The county pride possessed by the Irish is palpable. In Wexford, the people frown when I tell them we are next off to Kilkenny to visit the family of a teammate and to visit their local hurleymaker.
–Why would you want to go there? And when I do get to Kilkenny, the people there having inquired about our journey thus far, reply aghast. –Wexford? Whatever possessed you to stay there and for so long? The same was true when I visited a teammate of mine in Passage East, County Waterford. After a few pints at his favorite pub, my friend looked me in the eye and said—Stephen. Wexford? Why in the hell would you go to Wexford? If you want to see some real hurling and meet some real hurleymakers then you should have come to Waterford. And now you’re off to Kilkenny?
Note: The pitch at Passage East seems to slant downwards into the sea.
Of all of the counties one might visit on a hurling holiday, apart from Tipperary with its Thurles, Kilkenny ranks above them all. Kilkenny has long been a dominant force in hurling, and is home to one of the most famous hurleymakers in Ireland at present. Dowlings hurls are great big things these days, heavy and wide, banded with metal to reinforce the surface area. His hurls are used by some of the Kikenny players, including Henry Shefflin, whom many consider to be the best player in the modern game. Brian Dowling is up on Patrick Street in Kilkenny town. Dowling’s wife met me at the gate, and it was thirty minutes before a dusty Dowling could get away from his bandsaw to meet me. Though he ran an Italian machine that could turn four hurleys at once, Dowling made sure that I watched him shape a hurley using only his bandsaw, drawing the blank through the blade, shaping lines with the same precision and trigonometry of a boatbuilder.
–They just always come out better this way, he said.
Though I now use this technique myself, I hadn’t a big enough bandsaw at the time to make hurleys this way nor the experience having watched someone else. This was the way hurls were made once the ax was replaced by the chipping saw which was replaced by the bandsaw. It is the kind of risky saw work that makes a viewer anxious watching the sawyer, so concerned with the perfection of the product, as he moves his hand closer and closer to the blade.
Dowling’s father was a Kilkenny goalie and the best hurleymaker in Ireland, just as Dowling is the best hurleymaker as probably his son will be the best. Readers may be shifting in their seats at this claim, but Henry Shefflin does not use your hurley. He uses the best. Dowling had the shed, where he ran his bandsaw, sander, and lathe, but he had another more quiet, more private space where he shaved his hurleys, as the chapel is to the church. Watching Dowling shave a hurley you realize that this is a sort of religion to him. This is probably the one thing in the world that he really knows with all certainty. Watching the master’s attention to his work as his spokeshave peels away the wood along the shaft’s length, you see that art transcends time by connecting us with everything else. And this makes you wonder what a man would be without craft and whether the artist, or man in general can really find reason to live in this world without such beauty and ritual.