Kildare hurling primed for lift-off
By John Harrington
On rainy days during Cúl Camps back in the noughties, John Doran can remember organising quizzes for the kids under his watch.
One of the staple questions he’d ask them was to name two Kildare senior county footballers and two Kildare senior county hurlers.
They’d have little trouble naming 20 footballers, but some groups would struggle to name a single county hurler, even though the man in front of them, Doran himself, was one.
Now a Games Development Administrator with Kildare GAA, Doran is confident that if he were to ask the same question to Kildare Cúl Camp attendees in 2023, they’d have no problem naming men like James Burke, Brian Byrne, Gerry Keegan, Paddy McKenna, and Rian Boran.
The difference nowadays is that Kildare hurling is very much in the shop-window thanks to some high-profile achievements on the field of play.
Last year’s Christy Ring Cup success. Naas following up an All-Intermediate title in early 2022 with a victory over Offaly champions Seir Kieran in the Leinster SHC this year. Kildare’s three wins from three so far in Division 2A of the Allianz Hurling League.
All positive stories that have raised the profile of hurling in the county.
Perhaps even more encouragingly, beyond the shop window Kildare hurling has never been as well stocked as it currently is with the numbers playing the game increasing all the time.
We see it firstly at the underage nursery, you can see that the numbers are coming up,” says Doran.
“We would track the numbers year on year through the hurling and you can see they're growing.
“And then when you look at the county development squads, every year we're seeing the spread of clubs is getting wider and wider. The U-14 panel last year had 18 of the 25 hurling clubs represented on it which is what you want.
“The Kildare minors this year have 13 clubs represented whereas five or six years ago it would probably have been probably four or five and the majority of players would prbably have been Naas, Éire Óg, Maynooth, perhaps. So you can see it there.
“Only yesterday the county published the format for the minor leagues in hurling in Kildare this year and we have 14 teams playing and in 2007 it was six. Two Division 1 teams and four Division two teams and that was it.
“Whereas now there's three divisions and 14 teams playing across the three divisions. That's a huge sign that the numbers are increasing, we just need a bit more of it.”
The growth in Kildare hurling is being accelerated by the success of the Kildare Hurling Action Plan which was started in 2018 and was initially divided into three strands – Club Hurling Development, Club-School Links, and Building a Club Hurling Profile.
The project has gone from strength to strength ever since, thanks in no small part to the success of the Camán Chill Dara Awards scheme which incentivises and rewards clubs for developing the game.
Clubs are assessed under seven categories – structural, participation increase, governance, coaching and games, schools, coach/officer education, and profile – and given bronze, silver, and gold awards depending on how well they score in them.
What Kildare GAA have found is that the awards scheme hasn’t just focused the energy of clubs on the right areas in order to best grow the game, it has led to a great cross-pollination of ideas.
So, for example, if one particular club doesn’t have strong links with their local school, Kildare GAA will put them in touch with another club that has fostered a vibrant club-school link and in this way the principles of best practice are shared.
Another very successful initiative has been Camán Lets Hurl, a before or after school hurling programme for third for four class children where boys and girls get a six week block of training which is run by a full-time Kildare GAA Games Promotion Officer, a school staff member, and a local club volunteer.
One of the consequences of the considerable time and investment that Kildare GAA has put into hurling has been a growth of the game in clubs which previously would have been very football oriented.
“Yeah, there has been fantastic development work done by what would have been traditionally more football dominant clubs,” says Doran.
“There's great hurling work now being done in clubs like Round Towers in Kildare town. Cappagh started hurling a number of years ago and have now gone all through the pathway and have entered for the first time in their history a junior team at adult level last year.
“Two Mile House started hurling a number of years ago and they're up to minor now and their next conversation will be about moving on from there to field an adult team as well.
“So there are a number of clubs that have embraced it and are going really well and that's the direction we'd like to continue to go in over the next while, particularly in South Kildare.
“We want to encourage and help what way we can down there to get more clubs fielding hurling teams and enabling more children to play hurling.”
A quarter of a million people now live in Kildare, and Doran is convinced there’s huge scope to further develop hurling in the county in the coming years.
“Yeah, I would,” he says. “There's a bundle of potential there that in many ways is still untapped.
“We're seeing the fruits of our efforts it in terms of the numbers on the ground that are starting to swell and come through already, but if you look at a map of Kildare and where the hurling is coming from, then through the whole heart of Kildare there's an area we need to target and that would be the focus of Phase 2 of our Action Plan.
“During the 1990s south Kildare actually would have been the stronghold of hurling in Kildare, not the north, but it has flipped over now.
“So we plan to put our heads together and engage with people in the south of the county in terms of what's the best approach to encourage hurling and see can we get boys and girls to play more hurling down there.
“Don't get me wrong, there's already some great people down there, St. Laurence's are doing phenomenal work and Athy are getting their nurseries up and running again. There's great stuff happening in Kildare town as well, and Rosglas are working really hard too.
“It's just about giving the clubs some more support and seeing what's the best way we can help them to grow the game down there over the course of the next four or five years.”
The battle to win the hearts and minds of the next generation will be a lot easier if they have a successful Kildare senior hurling team to look up to.
A victory for David Herity’s team over Kerry this weekend would secure Kildare’s place in the Allianz Hurling League Division 2A Final, and if they could secure promotion to Division 1 it would be a huge shot in the arm for hurling in the county.
So too would a good run in the Joe McDonagh Cup this year, especially a run to the Final which would come with the prize of an All-Ireland Preliminary Quarter-Final clash against one of the big boys of the game.
The fact that both scenarios in League and Championship are creditable rather than unlikely ones says an awful lot about how far Kildare hurling has come in the last couple of years.
“The senior team in any county, football or hurling, is the flagship for the sport in the county,” says Doran.
“For our kids to be able to see their team competing in the top of the League and, God willing, the Joe McDonagh and, with a bit of luck, getting back to Croke Park, would be just phenomenal.
“Even the Christy Ring Cup win in Croke Park last year, the pictures were going around the clubs and schools and there's just a real positivity around that Kildare senior team at the moment. The lads themselves are brilliant and, in fairness to David Herity, he engages with clubs in every way he can.
“If there are any requests for the players to go around visiting clubs and schools and even doing a bit of coaching, they're very good for doing all of that. There's just an awful lot of positivity around the Kildare senior hurling team.”
There’s a lot of positivity around Kildare hurling, full-stop, right now. It’s going to be very interesting to watch where they can get to in the coming years.