Táin Óg and Cúchulainn Cups transforming the club hurling season
By Kevin Egan
It’s that time of year when the championships are picking up pace and county identity means everything, but for those involved in the promotion of hurling in large swathes of the country, county boundaries were more like county barriers, as they made it incredibly difficult to provide meaningful games programmes for hurling clubs.
A county might have as few as three or four hurling clubs at a certain age level, and within that small handful of clubs, there could be a considerable amount of disparity in terms of ability.
Louth was one such county, where the same teams ended up competing against each other over and over. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, all bar a handful of county senior finals saw Naomh Moninne take on Wolfe Tones. In the 2000s, Knockbridge beat Pearse Óg in five consecutive deciders, while even now, the last six finals have seen current champions St. Fechin’s play either Knockbridge or Naomh Moninne.
The lack of variety in their domestic competition was widely recognised as a problem, but it was only in recent years, with the advent of Táin Óg and Cúchullain Cup competition, that the solution was presented to them, and several other counties in a similar boat across the northern half of the country.
Ronan O’Gorman has been heavily involved with his home club of St. Fechin’s, and with Louth underage and adult hurling, throughout and since his playing career, and he remembers what an uphill struggle it was to try and get a meaningful games programme for his players.
“What we doing before was trying to get in to another county. Invariably it wouldn’t work out because their hurling night might be a football night in Louth. I tried to do it a couple of times on our side with Meath and it was too complicated. Last year, we in Coiste Iomána decided to have a home and away league and then knockout championship, but in general you’ve only four teams” he explains.
“The Táin is a Godsend because Mondays are kept clean for the Táin competition, so at least there’s no football matches fixed for that night. We can use this competition for the first half of the season and then play our own local leagues after that.
“Also, with the Táin, you create a bigger community of teams. In your down time, between local matches, you can ring somebody from Carrickmacross or Meath or Cavan and ask do they want a match?”
Former Louth footballer Shane Lennon is games manager in the Wee County, and he’s been particularly encouraged by the approach that teams have taken, and the ability to ensure that clubs aren’t just getting regular games, but that it’s possible to create programmes that match up ability levels.
“This year has been the best yet, there’s a good spread of teams in the Táin” said Lennon.
“You are getting contacts from other counties and there’s a feelgood factor about the competition, everyone’s racking up the scores. The old rivalries aren’t there, every body is interested in getting good competitive games that players will enjoy and learn from, so it's not you are trying to go out and beat a team by 40 points. It’s about hurling development in counties like Louth, Meath, Armagh, Down and others”.
The model is clearly appealing to clubs, as participation has exploded.
First run in 2018, the inaugural Táin Óg League began as an U-13 competition that featured 29 teams. Now, in 2022, 69 teams compete at U-13 level, 73 at U-15 level, and 59 at U-17 level.
Inspired by the success of this competition, 2022 will see the first running of the Cúchulainn League, the senior club team equivalent of the Táin Óg League, with 65 teams taking part.
For O’Gorman, who is determined to keep young players involved in hurling to broaden the playing base at all levels, it’s a competition that has paid rich dividends.
“Just from the St. Fechin’s U-17s last year, three or four years ago that team would have fallen apart, only for Táin. It kept the core players there because there was success in that first year at U-13 level, and dragged a few lads in.
“Now, once they get to U-17, there’s talk about progression to the senior panel. Actually three or four lads that finished with the U-17s played that Leinster club league. There’s three lads that were playing and they were needed, because 10 of our lads were on senior duty with Louth. You need that, and Táin Óg has definitely has helped”.
And for Lennon, it’s a model that he can try and pitch in a county where hurling might not historically have been the preferred code, but where a lot of new people moving in might come from a different market, and where selling hurling is pushing an open door.
“It’s great that we have new clubs but we need to have a good product to sell them. If someone moves in to Termonfeckin or Dundalk, they need know where to go for hurling. The Táin and Celtic Challenge are great because we don’t have the clubs to give each other eight or nine league games without playing each other twice or three times. Now they can play a range of different teams, have a balanced season where the games are set in stone on Monday nights, and then have their championship, with all the local rivalries and traditions involved, later in the year”.
“For hurling in Louth, and no doubt a lot of other counties like us, it’s a wonderful competition”.