The members of Trinity Hurling Club make a pilgrimage between the beating heart of the pale and Clan na Gael Fontenoy Gaelic Club once a week. Twice if they have a match. Cian Ó Riain Broin is one of those 30 or so members and he has high hopes for the future. He’s aware Trinity isn’t known for its hurling, but then as famously reported, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín’s mother was from Fiji and his father was from Fermanagh, neither of which are hurling strongholds. He wants to represent Trinity in the top-tier college hurling tournament, the Fitzgibbon Cup. After speaking to him, I’d say it’s only a matter of time.
“Last year we won the Ryan Cup (the second division) for the first time in Trinity’s history, which is a huge step forward for hurling here. We could have been promoted this year but because of the huge turnover of players we decided to stay where we are for now.”
Difficulties facing Trinity Hurling
Cian touches on just a few of the challenges facing Trinity Hurling Club and their campaign for promotion. “There’s no break, the seasons all melt together, which can be relentless.” The players, who come from all over Ireland, are often committed to club and county, as well as to Trinity. If players start to prioritise, it is Trinity that loses out. As a result there are dozens of excellent players in Trinity who don’t play for the college. It just isn’t worth their time. “With players out injured, leaving college, playing for their local clubs, it’s hard to know exactly what sort of numbers we have.” Last year, in a classic example of quality over quantity, they fielded a Freshers team with just 16 players. One of them played with a dislocated shoulder for much of the season and another was a rugby player who was handed a hurley.
Attracting and retaining the most talented hurlers is a serious issue for the club. Cian highlights how hurling is regarded as a minority sport in Trinity and receives very little support from the college. “My brother and I were pucking a sliotar around next to the cricket pitch recently and we were told to stop. We weren’t even on the pitch. When my brother asked why, he was called in to the groundsman.” You’d think the time when hurlers were seen as subversive elements by College Authorities had passed but it seems there is an implicit campus-wide ban on hurling, echoing the equally absurd ban on “foreign games” the GAA enforced for so long. All of which means it’s easier to play ultimate frisbee, american football and even croquet on campus than to use a hurley.
No wonder Cian feels that there is a taboo around their name. “Lads in my club who would be great players and who go to Trinity have no interest in playing for the team. Trinity is seen as an academic college, while UCD is seen as the college for hurlers. The whole ethos at UCD is completely different.” There is only one scholarship available to hurlers each year, while the colleges Trinity compete with can offer far more support, even just in terms of facilities. “We don’t have a clubhouse or a room, somewhere we can meet on campus. We can’t train on campus, except for an hour during freshers week. We have to walk over to our home ground near Ringsend. Even if we had a small space to train on campus it would really raise our profile because there’s not much awareness of Trinity Hurling. Only hurlers know we exist.”
The impression that hurling is viewed as a niche interest by the college was reinforced by the Trinity sport awards ceremony last year. Trinity Hurling received just three invites, despite their historic Ryan Cup victory. When the rest of Ireland has moved on and is commemorating both the Somme and the 1916 Rising next year, is Trinity still frozen in the past when, although it rightly is celebrating its staff and pupils who fought in WWI, it is still chasing hurlers from the edge of the boundary of a cricket pitch?
A [assionate group
Despite swimming against the current, he sees a way forward for the club. The passion and commitment of its members is unquestionable, as is their ambition. “We have an excellent manager, Shane O’Brien and backroom staff in James Morrisey, along with our Chairman Eoin O’Leary . They demand a very high level of work from us, which we need if we want to improve.” Cian was very clear about his goals for his time in Trinity: “We have the squad to retain the Ryan Cup. I would love to win the Ryan Cup this year and then play in the Fitzgibbon Cup. If we move up to the Fitzgibbon, that will show people we’re serious and attract the best hurlers to play here, the way the Champions League attracts soccer players. It would leave a legacy that future players could build on.”
This desire to take Trinity Hurling into the big leagues is admirable, but is it achievable? Talking to Cian, you have to hope so because it’s clear his relationship with the sport is as long-running as it is intense. “My mom’s family is from Tipperary so when we’d go down there a lot, my brother and I. You’d be in a parish where all they do is hurl, it’s all they talk about. It’s just the natural thing to do there, like breathing. You weren’t forced into it, but because it was happening all around you it was the natural thing to do. On top of that, my mom was always very passionate about being Irish and playing your native game, she loved the sport, how intense it was, she loved the ties to the Irish language and to the history of Ireland.”
I thought it was strange that despite his introduction to hurling in Tipperary, he supports Dublin when they play each other. “Since I play for a Dublin club, I know the players who play for Dublin, the Dublin Seniors. You come to respect them, you’re connected to them, so you support them.” It also helps that Dublin have improved dramatically over the past few years. As Cian’s situation demonstrates, loyalties can be tangled in hurling, so I was expecting a pause after I posed the question, club or county? He didn’t hesitate for a second. “Club. You talk to people who play county and sometimes they don’t enjoy it. It’s so intense, it almost takes the fun out of it. Your club is the people you grew up with, where everyone knows who you are, even the people in the parish. That personal element makes the difference.” This idea, that hurling is not just a game but a way of life, is one many hurlers return to again and again. It’s the fuel that fires them, the force that drives them to make the sacrifices hurling demands of its disciples.
And the sacrifices are not insignificant. When I asked Cian about the worst injury he’d ever had playing hurling I didn’t expect there would be so many contenders. “At the minute I’m playing with two torn hip flexors. Both of them are torn. I’ve been playing on them for six or seven months, which isn’t great.” I consider asking him why he doesn’t stop hurling until they’ve fully recovered, but then I realise, well, he’d have to stop hurling. “At the start of the year I had a suspected fractured vertebrae, three weeks ago I was in hospital with damaged kidneys.” Those injuries were painful, but healed. “Someone stepped on my left hand and damaged the nerves so I can’t feel anything here anymore” he says, indicating what looks like the upper part of his arm. Of course, he’s also broken his fingers so many times he can’t count anymore but that goes without saying. “I’m no different to anyone else playing, no one escapes the injuries.”
Winning makes it all worthwhile though. The standout moment of his hurling career was beating Lucan in the Dublin Senior Hurling Championship Semi-Final with his club, St Jude’s. “It was my debut, I didn’t expect to play but I was thrown in and I played well enough. People at the club started calling me Ryan Bertrand after the Chelsea player who started in the Champions League Final that year. It was an incredible feeling.”
Speaking of players he’s been compared to, everyone who grows up playing sport has an idol, someone in their game they look up to and Cian is no different. “I wanted to be Pádraic Maher. He’s a wing-back for Tipperary and I play the same position myself so he was an obvious role model. He’s huge, he’s a monster who catches everything, I always loved that as a kid. He won an All-Ireland in 2010 and I worshipped the ground he walked on.”
He got the chance to see Pádraic Maher live in action in the first game of the 2014 All-Ireland Final, which turned out to be an absolute thriller. “Tipperary were playing Kilkenny. We were in the Hill and the atmosphere was electric. One of the Tipperary players had a free to win it at the death, they had to use Hawkeye to decide if it was over or not. Being in the stand, waiting to know the final score, was unbelievable. When the match was finished you just sighed. Days like that you know why you love hurling.” Occasionally in sport a match comes along that exemplifies everything attractive about it, that captures its allure. Rugby has Japan beating South Africa at the World Cup. Football has Liverpool’s comeback against AC Milan in 2005. For Cian and for hurling, it was that match.
Thanks to the internet and in particular to coverage from Buzzfeed, more and more people from all over the world are experiencing hurling for the first time. Americans especially can’t seem to get enough of the frenzied, combative action. With increasing numbers of hurlers taking the opportunity to spend a summer playing in the States, I ask Cian if it’s only a matter of time before we see hurling franchises springing up. “Obviously it would be amazing if hurling took off internationally, but the chances of it happening are very slim. People know about it though. Sky Sports are covering it now so people in England and all over the world are watching it. They do it very professionally as well, it’s a great step forward. The only problem is that they have exclusive rights to broadcast some matches. People might have to pay to watch hurling and that was never how it worked before. My dad isn’t happy about the exclusive rights.” It’s worth remembering that no one is paid to play hurling. It is still an amateur sport, all the way up to the All-Ireland Final, so some people find that business model jars with the nobler ethos of the GAA.
Whether hurling becomes popular internationally or not, Cian is convinced Ireland will always be the best at it. “We live it. We love it. It’s in our blood. Our history. My friend who knew nothing about hurling went along to a game a week or two ago and now she’s raving about it. Hurling will always have that effect on Irish people, the same way rugby does in New Zealand.” Cian is confident that with hurling going from strength to strength it won’t be long before the Trinity team get the recognition and the Fitzgibbon Cup reward that their hard work deserves.