GAA Editor @BrianGBarry
GAA in lockdown: Hurley-makers ensuring the show goes on
Last Updated: 26/04/20 10:35am
Whether you call it a hurl, hurley, or indeed camán, there's no denying that expertise is required to make them.
One such artisan who looks to bring perfection to the ash craft is Sean Torpey. Taking over from his father's then-32-year-old business in 2013, Torpey continues to practice the trade in Sixmilebridge, County Clare.
Hurley-makers are privy to details which may go unnoticed by the general hurling fan, but must pay fine attention to minute details in order to offer the best quality sticks to top intercounty stars.
For instance, few would know which players use sticks of particular dimensions.
But by supplying some of the biggest names in the game, Torpey could tell you that the Banner's Podge Collins uses a 32-inch hurley, compared to 37-inch sticks he has provided to Limerick's Seán Finn (although the two-time All-Star defender has since switched down to a 36).
That's before you talk about weight, bas size and shape, band or no-band, and countless other specifications.
Standards within the game have risen across the board in recent times, from on-field skills, to physique, to coaching, to tactics. Hurley-making is no different, and Torpey - a sports engineering graduate - is keen to keep pace with the ancient game's modernisation through innovation.
"Players nowadays demand a huge performance, because they're putting so much effort in from their own personal lives. The quality of a hurley, it means more than ever now to elite hurling athletes," he explains to Sky Sports.
"It's important that it's ingrained in a players' blood - the feel, the touch of an ash hurley. And it's something we're always focused on to ensure. Players don't come here to Torpey's for our personality! They come for the quality of the material that we're able to provide. We're just conscious to always enhance that if we can.
"It's about finding consistency in what is an inconsistent raw material. Every ash tree is different.
"This break in play has come at a bit of a frustrating time for us, because we're working hard on a new innovation for hurleys for about six years. We're almost ready for launch, maybe we will launch in the next few months but we're not sure yet...It's something that's going to bring a lot more consistency for players, a lot more high-performance for players."
Watch this space, it would seem...
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The new normal
Virtually all businesses right across the economy have been affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Hurley-making is no different.
"We'd always be welcoming people and intercounty players at this time of the year to our factory and our store here in Sixmilebridge, because you'd be in the run-up to championship," he said. "Everything would be quite serious and progressive. But we've had to let all our production staff go, so it's just myself making the hurleys, fulfilling orders.
"It's a bit crazy for me. I'm doing 14/15 hour days at the moment, because you don't want to disappoint people when they're home alone. It could be the one thing they're looking forward to in the week."
Indeed, the lockdown has seen infinite All-Ireland finals hurled up against back-garden walls and gable-ends of houses all around the country.
And Torpey has experienced an unusual upturn in demand from outside his conventional sales base, suggesting many are turning to pucking a sliotar to keep active in these testing times.
"Our online store is very popular at the moment, because I feel people are rediscovering the power of hitting a ball again," he says. "It's something to keep them active on a daily basis. There's relaxation in keeping moving and getting something done within their own four walls or garden.
"Even in the last recession, people always seemed to have a few euro to spend on hurleys because everyone needs to keep active.
"There's a lot of mindfulness to be got from hitting a ball and I feel like people are trying their best to keep the boredom away, pucking a ball around a back garden, even if you haven't done it in 15 years.
"I read on Twitter that the junior championship next year will be more competitive than ever because there are so many people gone back playing hurling!"
"Obviously we'd prefer customers to come to our factory where possible, but you can actually get a really good quality hurley customised to your needs online as well these days," he adds. "We have many intercounty players playing All-Ireland finals who never come here for their hurley. They get them shipped, and go and play in front of 80,000 people."
However, amid all the disruption, reduced supply chains haven't hit the business.
"We'd have a good bit of stock already pretty much made up," he outlines.
"For us, it's not affecting us because we've invested heavily in sourcing a lot of stock. Since ash die-back has come in the last few years, we've been making sure that we're stock-piling.
"At the moment, we're OK. We're working away as normal. We have contractors that are trying to get into forests, but they can't at the moment because they can't leave their [two kilometre] zone, it's not essential work. I'm lucky that I work from home. From that point of view, it's easy to keep going."
Judging by the apparent nationwide spike in puck-arounds, many would argue that hurley-making is an essential service after all, for its crucial role in maintaining the population's sanity...