At the turn of the 20th century, a world that would soon be decimated by World War was transformed by modernity. Horses became motorcars, an upright society turned liberal and superstition was eradicated by science. This transformation was mirrored in the cultural world, where artists like Erza Pound established the template that the GAA special congress would adopt over a century later. Pound’s one and only rule: Make it new.
The phrase was even the title of one of Pound's books and prioritised bold paradigms over outmoded structures. This weekend marks the opening of an entirely new-fangled hurling championship. An intricate blend of round robins spread across five different tiered competitions will unfold over the next four months culminating in 85 matches, five finals, and at least three relegation play-offs.
The primary chasing pack are competing in the Joe McDonagh Cup. Antrim, Meath, Carlow, Laois, Kerry and Westmeath will compete in a round-robin style tournament. It offers promotion into next year’s Munster or Leinster round robin as well as the opportunity to progress to the knock-out stage of 2018’s Liam MacCarthy.
For the players, managers, fans, GAA boards and journalists, this is a new age.
Paul Coady made his debut for Carlow at just eighteen. The Mount Leinster Rangers man is approaching his seventh year as an inter-county hurler and just recently enjoyed the sweetest day yet when Carlow secured the Division 2A title and promotion to 1B. For him and every other hurler involved, the Joe McDonagh Cup is, as of yet, an unknown.
To be totally honest, I’m unsure of it at the moment. I’ll know more in six weeks’ time. We have five unbelievably competitive matches. For anyone watching in, the Liam McCarthy will have a competitive Munster but Leinster might not be as competitive. The Joe McDonagh, for anyone watching in I fully believe there won’t be a score between games, the teams are all at that level. It’ll be a hugely exciting competition to buy into.
To be straight about the next step. I don’t think if you win, let’s say if Tipperary hurling in Munster end up in the third, that’s a big jump if you progress from the Joe McDonagh to face them. In football you could be ranked 24/25, you could take on seventh or eighth in the standings and you could beat them. It wouldn’t be a huge shock for a division three team to beat a division two team. In football, you can get men back and keep the score down. Look at Carlow last year when they took on Dublin. Hurling is different that way.
The reality for Coady is that the Joe McDonagh is not where Carlow hurling will improve. Real improvements will orginate from within the county, from extra resources, growth and club expansion. That’s his number one desire.
"Our county is made up of five senior clubs. I think there is 28-32 in Tipperary, like realistically you won’t compete for an all-Ireland, ever, with that amount. Right now Carlow town can't field a senior hurling team. We have underage clubs in Carlow and I’d just love to see them going towards a senior club and everything going towards that. They’ll contribute towards the county team, it’ll be after I’m gone but I’d love to see Carlow have eight, nine or ten senior clubs."
There is an odd contradiction within intercounty hurling management. The further down you go, the more extensive your role becomes. In 2011, Galway native Brian Hanley arrived into Westmeath as an interim manager following Kevin Martin’s removal. Hanley also felt change must come from within. He assembled an exceptional backroom team that included current Mayo ladies’ manager Peter Leahy and Brian Cody’s current number two, Martin Fogarty and together they didn't merely have to coach a team, they had to establish a culture.
Hanley enjoyed a successful stint with Westmeath, narrowly missing out on promotion to 1B and defeating Carlow and Antrim along the way. He is painfully aware of the reality that the new tier two competition can only do so much.
"The mentality needed to be successful was lightyears apart… the club hurling scene was dominant over the inter-county team. It still is the same way, they had that issue before the play-off final against Carlow. I had that, the first year we were knocked out by Wexford and two lads were gone on holiday, but they wouldn’t have gone if it was a club game. I think those are still there. That wouldn’t happen elsewhere."
On the field, Hanley's Westmeath enjoyed relative success. Yet when it comes to the internal aspects, he deems his endeavours there a failure.
I couldn’t change it anyway, I tried… I was called the worst in the world for the clubs and the best in the world for the team, at the end of the day they are not further ahead now. I mean we beat Antrim and we were playing Galway in two weeks’ time. As preparation, we were playing Offaly in a challenge match. Then five players, five from one club and two from another played a league match the night before. Where are we going like? We went up to play Offaly, a main man, I don’t want to name him, but he was limping. How was he limping? ‘Oh, I played a full game the night before.’ We had just beaten Antrim, the biggest victory we, the county, had in a long, long time. Then we were to play Galway the mood was good, everything was positive, and then a man rocks up injured because of that.
I asked a club manager, they looked at me like I’d five heads, when I said they should not play a league game the week before they played Galway in the championship.
A thrilling 5-19 to 4-12 defeat unfolded against the Tribesmen. Hanley left a year later, but that season still aggravates. There is no sense of wounded pride in his lament. Only a sadness that the county didn’t kick on.
See you’ve so many that are committed. It hurts them. I follow them every year since, the likes of Tom Doyle there. I assure you he would play fullback for any county in Ireland. Aw, if there was a transfer market in hurling I’d pay for him to come to Galway myself.
This year a fancied Westmeath were stunned by Carlow 2-19 to 2-12. Hanley is no longer involved in hurling, having stood down in that role in 2014, with talks about it with a forthright passion. In many ways his heart is still in Westmeath hurling.
Against Carlow they should have got up, they didn’t get up. It’s just a shame. We broke down certain practises, like lads who didn’t want to train in January and February but would try come back for the Championship, that ended. We took the U21’s too. We were in a Leinster U21 A semi-final against Dublin, and they played a full round of U21 football Championship the Wednesday before that game. We then lost to Dublin by a point, I’m not saying that is the reason, but it just wouldn’t happen elsewhere. There just has to be a balance.
Some players had a meeting near the end. The problem wasn’t with management, you could have had anyone doing it, if you did it even, it wouldn’t have mattered. I thought some couldn’t be on the squad for certain reasons, they weren’t happy with that. Subsequently, one older player went to a newspaper, said I should go, my time is done. He texted me then privately to apologise and said no one would be at training that evening. Then 37 turned up, two were away, one wasn’t there. I said ‘look, if you don’t want to play under me, just stay in the dressing room’ but they all ran out. Even still they have the potential to be further on. They’ve got so much talent now, just watch.
Soon prolonged conversation threatens to outlive the 'stretch in the evening' and Hanley has a farm that needs to be attended to. Before he goes, he reiterates the good times he enjoyed in Westmeath, the friends forged and memories made. But that day, when several players played a club league game in his second year, remains bothersome.
I did it with my best intentions and my full heart but that day I should have walked away. I meet Anthony Cunningham in Athlone before that match. See, I worked with him with the u21s the previous year. He was telling about the work they were doing in Galway. Then I arrived down and discovered five lads played for the club the night before. One was injured. If I had my time back again I’d walk away that evening. I should have resigned on the spot. That was my second year. We’d beaten Carlow the first year. The second year we’d beaten Antrim and lost the league final against Carlow, which was disappointing. Then we beat Antrim when we were down to 13 men in a classic and then we went in to play Galway. I flew two lads home from work in England for that game and those other lads went and played for those clubs… I don’t know. If I had my time back, I’d walk away, I should have walked away. It didn’t stop, I loved it but that’s the one regret I have.
Colum Thompson is a former Moy District councillor turned Lorry driver. For over 30 years he has been an avid Antrim hurling fan, a fundamental constant in his life. Once again, for him the Joe McDonagh Cup does not address the pressing issue. Antrim hurling is a team without a home. For six years, the redevelopment of Casement Park has seen them move around the county without a regular home venue. Thompson cannot stress the damage this does.
Having your own stadium and your own place is just so important. People say facility breeds contempt. It doesn’t, it makes you comfortable to your surroundings. It gives you a pattern. A week in, week out, same venue and gives you a home. The whole atmosphere for supporters and the team is more relaxed and familiar. It helps with game preparation.
When you speak to a supporter of any team in any sport there is an affection for their home ground. Anfield, Thurles, Celtic Park… there is an affection for your home, a love for it. That’s part of the whole package when you support the team. It’s not there for Antrim at the minute. It hasn’t been for years and it could be a while before it is back.
Thompson has traveled the length and breadth of the country supporting his county. He's witnessed a dedicated fan base gradually dwindle away until now when they are only a fraction of what it once was. Meanwhile, Antrim's hurling team remains on the fringes of the big time, a figurative and literal nomad.
We’ve got a small fan base who are very committed. You’d go to games now and you meet the same faces, maybe a 100 or so that go to away games now. That’s very different to 20, 25 years ago when I was growing up. We could have a thousand at Antrim away games. I think not having that base, that home venue doesn’t help us. Casement Park was somewhere that belonged to us, where we could come together. It’s different when you are going to Loughgiel, that’s Loughgiel’s home. Clooney Gael is home to Clooney Gael. Casement Park was home to everyone. There just isn’t that same feeling. Home matches now don’t even feel like home.
Rory Delaney is a Leinster Express journalist providing extensive coverage of the Laois hurling team. A quick google search reveals he seems to be the only person to ever quote Aristotle in an article about Laois hurling. He's got a frank philosophy when it comes to the Joe McDonagh Cup.
To be honest, I didn’t like the fact we were relegated without playing a game. Like I thought it was farcically done. I don’t think it promotes hurling for some, it felt like a way to get rid of them. To my mind it could kill hurling in Kerry, they went out of their way to make sure Kerry don’t get promoted from the Joe McDonagh which is ridiculous.
Within the Joe McDonagh Championship, if the winner of the McDonagh Cup is not from Munster, they are promoted directly to the Leinster championship. However, if a Munster team (Kerry) win the competition, they must play a playoff against the side that finishes bottom of the Munster championship. It is a system that former Kerry player John ‘Tweek’ Griffin also derided when speaking recently on the balls.ie podcast, a sentiment he explained was shared within the county:
"It's completely unfair. I used to work for the GAA, love the GAA, but it annoys me that people can come to these decisions. I think that no matter who wins the group, the outcome should be the same. I know Fintan, the Kerry manager, wasn't too happy with it. It doesn't make sense."
Beyond that, Delaney knows that the tournament provides a crucial opportunity to the Laois hurlers, the opportunity to play in Croke Park.
For the Laois hurlers, it is a chance to play in Croke Park. I’m here nearly ten years and I’ve never covered a Laois senior hurling game in Croke Park. From that perspective, there is merit to it. I just didn’t like the way it was packaged. I think from a player’s point of view, if you are told you are going to get five championship games and the chance to play in Croke Park when you are typically playing in front of 100 or 200 people, you know you are going to take the positives from it.
In an environment as passionate as the GAA sphere a consensus is increasingly difficult to achieve, but across these individuals, one is generally unfolding. The key to growth lies within.
What we really need for the county is more coaches and more investment. We have two hurling GDAs, two Football GDAs and an overall GDA which is five lads to deal with an entire county. Our playing base is very small for hurling. We need help to get in on the ground and promote hurling in Portlaoise town. Predominately it is rural now. We need outside help to get the money to get either a full-time GDA in Portlaoise or really driving hurling in the county town. Outside of that I mean I think the best thing that could happen inter-county hurling is if Laois could beat a near rival, a Wexford or Offaly. A county of that caliber. A local scrap.
Peter O’Halloran was Meath vice chairman for the five years before he was elected chairman last year. Their Division 2B title last year was followed up by a comfortable mid-table finish in 2A this year. Meath is a county who've invested in hurling. They've established a separate hurling chairman and head of development to ensure it is probably catered for. As O'Halloran explains, the raw materials are all there.
I would say Meath has underperformed somewhat in hurling. We've 21 hurling clubs here in the county. That's far more than a lot of other counties at our level. We now have a lot of lads playing hurling in the county, especially in south Meath. There is very strong support. We give hurling its own dedicated weekends, trying to give it a fair chance. We've restructured our county leagues there, they weren't as big and didn't have as many games as football. Now we've eight teams in each division compared to previously it was six. We've 21 clubs but 12 are senior. It is lopsided so the clubs came up with a plan for this year's championship. It is graded with six clubs in a senior strong division and six in a senior weaker division. All have a chance to go on and win the cup at the end of the day. There's no doubt, hurling is a minority sport. It's 21 clubs versus 51 football but we've lads now playing at a decent level.
O'Halloran is affirmative in his hopes of a strong Meath showing this year, and an established place within the Leinster Championship within five. In the meantime, he hopes the competition receives the attention it deserves.
I mean I know it's a broadcaster's decision. It's not really a GAA decision. Everyone knows the eight or ten stronger counties and the rest are somewhat ignored. When we were in 2B we wouldn't even have had our results read out. That can't be good for younger players, young lad that want to wear the green hurling jersey of Meath.
For six different counties and their inter-county teams, The Joe McDonagh Cup brings expectation and hope in abundance. It will not prove to be the predominant, or primary, means of their development, but it is a start. A chance to refocus external ambitions while not overlooking internal ones. A clean slate, A new era.