so we put a lot of good work in when we were in school.”
What Limerick City has now is a hurling culture. The success of the senior inter-county team in recent years has risen the profile of the game massively, and now the sight of children walking around with hurleys in their hands is much more common-place than it would have been ten years ago.
These days Limerick senior footballer, Peter Nash, is doing great work in Culhane’s former role as Limerick City Hurling Development Officer, but he prefers to give the bulk of the credit for hurling’s growing appeal in the city to the volunteer club coaches and mentors who he works with.
“It’s down to good people in a lot of areas doing a lot of good work,” Nash told GAA.ie. “It’s about having that shared view of where they wanted it to go and where they wanted to end up.
“And, even then, that’s a constantly growing structure. You get to where you think you wanted to be and then you see something slightly further down the road and you think, yeah, we can work towards that now and make ourselves a more sustainable and more competitive club.
“There’s great competition in the city as well. You have some huge clubs with huge numbers and you have smaller clubs who are just as committed to the cause. I’ve been hugely impressed how in the last 18 months that people have turned their potential challenges into opportunities.
“Now, within Limerick inner-city, there’s a lot of work that still has to be done, there’s still areas in the city we need to give more help to.
“That’s something we want to continue growing going forward. My role and the role of the other GDAs in Limerick is to facilitate that growth as best as we possibly can.”
More than half of the potential hurling population of Limerick resides in Limerick City which presents challenges as well as opportunities.
Servicing the coaching needs of such big numbers is no easy thing, and something the Limerick Coaching and Games department has put a lot of effort into improving.
“That would have been the case over the last few years, alright, but there’s a few bodies now in Limerick city GDA-wise,” says Nash.
“You have Paul Browne and Gary McCarthy in there too so our bases are being covered a hell of a lot better in the last 18 months to two years.
“We were lucky with people in the city in the last couple of years as well. Eoin Ryan had a lot of work done in the city.
“You had Sean Madden doing great work in the city as well. You had Ger Downes in before me, he was the person I took over my role from, and he had an unbelievable amount of work done and an unbelievable base laid within Limerick city as well.
“Look, it’s things going in cycles as well. At the moment there’s a huge amount of motivation, a huge amount of pride in the Limerick jersey and our county hurling team. It’s about using that energy as best as we possibly can.
“We are covering our bases fairly well since I’ve been in the role as far as I can see. But there is a lot to be done in certain areas and getting around to primary schools and getting to clubs on a regular basis when you have so many clubs as a GDA which is the case with pretty much every GDA in the country.”
When Nash talks about his role in the development of hurling in Limerick city, enthusiasm is his default attitude.
It’s not just the young players in the city who have been energised and inspired by the success of the Limerick hurlers in the last few years, so too have the coaches.
Limerick hurling under-achieved for a very long time and now that they are finally top of the pile, everyone associated with developing the game in the county is determined that they stay there.
“Absolutely,” says Nash. “Personally though I don’t feel that the work has never not been done on the ground. I don’t think the work element has changed, that has always been there.
“There has always been a real graft, a real want, a real motivation to improve and, on an individual basis within clubs, to produce players.
“But now I think there’s a real belief as well, that’s the big thing, because belief will take you a long way.
“That belief gives you energy and drives your forward. When there’s energy in what you’re doing and when there’s that real deep down grit to say, “Yes, we can do this,” and, “Yes, we have done this,” and, “Yes, we will continue to do this”, then I think that really makes a difference to the work being done.”
Hurling in Limerick City has come a long way in a short space of time, and the growth of the game doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon