It's late in the evening, when this writer speaks to Adrian Hession, the full time hurling coaching officer with the Mayo county board, but it's always late in the evening when he puts the hurls away and gets to sit down and relax as he spreads the word of hurling in the county.
Since 2003 Hession has been covering the length and breath of the county, from school to school, club to club trying to get the national game exposed to the youth in the county, but it's something he thoroughly enjoys. “It's probably the best time to catch me, we had a blitz there this evening, the weather wasn't great but we had 30 under 10 kids out hurling so it was a good evening.”
When Adrian first got involved coaching with the county board, the game was a very minority sport with a few strong holds keeping the game alive and the rest of the county was oblivious more or less to the small ball game. But in the past six years, he has seen the game grow massively in the county. “When I first got involved involved there were only maybe two or three clubs fielding sides in every underage grade, with six sides playing senior hurling.
“The first thing we set about doing was getting those senior sides all playing in every underage grade they could so there was a good competition there for all those who wanted to play and then the hard task of getting new clubs set up.
“Since 2003, four new juvenile clubs have come on board, with Moytura in south Mayo, Ballyvary in 2005, Claremorris and just last winter the Cashel Gaels club in the east of the county. But this didn't happen over night as Hession explained.
“There is a lot of work to going into setting up a club. We started off at the national school level, giving the kids experience so they could learn the skills of the game and compete on the field so they enjoyed it and weren't going out every week getting hammered, because that would have done no good and put them off the game. Then you had to get people involved to take on coaching and officer roles so the clubs can survive.
“We have had a lot of open evenings for coaches and officers to come along to, but not every idea is a successful one and there have been a lot of fruitless meetings with clubs who didn't want to take on juvenile sides and things just didn't work out, but since 2003 the growth and success of the game amongst the kids has been phenomal compared to what it was.”
Keeping the interest alive
The interest in the game has grown over the past number of years and Mayo's success on the field has played it's part. “Only last weekend when Mayo played Westmeath in the Christy Ring Cup in Westport, there was a great buzz about the place. Mayo won which was great, but the thing that I really enjoyed was after the game there were a group of young lads there who had never seen the Mayo senior hurling side play before and they were buzzing after the game and wanting to know when were there trials for the Mayo u14 side and was there a school of excellence on this summer.
“That's a really great thing to see after a game. I suppose that maybe up to the turn of the decade, you didn't hear or read about hurling in the local press from one end of the year to the next, but all the local media have rowed in behind the game and given it a great boost in coverage, from covering the senior side to just printing pictures of kids playing at a blitz and for kids to see themselves in the paper playing hurling it's a great thing for them.”
Schools the key to success
While clubs are the foundation of the game, the first steps taken in getting children involved in hurling is in the national schools and that's where the real work has been done and the results on the field are showing.” says Adrian. “Six years ago when I became involved, there were no Cumman na mBunscoil competitions for hurling, bar the indoor version in the winter, it had almost died. So we set about getting into the schools and working with the children, giving them a basic understanding of the game and letting them pick up the skills of the sport.
“Last year we had 30 schools competing across five different divisions at national school level, that's some turn around. Great credit must be given to the teachers who have really taken it on and gone with it. At the start there was a little bit of trepidation because some thought it might be too dangerous, but it has come full circle because they saw the kids wanted to play and get involved and now it's really growing in every area and all the kids get the chance to play.”
A game for everyone
While hurling was a minority sport, camogie was even further to the back of the mind of a lot of people but the past couple of years has seen the ladies version of the game spurt some growth in Mayo. “The foundation of Ná Bridoge in east Mayo a few years was a big step and gave the girls someone to play for and since then, we have seen Castlebar and Westport teams start up. There is a structure there now and a forward movement and the start up of a county board in 2007 will only help the game. We now have a side who played only a few weeks ago in the national league division five tournament, it gives the girls in the county who like the game something to aim for.”
A few years ago, it may have seemed a fool’s errand to try and spout the glories of the game of hurling in Mayo apart from in it's few heartlands, but the past six years has been something Hession has enjoyed doing and hopes to be doing for a long time to come. “When you can mix your work with your hobby it's a great thing, and I hope that I will be able to do that for a long time to come, a lot of work has been done, but it has to be kept up to make sure that the game continues to grow.”