Hurling is growing steadily in Ulster secondary schools
By John Harrington
The growth of hurling in second level schools in Ulster provides proof that hard work pays off.
Ulster GAA has invested a lot of coaching resources into developing the game and in the last five years the number of schools fielding hurling teams has grown from 44 to 67.
The most recent addition is St. John The Baptist’s College in Portadown, County Armagh.
Former Antrim dual star, Conor McGourty, who now hurls for Tyrone, recently joined the teaching staff in the school and it wasn’t long before some pupils came to him and told him they were keen to get a hurling team together .
“I've been in here since the start of the school year in September and a couple of kids approached me who play for the local hurling club St. Malachy's,” says McGourty.
“We had a couple of taster sessions and we managed to get 17 or 18 Year 10s and Year 11s which is basically 14 and 15 year olds signed up.
“We played our first game two weeks ago against Castleblayney which we won comfortably. They’d probably have a better feeder club and have been playing regularly for a longer period of time so that was very encouraging and can only build confidence in our pupils.
“We've a few players in Armagh development squads and they were the kids who approached me at the start of the year so they're very keen and it's great to see.
“We'll be getting some support from Ulster GAA after Christmas. They'll take a few sessions for us to try and recruit Year 8 and Year 9 pupils and then we'd hope to field a team in Year 10 and Year 9 hurling competitions which start after Christmas, that would be U-13 hurling.
“The plan then would be to build on that and bring those players all the way through the age-groups.”
Getting hurling on the sporting curriculum in St. John The Baptist’s College isn’t just good news for those pupils with an interest in the game, it’s a real shot in the arm for local hurling club St. Malachy’s.
More matches for their players will accelerate their development and the club will see the benefit of that when they play their own competitions.
A strong club school link is essential to the growth of Gaelic games, and St. Malachy’s are already doing their bit to support their local school’s initiative in any way they can.
“Absolutely, they've already been in touch,” says Mcgourty. “Once they heard that I was in the school they contacted me and have been very supportive.
“The first match we played was probably 20 miles away from Portadown and two of the St. Malachy's committee actually came and watched the match so it was great to have that support. They introduced themselves afterwards and I introduced myself to them.
“Connecting to our community in all aspects is a big part of our school's ethos so it's great that the school is able to offer another sport in the community and St. Malachy's have been a big help and I'm sure will continue to be so.”
Carndonagh Community School in Donegal are a good example of how a club and school working hand in hand can revitalise hurling in their local area.
For 13 years from 2006 to 2018 Carndonagh GAA club didn’t have a senior hurling team, and when Wexford native Luke White joined the Carndonagh CS teaching staff there wasn’t much hurling being played in the school either.
The game is on a much healthier footing in both club and school now though.
Carndonagh fielded again at senior level in 2019 and have been growing stronger year on year, culminating in an appearance in the Donegal Intermediate Final this year.
Their underage teams have never been better. Last year their minor team reached the county ‘A’ Final, and this year they won the Donegal Minor ‘A’ League for the very first time and contested the Táin Óg League U-17 Division 2 Final.
Their U-13s also created a bit of history by winning the club’s first ever ‘A’ Championship title.
The development of their underage players has been accelerated by a good programme of games with Carndonagh Community School.
They’re fielding teams in all age-groups and in February this year won the Ulster Schools U-19 ‘C’ Casement Shield Final.
“There was always a sense that they wanted to get hurling back,” says White. “When I came up here for my first year there hadn't been a senior hurling team in the school in I think seven or eight years. The idea was to field teams at U-14 and U-16 and then the aim was to have a senior team in a couple of years.
“The couple of years of Covid were difficult but the lads stuck with it with the club and last year we reached the Ulster 'C' shield final and it was an accumulation of all of those lads who started hurling with us in second or third year. They improved a good bit in that time and we had a fairly strong team.
“When you see lads winning matches and enjoying it, it's great. They're not going out and taking a beating so they're getting more interested and you have more and more lads approaching you to come out for a training session and see how they go. Thankfully enough we now have teams at all the age-groups.”
White, who won two Wexford senior hurling championships with St. Martin’s in 2017 and 2019, now hurls himself for Carndonagh as well as the Donegal senior hurling team.
He’s a big part of a vibrant school-club coaching link that is helping hurling to really blossom in the club as well as school again.
“It's nearly all one and the same,” he says. “That's the handy thing with being a teacher there, when you're keeping an eye on the club hurling you have an idea what the school team is like.
“You always have five or six extra every year then on top of that which you pick up from lads who mainly play soccer or Gaelic that don't generally play hurling with their club.
“I think in the rural area it's especially important to have that strong school-club link. If your players are mainly drawn from the one club then it's really beneficial if the club and school are working together.
“If I'm training the lads in the school then I'm always checking in with the lads who are coaching them in the club to see who's playing well and stuff like that.
“It's very helpful in terms of bringing lads through to ensure you're getting as many lads making the step up to play for Carndonagh at senior level.
“You're always looking to see who can you bring in over the next couple of years, who can make that step up from minor level to senior level.
“That's important, because hurling really dies in these areas if you don't have that.”