With five years’ service, 1,000 coaching sessions and 300,000 miles clocked up on his car, the former Kilkenny trainer Martin Fogarty has done his evangelising for hurling.
As the National Hurling Development Manager, his contract is now up. In his time, he achieved much, scattering seeds everywhere but particularly north of the Dublin-Galway line.
For many fledging hurling clubs, particularly in Ulster, it feels like the start of something very exciting. But Fogarty has reached the end of this journey. The fact there isn’t anyone picking up the baton is only evidence of the kind of neglect Fogarty discovered when he first went in.
“My job was a five-year contract anyway, so the chances of that continuing in Covid times…” he muses.
“But look, that aside, I think it’s an important role and I think it needs to be continued as soon as possible.”
Having spent 35 years as a school principal, he doesn’t need the work, but is keen to see the projects come to fruition.
While his role was intended for the entire country, one of the first exercises Fogarty embarked upon was conducting a survey among the 13 counties with eight hurling clubs or less. It reinforced what they already knew about what needed to happen. They titled it ‘Hurling in Crisis’. There was no hyperbole.
And so, he got to work.
“You talk about hurling development and it’s pretty simple, really,” he explains. “Where do you need hurling development? Well, you need it where there is no hurling and then you need it where it is weak. And when I say weak, you can say standard, or the number of clubs. They are interwoven.
“That’s why I would have given most of my time to the ‘Táin region’ as I would have called it, because the most important project was to run the Táin Óg competitions.”
If there were few clubs in a county, then there wasn’t enough for healthy and competitive action. Without a meaningful programme of games, there was no chance of attracting, say, footballers who are keen on hurling but not for the sake of just three games per season.
Fogarty knew that he would encounter some questions based on his home county.
How could someone push two codes when Kilkenny don’t play football?
He has the answer to that.
There are 44 clubs in Kilkenny and 35 field an adult football team.
“We have three grades of competition at every age grade,” he says. “We have A, B and C. That allows teams to play at their own level. It’s up to themselves how much time they put into it, but the competitions are there and it is easy to take part.”
He identified that once you go through the age ranks in counties that have in and around five teams, there would be huge gaps in standard. But because there were so few, they all had to play in the one competition.
The solution came from the imagination. They established the Táin Óg leagues at underage level that scrubs away county boundaries to create appropriate tiers for teams. Its adult equivalent, the Cúchulainn League, will commence in 2022.
He makes it clear these competitions have to be enshrined in the calendar and given a high level of support. If that is delivered, then he can see a huge increase in hurling.
“If that is done, it is going to revolutionise hurling up the country, because it’s going to mean every team from 13, 15, 17 to adult, they will have at least one meaningful competition each year,” he adds. “And that competition will involve at least six games spread across the province across 10 weeks.
“They won’t be easy to win. They will be hard to win and there will be a great variety of teams in it. That in itself will make it hard to win, players will train harder and more often to win, and that means the teams are going to improve, the county teams are going to improve and I am convinced that more players will play the games.
“I am convinced that any athlete worth his or her salt, they thrive on competition and something that is hard to do.
“If hurling is a three or four game competition, run off at the end of September and October, it is not enough for them. Whereas you have the Tain Óg league, it is challenging and meaningful.
“I have met a lot of football players who would like to play hurling, but the current structures are not giving them enough for them to put their time into it. That’s why I think Tain Óg and Cuchulainns will change the landscape.”
That was his first priority. He has left the GAA with a viable framework of games to grow hurling activity.
His second and third targets will be more difficult to achieve.
“The clubs and these players (should) get an annual grant,” he says.
“An annual support package, it could be finance or it could be equipment, it doesn’t really bother me which it is.
“I threw out the figure of €3,000. If it is more, I would be delighted. Less wouldn’t be very meaningful.
“I wouldn’t just hand out that money or equipment, it would be conditional on meeting certain conditions. Like you get x amount for fielding at Under-13, x amount for Under-15 and 17 Tain Óg.
“And in a way, it is just supporting these clubs that have to travel so far, really to play their games.”
Within a 20-mile radius of his own club, Erin’s Own in Castlecomer, Fogarty could source 15 sides to play against. Where the patchy areas in Ireland are, hurling is thin on the ground. If Aodh Ruadh in Ballyshannon want to play Carndonough in Donegal, it is an 80-mile trip before a ball is pucked in anger.
Westport’s nearest game is 30 miles away. After that, it’s 50. If the GAA provide money for equipment, the club can raise finance to offset travelling expenses.
“That figure, based on what the GAA spend annually, it is not a lot,” says Fogarty.
“The condition is that they take part in the competitions that are provided, they take part in the coaching provided and maybe providing referees, but they will get support.”
He continues: “The last point I had that you start up a team, you get a package to start off. Hurling is costly to run. As you know well, if you are lucky enough to get enough people to start hurling in this area, straight away the first problem is to raise €3,000 or €4,000 to get helmets.
“They need those at the start because a child that hasn’t hurled before, they are not going to go out and spend €50 on a helmet and €20 on a hurl. They are not going to do that before they know they are going to buy into the game.
“So at the moment, there is nothing in place to do that for a new club.”
During Fogarty’s time, the work of Games Development Officers and volunteers evolved. Those that came within his orbit were at once struck by his intense passion. His ability to interact with people coupled with his straight down the line manner — Fogarty is someone who just didn’t need the gig and so was free to express himself in whatever way he chose — made disciples out of hurling people everywhere.
Take a county like Fermanagh. For almost a decade there was just one club team in Lisbellaw. Now there are seven clubs operating at underage level. A South Ulster League was established in which Lisbellaw were able to field their second string against the likes of the reformed Erne Gaels and the newly-established South Fermanagh Gaels and it proved a huge success and more teams want to enter for 2022.
Unfortunately, despite the numerous examples of the health of dual clubs such as Slaughtneil, Dunloy, O’Donovan Rossa and others, there does exist a level of, as Fogarty calls it, ‘sabotage’ towards hurling from football clubs.
“I am totally aware of it,” he says.
“I have said it to the Director-General. I have said it to the President. I got a meeting with the Management Committee and I have told them very clearly that the only language that people understand is money.
“Teams get funding for games development every year for various things. I have told them that the only way to stop the sabotage is to pull the funding.
“Now, they agreed with me. And time will tell now whether they implement it or not.
“Basically, I am saying there is no sabotage allowed in the Tain Óg fixtures. If a county puts on a round of matches, if a club puts on a challenge match, that county has to be hit in the pocket.
“Because it’s unbelievable, it goes on. I said to the top brass, ‘Guys, I am not mincing my words here. What’s going on is absolutely scandalous.’”
The examples still dismay him. Recently, he heard of a county football manager stopping a player from hurling with his club in the intercounty off-season.
“There is subterfuge. I have seen where lads are saying they are going to play hurling and then all of a sudden, they can be off the football panel. And all the manager has to say is that the player is not good enough.
“You get the same within clubs and counties. You have managers saying, ‘you’ll not get on that football squad unless you give up the hurling.’”
But for now, he has scattered the seeds. His advice is with the GAA. The fields still need tending to.