GAA President Larry McCarthy with the Castleblayney U17 Hurlers after their 2021 Táin Óg final win in Abbottstown.
GAA President Larry McCarthy with the Castleblayney U17 Hurlers after their 2021 Táin Óg final win in Abbottstown.

Participation numbers soar in Táin Óg and Cúchulainn hurling leagues

By John Harrington

The huge numbers of teams that have signed up to take part in this year’s Táin Óg and Cúchulainn Leagues is one of the most positive hurling news stories to emerge in a very long time.

Developing the game of hurling outside of its traditional power-bases has long been a difficulty for the GAA, but it’s becoming clear now that the cross-border hurling leagues are the key to growing participation rates in developing counties.

The Táin Óg League was the brainchild of GAA Games Development staff Padraig Dowdall, Ryan Gaffney, and Aidan Morgan who recognised that the biggest challenge faced by many counties is that they just don’t have enough teams to play meaningful competitions.

Their idea was to wipe away county and provincial boundaries and bring together the scattered hurling strong-holds in the developing counties under the one umbrella.

With the enthusiastic backing of former GAA Hurling Development Manager, Martin Fogarty, the Táin Óg League began as an U-13 competition in 2018 that featured 29 teams.

Fast-forward just four years laters, and you have 69 teams competing at U-13 level, 73 at U-15 level, and 59 at U-17 level.

2022 will also be the first year that senior club team equivalent of the Táin Óg League, the Cúchulainn League, will be played with 65 teams taking part.

“There are 266 teams across 104 clubs from 15 counties taking part with 28 clubs fielding in the four grades at U-13, U-15, U-17, and senior which is absolutely fantastic,” says the GAA’s National Development Competitions Coordinator, Ciaran Kearney.

“The growth of that is great to see. Having more teams in the competition hopefully means we have less travel.

“The more the competition grows and the more teams that enter it makes it logistically easier. To have this record number of teams taking part this year certainly makes it a lot easier to run and more successful.

“There's no doubt now that the Táin Óg League is what's driving the development of hurling in so many of these developing counties.”

For those Games Development staff tasked with growing the game of hurling in rocky soil, the blossoming of these competitions is a huge source of satisfaction.

“It means everything,” says Connacht Hurling Games Manager, Damien Coleman.

“I think we got the cart before the horse for a number of years. We were offering all these clubs coach education, formal and informal coaching and learning. We were offering them everything bar what they wanted, and we just had to go and listen to the clubs.

“It's a games based organsiation and clubs are looking for fixtures. In a county like Leitrim for example, it's a two-club county for hurling, maybe three in a given year with Ballinamore dipping in and out.

“So a county championship like that could be run off on one weekend. If we were being very serious about hurling development we have to produce a meaningful games programme for these players. The only way of doing it is cross-county clustered groups.

“Give them a little bit of energy and by all means then go back and play their internal stuff afterwards. I think nationally we should be asking counties and clubs that the Táin Óg should be their Leagues going forward and then let the Championships be what they do internally.

“By giving clubs opportunities to play more matches we can get to a far better and healthier place in terms of hurling development.”

Cluainín Iomaint players celebrate after their victory in Final 1 of the 2019 Táin Óg Hurling League. 
Cluainín Iomaint players celebrate after their victory in Final 1 of the 2019 Táin Óg Hurling League. 

In developing counties there’s quite often a dramatic drop-off in participation numbers once young hurlers graduate to the senior grade, usually because there simply isn’t an adequate games programme to keep players sufficiently interested.

That’s why it feels so significant to have 65 adults teams participate in the very first year of the Cúchulainn Cup with plenty of scope for further growth in those numbers in the coming years.

“It's a massive breakthrough,” says Coleman. “It's the first time we're running national adult cross-county, cross-provincial border leagues with the full co-operation of the Rules Advisory Committee and everyone centrally in Croke Park.

“Having 65 adult teams in the pilot year says a lot. I know that number could be even bigger if all clubs and counties co-operated and became part of it, but I think it's a great start.

“My challenge to all the clubs who aren't taking part this year is that if you're going to be a proper hurling club you need to be in the competitions that the national association are giving you the opportunity to be in.

“Clubs are doing all these training sessions anyway and lads are trying to stay motivated because the training to game ratio in some counties is so high. It could be ten to one. If you're training ten times to be waiting for a game I think clubs just need to change their thinking.

"There's a series of games provided nationally for them now on Wednesday nights so instead of going to the field to train with half a squad or with lads deflated psychologically because of the low numbers, there's energy in this.

“It's important to note too that at adult level you can field at 11-a-side, at 13-a-side, or at 15-a-side. That's facilitated.”

Many of the players who will take part in the U-17 Táin Óg this year will have previously competed at U-13 and U-15 level in the competition.

And now when they graduate from the U-17 grade they’ll have the opportunity to play meaningful matches as adults against teams of their own level in the Cúchulainn Cup.

Previously such a linear player pathway didn’t exist for many hurlers in developing counties, and now that it does it should ensure a much higher level of player retention.

“It’s lovely to see the way new clubs are coming on and being set up all the time, but they need a games programme to service them,” says Ulster Hurling Development Manager, Kevin Kelly.

“In 2015 we had around 75 units in Ulster playing hurling and by the end of this year we'll have 115. A lot of these units are clubs that don't have an adult team and are building up from U-7 or U-9. By the time you get to U-15 there's a lot of things that could go for you or against you. One of them is the good will of getting games.

“Now we have Táin Óg at U-13, U-15, U-17, and the Cúchulainn at senior we have a games programme right through the player pathway. The structure of the Táin Óg is all about getting teams of a similar level playing one another so you're not dishing out hammerings and that helps with player retention too.

“My hope when I got involved with Ulster GAA in 2008 was to have a full Ulster Club League at all age-groups where you could find your standard. So not only would you play in your own county, you'd also have the opportunity to play different clubs from other counties.

“Now we have these great competitions and I have to give credit to Martin Fogarty who was a real driving force behind the Táin Óg League to make sure it got over the line. He saw the lads trying to get the idea up and going and weighed in behind them to get it where it is now.

“Now we see this as the foundation stone of all our work. If we don't get this working we can't be worrying about anything else.

“It's now a beast of a competition when you look at the number of teams and fixtures involved and it's providing every club who takes part with a great opportunity to develop themselves.”

Four Roads players celebrate after their victory in Final 6 of the 2019 Táin Óg Hurling League. 
Four Roads players celebrate after their victory in Final 6 of the 2019 Táin Óg Hurling League. 

Such a ‘beast’ of a competition comes with many logistical challenges.

As much as possible teams are grouped geographically to ensure they never have to travel for more than an hour to play a match. When teams are further than an hour of travel apart, a neutral venue is found to reduce the journey.

Combining that geographical grouping with also ensuring as best as possible that the teams in each group are evenly matched is always a challenge, as is ensuring there are enough hurling referees for each fixture in counties where there is usually a shortage of them.

“Yes, it’s a significant logistical challenge to run these competitions and the County GPOs in each county are driving this for us,” says Coleman.

“They'd be the co-ordinators of the groups and this basically couldn't happen without them. They deal with a huge amount of work to get this done.

“When you have 266 teams across four age cohorts, if you do the maths it must be one of the biggest fixtures programmes in the GAA at the minute. It's a massive logistical challenge.

“Our biggest problem is that it's lovely having fixtures programmes and we've gone there now but we need referees to run the programmes for us.

“They're scarce enough on the ground. In Connacht outside of Galway we'd be very tight with the amount of referees and Ulster are the same and Louth and Longford aren't flourishing with hurling referees either.

“What we're asking is that every club provides a referee for the Táin Óg. Ulster GAA and Connacht GAA will provide foundation level award training programmes for them in the next month so they're ready for it.

“They're given an opportunity then to develop as referees through the Táin Óg system.”

Referees will be found because Games Development staff like Damien Coleman, Kevin Kelly, and all the County Games Promotion Officers involved are nothing if not resourceful.

In a way, the fact that it’s a challenge to recruit enough referees to officiate at meaningful hurling matches in developing counties is a testament to just how much the game is tracking in a positive direction thanks to the cross-county leagues.

2022 looks like being a landmark year in the fight to make hurling a truly national sport.