Rónán Ó Snodaigh's hurling katas channel the spirit of the game
By John Harrington
If you haven’t already, watch the video above this article before you go any further.
Rónán Ó Snodaigh’s haunting song, ‘Calling all Angels’, washing over a beautifully shot Myles O’Reilly video of the Kila lead singer hurling with Diarmuid Lyng on Dublin’s Shelley Banks Beach is an evocative fusion of sound and vision.
The collaboration scratches an itch that’s been niggling away at Ó Snodaigh for much of his life.
When most people think of hurling they visualise it through the narrow lens of a 15 v 15 scoring contest on a line-marked pitch, but Ó Snodaigh would like us to look a little deeper.
Hurling pre-dates its current codified rules by thousands of years, and the essence of the game that’s part of our cultural DNA is the deep well he wants to draw from.
To do this, he has developed what he calls the Kata of Hurling, which he practices with former Wexford hurler Lyng in the ‘Calling All Angels’ video.
Kata is defined as a combination of positions and movements performed as an exercise, most usually in martial arts, but for most of his life Ó Snodaigh has adapted the concept to hurling.
He traces it back to his formative years as secondary school student in Coláiste Eoin in Dublin where he and his class-mates were drawn into the orbit of Brother Beausang, a religion teacher who combined a zeal for spirituality and hurling in equal measure.
“As a hurling instructor he used do some pretty profound stuff with us”, Ó Snodaigh told GAA.ie
“I remember in first year he came in and looked us up and down, put his pipe back in his pocket, pushed away all the desks and chairs, walked out of the room and brought in 30 hurls and told us to line up in front of each other and start pulling. It was very profound carry on for a young 12-year-old in first year.
“Then he taught us how to ground-block and took us outside and taught us how to swing and block high. Then he would take us out to the bushes and we had to cut the hedge with the hurls as well. He lined us up and down the bushes. When you're 12 and you do what I would describe as martial drilling, it's just something I had never experienced before, and you take the world as it's happening to you.
“We used to feel unbreakable around him. If we were bleeding on the pitch he'd love it. He's say, 'That's the spiorad, Finn Mac Cumhaill!' And you'd run back out onto the pitch thinking, 'They're getting it!' It was a very powerful thing to transcend to kids, that spirit over matter.
“It's only when you then go out into the world you realise you had this mad thing going on for years, I wonder did everyone else? And then you share it and people look at you sideways and you realise you had a bit of a unique thing there with that fella. He was a true believer.
“He just drilled us basically and that's what I was showing Diarmuid, it was just what I learned. I didn't know it wasn't the norm.”
Ó Snodaigh worked on his hurling kata for decades without really sharing them with anyone else, apart from his own children and his brother Rossa.
But when he heard a segment with Diarmuid Lyng on Radio na Gaeltachta, he thought to himself that here was someone he could perhaps develop the idea further with.
“I heard him on the radio a couple of years ago and he had a big impact on me, I was delighted to hear someone who mixed spirituality and hurling and Gaelachas,” says Ó Snodaigh.
“I thought, 'Who is this fella'? The more I looked him up I thought, 'I want to meet this fella'. So I was a huge fan of his before I got to meet him. I was itching to show him what I've been privately practicing. My little Katas and my martial art take on hurling.
“Katas are interesting, they bring you back into your centre, to your belly-button. If you do a kata right it just brings you into your centre, it anchors you.
“In a way I wanted to test my theory out on Diarmuid. We've been at it for a while and he's been fascinated by my take but he's able for me. For me it's perfect because I can swing on him at any stage and he has me blocked because he's such a natural player. So I'm not endangering anyone or pushing him too far. He's well capable and able for it all.
“So, we've been doing that a good bit. Any time we meet up and have a chance and if the kids are away we can have a good puck at each other. I'm curious to see if the footwork I learned in Akido transfers into hurling. To me, it does, and I wanted to try it off on an actual hurler.
“While I was doing it I was thinking, 'surely I'm not making this up'. This, to me, as soon as I do it, I feel ‘Gaelach’, I feel prehistoric. There's nowhere else in the world that does this.
“It's almost like in the tunes. No other country in the world goes 'diddle, de, de' in their tunes. They just don't do it. They do loads of other things but they don't do what we do and it's the same with the hurling, there's only us doing this in the whole world. The way we pull with the hurley, the way we use our wrists.
“It's something that's really been itching me for years. What I see as a missing tenet of hurling. At the moment it's all GAA but this game is pre-GAA. This is a really old thing here. And I've worked out movements that are choreographed that I wanted to test out on Diarmuid.”
As for Lyng, a man whose default setting is to be open to all possibilities of the universe, he jumped at the opportunity to work with Ó Snodaigh.
He had some ideas of what he might bring to the project, but he was quickly told to leave them at the door and just trust in instinct.
“Rónán was like, 'Go away with your ideas, don't worry about ideas. Me and you are going to get together on the beach and we're going to do what we always do and leave Myles do the rest and the story will unfold',” says Lyng.
“The big takeaway was in relation to the game. I wouldn't have realised that those movements were hidden in the game. And by hidden in the game I suppose I mean hidden in my body.
“And, so, when myself and Ró were going at it, and he was really going at me for a while to try to bring that out, I kind of started to fall into these positions of defence and attack. You feel your footwork moving more instinctively and all of a sudden you're in something I never would have given value to, I suppose.
“But he showed me the value of it. So that was really nice. That martial art aspect of hurling, I would never have put as much importance on it. I don't know if it's the video or the combination of the video and the song, but it's been lovely to get messages from hurlers in particular.
“You'd be kind of afraid that this is representing hurling in some way and you ask yourself, 'is this right, is this valuable, is this worthwhile, is this useful, is there something here that might be a different way of looking at the game?'
'Am I adding value to the game?' That's really the fundamental question that you're dealing with in anything you do when it comes to hurling. And the responses that I've gotten would suggest it does have value, so that's really good then.”
Ó Snodaigh could be on to something when he suggests the common view of hurling is possibly a blinkered one. That it can be more than just a codified sport you play for a period of your life and then you become an ‘ex-hurler’.
Anyone who still habitually goes for a few pucks with friends or hits a ball against a wall to get outside their own head for a few minutes will tell you the game can still live inside you long after you last pulled on a jersey.
For Ó Snodaigh, his hurling katas are another way to plug into the energy that thrums through hurling.
“A few times I pulled hard on Diarmuid and he blocked and you just feel that energy run through you and straight down to your belly-button,” he says. “You're pumped, you're lit, you're on red-alert.
“It's the strangest feeling, it's a bit like running down a mountain. By the time you get down if you haven't broken your ankle, you're wide awake. You're nearly in slow motion because your mind is moving so fast.
“With the sound of the clash, the smack of it, the feeling in your hands, a couple of sparks like that up close, you're well lit. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing to do before a game. Seven against seven. Pull, block. Just to get everyone pumped.
“It's a feeling you want to feel, because you're fearless. There's something about the vibration going into you, the sound. It's quite a strong feeling.
“I hope people who are much more connected than me to hurling start these things. I think that hurling can be brought out of the competitive structures, even for just dramatic effect. I think there's a lot more in hurling than just where it currently is. We're missing a trick here.
“We're only still developing these katas. But you can see that a lot of people have reacted to them. They feel like it impacts them in some way.
“I think that's to do with the people we are, na Gaeil. Something in our DNA. It's the tunes, the squiggly patterns - the Triskele, there's a few things that are completely branded into us from the inside out and we can't but do them, and hurling is one of them. I don't imagine any other part of the world has these movements, they're our movements.
“So, I was hoping, with this video, to step into a bit of that flow and I think we got it. I think we've told an old story in a different way.”
Lyng also believes we’re too quick buy the line that hurling is a sport you only play for a portion of your life, and thinks instead we should try “wrap the game up for people in different ways”.
He hurled at the highest level himself but believes too much of the essence of the game is sacrificed at the altar of competition.
When he looks back on his life in hurling, it’s how the game made him feel that still lives in his chest, rather than matches won or lost.
“I remember Caoimhin O'Rahallaigh the fiddler talking to me about music sessions they might have in pubs in Dublin and they could be there for four hours and there's about 10 minutes in the four hours where everybody is playing, everybody is tuned in, there's nobody talking and it's on for that 10 minutes. Thats' what the session is, that 10 minutes,” says Lyng.
“When he was saying it to me, I was saying that's the same as hurling. There's the practicality of winning games and all that stuff is present and valuable as well, but there's this other feeling we have when you’re just feeling so alive in your own body.
“When you get into these positions that Ró and I did or when you're even just pucking about, sometimes you can get that feeling in your body again and it's an elevating feeling.
“Because I don't play at that level anymore you're maybe looking for that feeling in different areas of the game. I love introducing people to hurling who haven't played for 20 years because when they hit the ball perfectly for the first time in a long time you get to see that same sort of elevated joy in them.
“We persuade ourselves that hurling is about beating Kilkenny or beating the lads up the road, but as individuals we all want to feel part of something bigger and that's much less in the head than it is in the body.
“So, hurling can always be an ideal terrain to find flow in your life and that's a valuable thing even if it's only for as short amount of time.”
If you’ve ever been to a Kila gig, then you probably won’t be surprised by hurling's draw on Ó Snodaigh.
Their creative, free-wheeling, high-energy, Irish to the marrow sound is the musical equivalent of the sport. If they projected some choice hurling footage onto the stage backdrop during a show, you’d have a marriage made in heaven.
The soundtrack to his hurling kata, ‘Calling All Angels’, is a less obvious union, but works beautifully too.
It’s clearly a very personal song he has drawn from a deep emotional well, and the hearfelt lyrics and gentle air somehow strikes a beautiful balance with the video’s very physical imagery.
“I was trying a dichotomy, putting opposites together,” says Ó Snodaigh.
“That song is about as vulnerable as I get, or as anyone could get. I haven't been able to get through the song without crying or choking up or whatever. It's really embarrassing, because I'm trying to sing it.
“So, I was thinking that when I'm hurling I'm bullet-proof. If I've a hurley in my hand, nothing is touching me. So, I was thinking that's my strongest there and that's my weakest there and I'll put the two of them together.
“And by doing that I'm alright with it. I'm alright with being that weak or that vulnerable. And with the hurling I'm alright with being that full on, aggressive, and violent as well.
"I was planning to this song for a long time and I would have talked to directors and if I leaned where the song was bringing us then it would weigh the see-saw in the wrong direction. I thought I couldn't do that because everything would become too cliched.
“Myself and Myles had a long chat about what we were going to do with this song, how would we make a video for this. And he said, 'what about that hurling thing you do? The Katas?'.
“And that was a lightbulb moment. I knew that was exactly what I should do. And then I thought of Diarmuid, and it was exciting to think about bringing two such different things together.
“There's such a separation between the two of them that it leaves room for peoples' imagination to work. That's kind of what I wanted.
“I want to elicit responses. But I want to crank up peoples' imagination rather than fill it up. I want to inspire it.
“With the hurling katas I’m trying to tap into a well. The puddles just don’t do it for me. And if I can tap into it, then everyone can tap into it."