Fermanagh building a hurling stronghold brick by brick
By John Harrington
Whenever anyone sets about compiling a list of Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s most colourful commentating moments, you can be sure the one about Cork hurler Sean Óg Ó hAilpín’s family lineage will make the grade.
“Father from Fermanagh, Mother from Fiji. Neither a hurling stronghold.”
You probably chuckled the first time you heard it, but have you ever given any thought to what Fermanagh people think about it?
Especially Fermanagh people who are passionate about developing the game of hurling in their county?
Not surprisingly, it tends to grate a little with them.
Emmett Conlon is Ulster GAA’s Regional Hurling Development Officer for Fermanagh and Cavan and a native of Fermanagh himself.
He brings up that Ó Muircheartaigh line about Ó hAilpín unprompted, admitting it’s what Fermanagh hurling is best known which only makes him more determined to help young hurlers in the county “create their own history”.
He’s doing a good job of that too as one of the driving forces behind a recent hurling renaissance there.
“Over the last few years there's been a real revival in hurling in Fermanagh on the underage scene,” Conlon told GAA.ie
“Going into 2021 we're going to have eight teams at U-13 level and five teams at U-15 which is a massive improvement.
“We're also going to see two new adult teams in 2021. We'll have Erne Gaels who have brought teams through the juvenile ranks and have been a minor team for the last three years so they're now stepping up to having an adult team playing at junior level.
“Also, during the lockdown, a number of people approached me about trying to organise a regional hurling team in south Fermanagh and we've been given approval by Fermanagh County Board to have a regional team called South Fermanagh Gaels to compete at junior level.
“Ourselves and Erne Gaels will play one another in the Junior Championship and it'll be the first adult hurling game in Fermanagh in eight years.
“Those two new teams at senior level will hopefully also encourage the teams currently competing at U-15 level to step up and form their own adult teams in three or four years time. So things are definitely on the right path going forward.
“People often put down Fermanagh hurling because for years they've only had the one adult club, but 2021 will see three adult clubs and there's good hopes for further growth in the future.”
The emergence of Erne Gaels is an especially promising portent for the future of hurling in Fermanagh.
They’ve brought through a talented group of players up through all the age grades and are now taking the leap of faith required to field a senior team. The hope would that if it goes well then other clubs in the county will see it’s a sustainable model and redouble their own efforts.
“It's not easily done and there's a great group of people there who are responsible for doing it and really driving it on,” says Conlon of Erne Gaels.
“They've been a very progressive club, they've gone to tournaments in counties like Derry, Antrim, Leitrim, and Sligo. The fact is if you want to play hurling in this part of the world you're going to have to travel.
“So Erne Gaels went on and did that and got plenty of games for the youngsters and now they have a great group of 18/19 year old young men who want to play hurling at senior level.
“Obviously the first year or two might be difficult for them playing at adult level, but I do think that long-term there's a good, sustainable adult hurling club in Erne Gaels, definitely.”
He has increasingly high hopes that other clubs in the county will soon be following in their footsteps because of a culture shift around how hurling is being coached and promoted in clubs.
The usual story has long been that if there is underage hurling in a Fermanagh club it’s because it’s being organised by one or two fanatics who are rowing against the tide.
That might sustain the game for a short period of time, but eventually the fire of those zealots will burn out and clubs revert to being football only.
For the game to be sustainable you need a much bigger buy-in from parents and club coaches and that’s slowly starting to happen now in Fermanagh.
“One thing that has improved over the last 18 months in Fermanagh is that there's more people at the clubs helping out,” confirms Conlon.
“Whereas a few years ago I would have been worried because in some clubs the hurling was just being pushed by one person who might take the U-13s and U-15s. But now there seems to be more of a sustainable approach.
“I go into schools in Fermanagh and Cavan and I often find that if you get them into little teams and play games they enjoy it. The problem then is making sure that when they go to a club that there's enough games for them there too.
“But things are getting better in that respect now. You have the Táin Óg League and county leagues and cross-county leagues so things are getting better there.
“Hurling is an easy sell for the kids if you give them the opportunity to play it. They love it because it’s just a great sport. It's just about getting a hurl into a child's hand in the first place.
“For me I get a great kick out of seeing children enjoying the game. The fact is the main purpose of the GAA is to provide games for children in both football and hurling.”
For hurling to really blossom in the developing counties it needs to be backed at County Board level as well as nurtured by the clubs and Conlon is optimistic that this is now happening too in the Erne County.
“Kieran Farmer is the new Fermanagh Hurling Secretary, he took on that role in the last year and has been a great addition,” he says. “Thanks to him things have really picked up as well.
“Fermanagh recently started a strategic hurling development plan, the first every produced for the county, and hopefully from that plan more structures will be put in place so these underage clubs can become adult clubs.
“At the moment in Fermanagh we're probably planning year to year but this strategic plan will hopefully produce a more long-term plan.
“I know Mayo have recently produced a 10-year strategic plan and it was very impressive and they're already getting good, positive results from it.
“So if Fermanagh can get this strategic development plan in place it will lead to more structure for hurling.”
Fermanagh reached the 2020 Lory Meagher Cup Final even though the team was picked almost entirely from the county’s single senior club, Lisbellaw St Patricks, who have done heroic work to keep hurling alive in the county for a long time.
It’s simply not sustainable in the long-term, though, to have a one-club county team, so thankfully there are promising signs at Celtic Challenge level that Fermanagh inter-county teams will soon have a more diverse make-up.
“When the Celtic Challenge started Fermanagh was the only county not able to field a team but in five years they went from not being able to have a team to having 45 fellas out for trials in 2020,” says Conlon.
“The hurling development squad has gone from struggling to field to having as much lads out training as the football development squad would and the standard has improved.
“That all comes from the clubs getting more games. I suppose we're also lucky that we have the Shane Mulholland Foundation which would support a lot of the clubs in terms of equipment and financial assistance in terms of fund-raising. They have been a massive help for the clubs in Fermanagh.”
Lockdown has stimulated everyone’s appetite for a return to play but it’s fair to say that a hurling summer hasn’t been as keenly anticipated in Fermanagh for a very long time.
The newly formed South Fermanagh Gaels received over 50 responses from prospective players when Conlon put a survey online to gauge the level of interest, a club committee has been formed, and a sponsor, Belter Tech, has been sourced to help kit the team out.
It really feels like hurling in Fermanagh is turning a corner, and Conlon is optimistic that the vista will be a bright one in the not too distant future.
“I think in five or six years time you'd be hoping that all those five teams at U-15 level now will all be playing adult hurling.
“At underage level what I'm hoping for is that the majority of children who play Gaelic football also play hurling. You're not going to get every child, but if the majority of children in the county play both codes that would be progress.
“We are seeing that start to develop already where a lot of our development squad hurlers are on a county minor football squad or on the development squad of both. And it's the same in Cavan, your best hurlers are also often your best footballers.
"I suppose in five or six years time you'd be hoping that there's a good, healthy junior championship in Fermanagh.
“I'm not hugely worried about the standard, for now it’s all about participation and creating a culture which you’ll be able to do if you have five or six clubs competing.”
If enough people share Conlon’s energy for the project, then brick by brick Fermanagh will build that hurling stronghold yet.