Preview: M. Donnelly GAA Wheelchair Hurling All-Ireland Finals
By Eoghan Tuohey
This Saturday, October 27th, the National Indoor Arena in Abbotstown, Dublin, plays host to the most eagerly anticipated date of the year for Wheelchair Hurlers from across the four provinces, the 6th M. Donnelly GAA Wheelchair Hurling All-Ireland Finals.
An annual event, the competition comprises of a blitz between teams from the four provinces, vying for the coveted title. The day-long event is open to all, and begins at 11.30am, running through until 15.30pm.
The concept of wheelchair hurling was devised by Kerry’s Tim Maher, who coined the idea 20 years ago while teaching in a school for children with disabilities in Baldoyle, Dublin. Upon seeing the children playing a game involving striking a football with tennis rackets, he came up with an idea to replace the rackets with hurleys, and a revolutionary new game was born.
Since then, its popularity has soared, and he is delighted with how it is progressing.
“Numbers in each province have grown year on year," said Maher. "We have inter-provincial leagues during the year, starting in the New Year, and we try to host them in a variety of counties to spread the game and help it grow, and then this (The All-Ireland Final) is the pinnacle.”
The game itself comprises of some subtle differences to the traditional game – there are 6 players on each side, with each squad usually containing around 12 or 13 members, and the scoring allows for ground hurling and goals only. Squads are made up of a mix of male and female players.
When asked about the physical aspect of the game, and the necessary attributes required to compete effectively, Maher describes how, while the values of the game are built around inclusivity, participation and enjoyment, there is still a match and a title to be won.
“There’s quite a bit of physical contact," said Maher. "Charging is not allowed, but chairs will clash. It takes great strength, you have to control your chair with one hand, and the hurley with the other.”
As such, the games make for exciting viewing, with no little skill and physical prowess on show.
It is no small feat to referee these games effectively. Christy Browne has done most of the refereeing up to now, but Maher notes how “each province are now coming up with referees”, which is another positive development in the growth of the game, and will facilitate more fixtures in the future.
Uachtarán Cumann Luthchleas Gael, John Horan, will be on hand to present the All-Ireland Trophy to the winning side. At present, numbers restrict the participants to the four provinces, with Leinster the reigning champions.
Maher hopes that, in the future, this could be expanded. “It’s possible that there could be a few teams per province, and this would all be positive.”
Martin Donnelly remains the sponsor in chief, and has contributed hugely to the development of the game, as has the establishment of a Wheelchair Hurling committee in each province, which have become, as Maher puts it, “a focal point” with regard to the organisation and promotion of the game. Maher also has huge praise for Tony Wattene, Inclusion Officer in Croke Park, for aiding the sport in its growth – “That was a big thing for us, it helped establish the game”.
And what of the next generation of players? Maher sees a huge demand among the younger generation, albeit with new obstacles.
“A key challenge would be that nowadays, kids who would be able to play and have an interest, would be in the mainstream schools, so you might only have one or two per school, so it’s about combining them and making a team from the one region," he said.
Inclusion is at the heart of the sport, and its willingness to accept players of all abilities.
“We can’t spread it out enough”, said Maher. “It’s open to all abilities. I suppose there would be the potential for tiered competitions in the future if the numbers continue to grow”.
The sky is the limit, it would appear, for the future of Wheelchair Hurling.
Come 3.20pm on Saturday afternoon, two sets of teams will face each other in the most important game of the year in their code. Nerves will be jangling, hurleys positioned in anticipation, concentration levels primed, the very same as if they were in Croke Park on All-Ireland Sunday.
It’s sure to be a magnificent spectacle.