What do the Government and the GAA have in common? Despite laying claim to protecting the most vulnerable and needy members of our society and sporting communities respectively, both have made decisions in recent weeks which will have drastic repercussions for those who are most deserving of protection.
While the Government has attracted the ire of the over 70s, the sick, and the young as a result of its ill thought out budgetry decisions, the GAA for its part has shown scant regard for the promotion of hurling in weaker counties by excluding certain counties, including Westmeath, from participating in their provincial championship against their wishes.
Southern Gaels clubman Martin Carey highlighted the injustice which has been foisted upon our senior hurlers in an excellently drafted letter published in the Sunday Independent a few weeks back.
Martin, as an avid hurling follower and through his involvement with the Westmeath U-15 development squad, knows what he’s talking about, and the Hurling Development Commitee (HDC ), if it is sincere in its efforts to promote the ‘Riverdance of sport’, could do worse than listen to his views and answer the questions he has raised.
In his letter he describes the decision by the HDC as a form of hurling apartheid, and the facts as outlined in his letter would certainly back up this statement. This decision negates all of the good work being done by those on the ground who are doing their utmost to promote the game of hurling in the Lake County, and relegates our hurling fraternity to the role of second-class citizens.
He highlights some of the contradictions that surround the HDC’s bizarre decision to condemn Westmeath solely to the Christy Ring Cup for the coming year. While the GAA rightly generated much publicity recently for its efforts in promoting our national game in far-flung Malasia, where participants from 15 countries took part in the Asian Games, closer to home things are not as rosy in the garden. Galway and Antrim have both been invited to participate in the Leinster championship for the coming year while Westmeath have been denied this opportunity. Where is the justice in this?
Now as a lad who was reared going to Galway hurling matches, and whose idols growing up were the successful Galway teams of ’87 and ‘88, I would not begrudge Galway, or indeed Antrim, participation in our provincial championship, so long as we too had the opportunity to take part. I’m sure most GAA supporters in the county would feel the same.
On what grounds should our players be denied what would appear to be a basic right, to compete in their own provincial championship? Do the powers that be feel that hurling in the county is at such a low ebb that our participation would constitute an embarrassment? As Martin highlights in his letter, on that front the stats don’t add up. Kilkenny’s smallest margin of victory on route to this years All-Ireland title was nine points against Cork, while their greatest winning margin was a whopping 23 points against Waterford. Westmeath’s only meeting with Kilkenny in recent years was in June 2006 and resulted in a 14 point win for the cats - respectable enough when compared with how so- called ‘stronger’ counties fared this year.
Westmeath also have a distinguished record in the Christy Ring Cup, winning two titles and losing this year’s final after extra time. We have also beaten Dublin in the Leinster championship two years ago. Surely these results should count for something or was it all in vain?
I would love to hear how the HDC would explain its decision to the likes of Brendan Murtagh for instance. Brendan has the ability to represent Westmeath in both hurling and football, but hurling is his first love, and unlike others who faced a similar choice he has chosen to give his undivided commitment to the hurling cause. This year he brought huge honour to the maroon jersey by being awarded Player of The Christy Ring competition. He also represented Leinster in the Railway Cup and Ireland in the Shinty – both with distinction. How can someone logically justify to a player of his calibre that he doesn’t have the right to play in his own provincial championship while players from Connacht and Ulster do? Would he not be tempted now to turn his back on hurling and throw his lot in with the footballers in order to compete in, and possibly win, a provincial title. The temptation must be there for him, but for the sake of hurling in the county I hope he doesn’t succumb.
Toward the end of his letter Martin asks how he or any other coach is expected to get young lads in Westmeath to take up a hurl and play the beautiful game when decisions like this are being made. Every young sportsman has ambitions of being the best and playing against the best.
By refusing to allow Westmeath play in the Leinster championship this dream has been taken away from our budding Brendan Murtaghs. And this at a time when our county’s combined colleges side ran the renowned St Kierans College Kilkenny (eventual winners ) to a point in the Leinster Colleges Junior championship semi-final and St. Mary’s Mullingar recently won a Colleges Junior ‘B’ title at the expense of Colaiste Ris from Callan.
To make matters worse, there are only seven counties now participating in Leinster so Kilkenny have a bye to the semi-final. This makes Westmeath’s omission all the more glaring. If further proof was needed that the powers that be are paying little more than lip service to promoting hurling in the weaker counties, one just has to look at the way the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard finals were handled last year. The original intention was to play these as curtain raisers to the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals where a good crowd and atmosphere was guaranteed. Instead, in their wisdom this year it was decided to play the Christy Ring Cup Final in Croke Park on a Friday night. Not surprisingly, Westmeath and Carlow both objected and decided to re-fix the game for a Sunday in Tullamore.
Despite these insults and setbacks which have been visited upon all involved in Westmeath hurling, I have no doubt that the good work will continue right the way through from James McGrath’s u-14 development squad right up to Eamonn Gallagher’s senior side in an effort to improve our skill levels and try to bridge the gap that exists. Westmeath do not want to be treated as a charity case, but neither do they deserve to be discriminated against in this manner. In the meantime it would be sweet if our senior hurlers could reclaim the Christy Ring title in ’09 and if some of our underage teams could claim a few big scalps in the coming years. Maybe then the HDC would redress this scandalous decision.