Turning back the clock with Social Hurling
By Michael Devlin
"We don't stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing"
George Bernard Shaw
You’re hoking out your old boots, maybe out in the garage buried within in a mouldy old kitbag after a good few cold winters. The leather is as hard as the road, and a few studs are probably missing.
The hurl might be in there too, bearing a few chips and cracks, the scars of Championship battles from a former life. The helmet has a bit of rust around the guard, but is still good to go.
Gripping your hand around the hurl, clipping on the helmet and tying up the boots, you’re mentally transported back to the glory days. Suddenly, you’ve stepped back in time, and you feel prime again. The hair may be greying a touch, or a few extra pounds gained, but it still feels the same as it ever was.
This is ‘social hurling’, an initiative that sprung up just over a year ago aimed at providing regular recreational hurling for retired players.
Its origins began in Cork, starting life as an idea for recreational GAA that came up at various workshops within Munster GAA.
Games Development Administrator for Mid Cork GAA, Colm Crowley, decided to roll out an initial four-week pilot programme in the city catering for hurlers (and footballers) who were looking to keep fit and play Gaelic games in a non-competitive environment.
“We started it in first of November last year” Crowley tells GAA.ie. “We got the use of the astro-turf in Páirc Uí Chaoimh to do it, and we would have had about 60 fellas out that first few weeks. We tried it, and the feedback was excellent, really enjoyed by everybody.”
The nights were simple, easy and fun, consisting of 45 minutes of small-sided games with modified rules, and aimed at promoting physical activity, inclusion and most crucially, social interaction and enjoyment.
Within two weeks, at the other end of the country up in Belfast, the burgeoning Cork initiative had piqued the interest of Brendan Murray. A former hurler for the O’Donovan Rossa club and at underage for Antrim, Murray decided he would cast the net out on social media to clubs across the city with the aim of starting up a similar programme.
“I genuinely wouldn’t be a big Twitter follower, but I just threw it out there to a few boys from about the club. I said, ‘What do you think lads?’. They thought it was a good idea, and that was it.
“I tagged in St John’s, St Theresa’s, Lamh Dearg, St Paul’s, and it spread through word of mouth. That’s when the ‘Half Pace Hurling’ was set up.
“November 15th was our first outing. We were going every week, in Falls Park at the start, and our base now is Coláiste Feirste on the Falls Road. It’s ideal for everyone, floodlights and 4G.”
The no-strings nature of the games is what makes it so accessible. Play is allowed to run on without the interference of referees. There are no orders being barked from the sideline to ‘chase your man!’ or ‘get stuck in!’.
On a given Half Pace Hurling night in Belfast, two sets of bibs, red and yellow, are set out on the ground. The players come together, newcomers are introduced, and they have a bit of a chat. The teams for the evening work out themselves, and then they just play, goals only, with sidelines taken out of hand to keep things moving.
“We try and play everybody in, especially the weaker ones, give them a chance to pick the ball up and hit it rather than plough over the top of them,” says Murray.
“We don’t have any frees, so if someone runs ten yards, we slag them more than anything! It works spot on because everybody knows where we are coming from. If the ball is in the air, we don’t come in and clatter someone. There’d be the odd clash where a fella would fall over, but it’s just a bit of banter, no malice. It’s been very, very enjoyable, I have to say.
“Everybody just feels great about themselves. For some boys it’s the highlight of their week. Wednesday night, a bit of hurling for an hour.”
“It’s just going out and playing for the pure fun of it,” says Crowley. “Everyone who comes seems to enjoy it, I haven’t heard any negative yet.
Crowley described himself as “semi-retired” during the last few years of his playing career, playing two or three games a year for his club, Killeagh. At the sessions in Cork, he is the youngest player at aged 35, but the average player taking part would be retired for five years or more, with some having not hurled since they were schoolboys decades ago.
“Guys would come up after and say ‘Thanks very much, I haven’t played in 20 years’. One of the lads the other night put it well, he said, ‘This goes back to the reason why we play GAA’, going out with a bunch of friends and playing a pick-up game."
Murray says the Belfast age demographic spans from the early 40's to the late 50's. “There are no 36 or 37 year-olds thinking they were going to fill their boots!”
“Everybody just feels good about playing hurling at their ages. There’s all different shapes and sizes. It’s your own pace, so if somebody runs by you, you don’t have to go chasing him.”
While most men have heavy mileage on their old dusted-down hurls, there are some who are practically new to the game. The open-door, welcoming nature of social hurling offers novices a great way to come in and get involved with Gaelic games.
“A lot of the boys played a good level, but a lot of the boys didn’t,” says Murray. “They’ve done very little hurling, but their kids go to each club now, so they are actually involved in coaching.
“We actually have a Polish guy that hurls with us, his son goes to the local club Davitt’s. Very raw, a big lad, a special hand-pass that he uses called ‘throwing out the side’!
“You wouldn’t believe the buzz from ones that don’t really hurl, or haven’t hurled over the years. They come off the pitch just buzzing for it. If you get five or six strikes throughout the match, there’s great feedback from those fella’s, rather than the boys who have been hurling for 20 or 30 years.”
Social hurling is even having a reverse effect in bringing players back out of retirement and into hurling for their clubs again.
Cork club Rochestown availed the initiative to recruit much-needed players last year, with several going back into competitive hurling to help the team field for games. “That kept them going, kept their club alive,” says Crowley.
The physical benefits of the social hurling programme are obvious, but on the aspect of positive mental health, there are also huge benefits. What’s good for the body is good for the mind.
For Crowley, the craic in the dressing room before and after the session is as important as getting the heart rate up and the blood pumping.
He brings up the example of a player who had a stint put in after having a few heart attacks in recent years. “He was suffering a small bit with his own mental health. He says this gives him a purpose. If it can make an impact for a more fella’s like that, that’s a really positive thing.”
“It’s a holistic health thing. We have two or three fella’s that would be a good bit overweight and would have been a bit sceptical about coming down the first night. But once they came down, they realised they could do it and enjoy it and have a bit of a laugh.”
On Saturday past, almost exactly a year since beginning their initiatives, the Cork and Belfast factions of the social hurling scene made their way to the GAA National Games Development Centre in Abbotstown, Co. Dublin for the first national social hurling blitz, organised by the GAA’s Community and Health Department.
There they were joined by a host of teams from around the country. In Dublin, a thriving social hurling programme has long been underway involving a vast number of clubs, while similar initiatives have launched such as Lurgan Social Hurling in Armagh and Kilkenny's 35+ League. It was clear to see the social hurling had become a phenomenon.
On the Friday night, Brendan Murray was getting text messages from nervy Half Pace Hurlers, giddy with the anticipation of the games the following day.
“There were boys there, 52 or 53 years of age, and it was like championship to them. They were nervous and excited, didn’t know what to do with themselves.
“One fella, I knew his form before a championship game, and I was keeping him going. He said it was still exactly the same as when he was playing.”
A running joke throughout the games on Saturday was Cork’s use of size three ‘soft touch’ sliotars, as opposed to the adult regulation size five ball.
“There was wile slagging over it,” says Murray. “I was keeping them going and they were bantering back. It was all good natured.”
As well as that, Murray came across some familiar faces who had long since left Belfast and Antrim, but social hurling had put them back on the same pitch once again, decades later.
“There was a guy I played minor championship against from Ballycastle, and I met him there on the weekend, he was playing for Danesfort in Kilkenny.
“There was actually a fella playing for Cork from Belfast. He grew up about ten doors down from my mother. He’s been down there 20 years, but played for Lamh Dearg before that.”
And as the afternoon came to pass, lungs burst and laughs had, all sides decamped back to the Croke Park Hotel for an evening of craic. Eoin Kelly was present to join in the fun, and Murray presented the Tipperary legend with his own embroidered Half Pace Hurling top. The hurling was done, and it was time for the social.
“Back at the hotel after was great fun,” says Colm Crowley. “Myself and Brendan would have been over and back on Twitter, having the craic with each other, so it was nice to be able to put a face to a name and have the chat.
“It was great to see that there are others out there in a similar state as ourselves, who just want to puck a ball about and not worry about it, and to mingle with the other clubs and get their experience of it.”
This week, the players were back out for their weekly hurling fix all across the country. The craic was still being had, as it is every week.
“A few bodies still recovering from our Dublin day out. But good night’s hurling from everyone. Great to get back to size 5 sliotars and a good aul’ 4 g surface,” quipped the Half Pace Hurling Twitter page, a gentle dig at the Rebel County men.
“We'll be using real balls and be putting full fat milk in our tae afterwards”, chimed the Dublin Social Hurling account.
Some fella’s will just never grow old.