Wheelchair hurling: A success story
By John Harrington
When Tim Maher first hit upon the idea of wheelchair hurling 20 years ago, he never imagined he was about the write the first chapter of a real success story.
The Kerry native was teaching in a residential school for children with disabilities attached to St. Mary’s Hospital in Balydoyle, Dublin at the time.
A hurling fanatic with a long history of coaching and mentoring schools teams, he noticed when he arrived at St Mary’s that a lot of the children had an interest in sport and one of the games they played involved hitting a football with a tennis racket.
“It was just from that I got the idea that maybe we could replace the rackets with small hurleys,” Maher told GAA.ie.
“So I went out and got a number of 24 inch hurleys which were a suitable length and it grew from there.
“It was very much an experiment. Something that I thought might work and thankfully at the time the staff of the school went with it.
“I think they thought I was a little bit off my head, to be honest, but they all got behind it and the benefits were very quickly seen.”
Those benefits in terms of physical fitness and mental wellbeing were so quickly obvious that Maher decided he needed to spread the word as far and wide as possible.
“We started experimenting with it in the school and it grew from there. I invited other schools in Dublin that had wheelchair users and invited them and it eventually led into a League in Dublin," says Maher..
“The kids getting out and going to other schools for competitions and all of that initially was a great thing for them.
“I suppose the big move in recent years came when Tony Watene was appointed the GAA's Inclusion Officer and he got very involved in it and this led to the various Presidents setting up Games For All committees in the provinces and a national Games For All committee was established.
“That helped it grow hugely and that has led up to today where you have an interprovincial series which has really come up on in recent years.”
Sponsored by that great GAA philanthropist, Martin Donnelly, the interprovincial series has gone from strength to strength and now also incorporates an All-Star scheme.
The latest Wheelchair Hurling All-Stars will be handed out today by Uachtarán Cumann Luthchleas Gael, John Horan, at a ceremony in Holy Rosary College, Mountbellew, Galway that will be quickly followed by a interprovincial blitz between the four provinces.
“Wheelchair basketball has been around for a long time and wheelchair rugby has also gotten certain prominence, but hurling itself is a unique sport to Ireland, it's the native game, so to have the opportunity to play hurling has been fabulous for everyone involved in the sport," says Maher.
“A lot of them would probably have a genuine interest in hurling anyway, and others may never have had any experience of it but it has brought them into the game.
“They benefit hugely from the experience. I remember a young lad saying to me one day way back that this was the first opportunity he had had to play for a team.
“And I felt that alone was a fabulous thing hear. It lends itself to great camaraderie as well, and the growth of the interprovincials has been huge.
“Just the opportunity to play in a team, it has meant an awful lot to them. Some of the lads would have been in wheelchairs as a result of accidents and others were born with a disability, so it's been a great outlet across the board.”
Everyone who plays wheelchair hurling has their own story to tell and derives a very personal satisfaction from playing the sport.
For Peadar Heffron, it was another important brick in the wall as he rebuilt his life following the callous car-bomb attack in 2010 that very nearly killed the then PSNI officer.
A talented footballer and hurler before the attempt on his life that invalided him, wheelchair hurling has gone some way to help fill the sporting void.
“After I was blown up, the first sport I got involved in was Badminton and it just didn't tick any boxes for me,” Heffron told GAA.ie.
“I always liked team sports and the more physical side of things. I started playing wheelchair basketball then and really enjoyed it. A team sport, a wee bit more contact involved.
“Then, I guess, I thought there's still a bit of the GAA in the blood and the hurling was the one thing that fulfilled that.
“There are guys playing it of all different abilities from people who have been born with a disability to guys who have played at quite a high standard and acquired an injury. So there's a whole range of skills and standards there.”
Heffron believes there’s scope to grow the sport further and Tim Maher agrees.
The participation numbers are rising steadily, and Maher believes in the not too distant future there will be enough participants to replace the inter-provincials with a competition featuring a greater number of regional teams.
“I could never foresee that you could have an inter-county competition because the numbers wouldn't be there, but we could increase the number of teams playing,” says Maher..
“In Leinster the sport has grown significantly so you could probably have a North Leinster team and a South Leinster team or a Dublin team.
“The provinces could definitely be divided up if the numbers keep going. Rather than have a provincial competition you could have a number of regional teams made up of clusters of counties.
“That would give it a bigger scope again and more opportunities for the different levels. I can only see it becoming more popular.”
2017 Wheelchair hurling All-Star Nominees
Goalkeeper: Liam O’Boyle (Connacht), John Scott (Leinster), Brandon Kelly (Ulster)
Defenders: Peter Egan (Connacht), Paul Tobin (Leinster), Sultan Kakar (Munster), Ruairi Haffey (Ulster)
Midfielders: Pat Carty (Connacht), Lorcan Madden (Leinster), Peter Lewis (Ulster)
Forwards: Alex Hennebry (Leinster) Gary O’Reilly (Leinster), Connor McGrotty (Ulster), Peter Lewis (Ulster)
Hurler of the Year: Paul Tobin (Leinster), Lorcan Madden (Leinster), Peter Lewis (Ulster)
Young Player of the Year: Louie Cleary (Leinster), Peter Lewis (Ulster), Ruairi Haffey (Ulster)
Camogie Player of the Year: Sarah Cregg (Connacht), Ellie Sheehy (Munster), Geraldine McGarrigle (Ulster)