Hurling is, quite literally, the stuff of legend, writes . In Irish mythology Setanta slayed the Hound with a hurley and sliotar in hand, earning him the moniker Cú Chulainn. For more than 3,000 years Irish people have been meeting each other on the pitch for a 'clash of the ash', making it one of the oldest field games in the world.

For as long as the ancient sport has been around, craftspeople have been carving the hurley stick from the bottom 1.3m of the mighty ash tree, one of our few native species. But the very existence of the ash is under threat.

In 2012, a windborne fungal disease called ash dieback (Chalara Fraxinea) was discovered for the first time in Ireland. Teagasc now estimates up to 90% of ash trees will succumb to the disease, resulting in a significant change to our landscape and woodlands, affecting biodiversity, carbon sequestration and culture.

In March 2022, Canning Hurleys, a hurley-making business in Portumna, Co Galway, announced it would close, citing "supply chain difficulties". It said problems accessing the ash wood needed to make hurleys had been compounded by ash dieback disease. At the same time, the Dáil heard that 80% of ash planks used for hurley making over the past 10 years have been imported. 

When ash dieback was first discovered in Ireland, then junior minister Shane McEntee, told the Seanad that hurley making was worth an estimated €5m a year to the economy. It was estimated that every year 2,100 cubic metres (cu. m.) of ash wood was required for hurley making, equating to about 360,000 hurleys. At the time, Coillte supplied about 400 cu. m. of this, while the private sector provided 100 cu. m. The remaining 1,600 cu. m. was imported.

Hurleys do increasingly get made from other materials, like bamboo or other synthetic options. But unlike the sliotar, which has had standardised specifications introduced, the hurley has yet to be standardised. This is about to change. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, why are our Ash trees dying?

How do you future-proof the hurley?

There are certain challenges to bringing the hurley into the future, says Professor Dermot Brabazon, professor of materials science and engineering in the School of Mechanical Engineering at DCU, and chair of Engineers Ireland's Editorial Advisory Board. Ash wood has the right mechanical properties for the game when it comes to the relationship between the hurley and the sliotar. It also won’t excessively injure a player if they’re hit by it, he says.

But any alternative material used for a hurley, be it a polymer composite or a different wood, has to reproduce those conditions. The danger with a polymer is that the hurley could be made too strong, it could injure somebody, and the ball could be hit too far.

The GAA Hurley & Sliotar Regulation Work Group is currently working with the engineering school in DCU on a 'revolutionary’ project researching hurley and sliotar performance, for which they’re seeking a PhD candidate. The aim is to develop new characterisation systems for both the hurley and sliotar and ultimately also specifications and standards for hurleys.

Alternative materials

Part of the project is the development of a robotic arm that mimics the human arm (biomimicry) for testing how the hurley and sliotar interact with each other, as well as the investigation of alternative materials for the manufacturing of hurleys. "Rules and regulations need to be developed such that new hurleys will be safe and also keep the game within the playing conditions and what's appropriate for the game," says Prof Brabazon.

Pat Daly says he started playing hurling "a long time ago" when sliotars were a cottage industry, hurleys were made of ash and there was no helmets. Now, all of that is changing. "That’s a pretty huge transformation in a relatively short period", he says. "I wouldn’t say the future of the game is at stake. But, like anything, you have to proactively manage these things otherwise you finish up reacting to them."

In February, GAA congress voted overwhelmingly (97.4%) in favour of a motion to change rule 4.5 of the Rules of Specification, which relates to equipment used in the game. Where it used to read "the base of the hurley as its widest point shall not be more than 13cm", this was replaced by a new text which stipulates "hurleys will only be approved for use based on compliance with standards and tests as set out by Central Council".

The original rule "is no longer fit for purpose, it's out of date in terms of the 'modern hurley’," says Daly, the GAA's director of organisational culture, planning and development. The vote to amend the rule "was the highest vote ever for a change of this nature", he says.

"I think there is an overwhelming appreciation that something needs to be done." It won’t be the first change the organisation and its players have seen in recent times: the yellow, standardised SMART sliotar made its debut this year.

But why do we need a standardised hurley anyway?

Daly says it all comes down to the disease threatening the ash. "In 2012 all the state agencies were saying that Ireland would be self-sufficient in ash by 2022. They’re now more or less saying that ash could be wiped out by 2032. So that's a phenomenal turnaround in 20 years."

We went from talking about self-sufficiency to talking about a potential total eradication scenario, says Daly. The GAA is working with agencies around breeding ash for tolerance, but trees take decades to grow. "So in the interim something is going to have to be done. The likelihood – and it’s beginning to happen already – is other materials will be used to make hurleys."

That’s where the importance of specification and standards come in. In a world where hurleys were always made of ash, there was no requirement to specify anything, but that’s no longer the case. Now, the hurley needs to be "future proofed", he says, "to replace ash, have regard for safety, and the integrity of the game, in terms of how far the hurley is driving the sliotar". 

Author: This article was written by and first appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm.