Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Hurleymakers (Part 1)

In 2007, having taught English literature for seven years and after spending five years making hurleys without any training or youtube, I applied for a grant through the Elli Lilly Foundation to travel to Ireland to study both the culture of hurling and the art of hurleymaking. Read hang out in woodshops, play hurling, and drink beer.

Keeping in character, I broke my middle finger on right hand in three places the same week we departed for Ireland. I was hitching up a trailer loaded with ash for hurls when the trailer got away from me rolled towards the back of our van’s plastic bumper. I don’t know why I did it, but I put my hand in the way. The impact left a plate sized dent in the bumper and me pinned to it. I was in pain but the embarrassment kept me quiet. I looked at the dent and worried what my wife would say. I’m lucky I was wearing a leather glove, or I might have been a finger less. In any case, I was still pinned between the trailer and the van. I thought about calling for help, but ever the optimist, I imagined that somehow I would make it through the day without anyone ever finding out. I first tried to push the trailer back using my shoulder and one foot. When that didn’t work, I used the second, and was able to move it and inch to remove my finger. Eased the trailer back into the bumper, but this time the lip cleanly cut into the bumper.  My hand was throbbing, but I needed to get my ash moved and stored in my grandfather’s barn. I chalked the wheels, pulled the car forward, raised the jack, repositioned the van and hitched up the trailer.  

This was the only good day I had to do this job, so I went inside, kissed wife, grabbed a bag of peas and moved three thousand pounds of ash. When I told wife later that night she took me to the hospital.

The doctors told me to splint it to the next finger and instructed me not to do anything stressful for six weeks. Did they know that I was going to Ireland to play hurling? Regardless, it was my hurley hand, not my catching hand, so I figured I’d be okay. Wife suggested that I might not be able to play so I suggested that if that was the case she might have to manage our bags and the kids for the duration at which time she withdrew her opposition. We packed up our gear and our two young boys Seamus (2) and Tadhg (9 mos) and boarded or flight to Dublin in July of 2007, which with our luck also happened to be the rainiest weather Ireland has had in a hundred years. Rain became our motif. It was in every picture. In every breath. It rained when we arrived in Dublin and no joke it was still raining when we left a month later.

We rented a small apartment that overlooked the ferries running out of Roslare, a location central enough that I could visit the clubs and hurleymakers, close enough to Wexford town to enjoy a meal, but on the beach where the boys could throw shells at the rolling ocean and generally play in the rain.
Wife loved Wexford. We found the restaurants in town a delight and sampled the various ethnic flavors. I rolled my eyes when I saw that an Indian restraint had served plak penier with chips instead of naan, but wife comforted me—of course it has chips, you’re in Ireland, Dear.
We would have loved to have caught a bit of music, but with half of our party retiring at eight after milk, and with supervision requisite, we were relegated to carrying out our stout and merlot from the local off-license.  Seamus and Tadhg both adjusted

My first visit to a club was at St. Martins where we watched the minors train and at which point I arranged to train with the minors in a few days. The next day I arranges with a club secretary to train with a club in the town just down from St. Martins. –Come on down the road from St. Martin and you’ll come to the pub and the church is just down the way from there.  Just down the road on such tortuous roads seemed to be a very long drive, and I soon found that I was quite late for training. I found the pub and noticed that there were three churches within viewing. Next to every church was a hurling pitch, but the first two were in disuse and as I drove in towards the third I could see the players all togged in, but hedges blocked my car as I parked. I darted through a gate to the pitch with my hurl and helmet in hand and immediately ran up to the coach to shake his hand. Hello sir, I’m Stephen Quigley from America and I’m here to train with you. –America? You don’t say. It is pleasure, but there is a problem. We’re here to practice Gaelic football, not hurling. A laugh rose up from the players stretching out on the ground. I looked around and the coach was right, not a one of them had a hurl in hand, but a few had Gaelic footballs nearby. I smiled and the coach invited me to practice none-the-less, but with a broken finger it is dangerous to catch a football.  

--Up the mountain on the left, the barkeep told me. There’ll be a hurl just off the road to mark your way. My first visit with a hurleymaker was to the shops of Philip Doyle. Opening my car door I could hear a humming of industry—a bandmill whirling, ripping through an ash log, lathes shaping hurls, and planers shaping goalie sticks. 

Doyle runs a big operation out of two buildings, a sawing building that house two bandmills and a hurleymaking shop. 4-foot logs bathed in rain line the wall outside the shop, most shipped over from Europe. –The younger the better. This one here he says pointing to a smooth grey bark more redolent of beech, this is like veal. Only four feet of the tree are used—the bottom four feet to utilize the flair of the roots, which are cut in such a way so that the grain flows down the length of the hurley to best utilize the wood’s strength. Doyle is a fit man getting on to forty, still trains with his local club. His v-neck sweater and jeans are free from the sawdust that characterizes most hurleymakers. Doyle did his time making hurls, starting the business in his basement before he modernized dared to modernize his operation. 

These days, he recruits some of the best local talent around. –See that man there in the tweed coat, he’s 75. The man, placed a part of a stump on a sled, wedged the chunk, and ran it through bandmill’s 9” thick blade. He’s been making hurls for some fifty years, Doyle said. Two other men were assisting, stacking the blanks onto pallets where they would enter the drying process. Once dried, a forklift moves them to the hurleymaking shop where half a dozen men unload the pallets and cut the shape of the hurl using a bandsaw and then neatly stacked on another pallet. This pallet arrives at the shaping station, where large lathes with live heads cut the contours into the hurl. From here the hurls go on pallets to individual workstations where hurleymakers address the individual needs of each hurl, as each piece of wood demands special attention. They continue shaping the hurl using handtools, removing weight here, thinning the handle, filing an edge, or planning down the surface to make the hurl more pliable. –Stephen, I can put more spring in a hurl, but once I put it in, I can’t get it back, Doyle quips. Doyle has streamlined the hurleymaking process, constantly enlarging and modernizing, and pursuing the ideal hurl, yet maintaining the craftsmanship and artistry by employing only Irish hurleymakers in his shop. He says he loves the hurling life, but he regrets not having seen the rest of the world. I’m going to get there some day he says, a sparkle in his eyes.  

Four generations of Randalls have shaved the ash to make hurling sticks in Kilkurn, County Wexford. Albert, the latest in the line works out of a three sided barn, two mountains of scrap lay just outside. Stands on a foot thick mat of shavings. 
He quit school at an early age to start working for his father full time. –This would have been a big operation when my grandfather ran it,” he says while removing a dusty Yankee’s cap from his head to wipe his brow. Now only Albert works alone in the barn, the orders piling up at his door. I’ve got to get sticks to Wexford Seniors tonight—it’s their last practice before the Leinster final against Kilkenny. Randall’s sticks have gotten bigger in the last few years as have all sticks, but his heel is more narrow than other styles, making better use of the long grain. 

Randall spends most of his time on his shaving bench working towards the perfect hurl, dancing them on his belt and then finish sanding them by hand. Randall babies every hurl that comes into his hand. –He’s a busy man, I had heard people tell me on my way to meet him. Now I knew why. Where as many other craftsmen would have long since placed a given hurl in with the other finished hurls. Randall dotes on his hurls with the eye of an artist—one last bit here, another here.

I was most interested in Randall using a side axe to shape a blank into a hurling stick. It's something I myself have worked on. He placed a blank on the chopping block and started hacking away, flipping it on end to take advantage of the grain. No tool better demonstrates the understanding a woodworker must have with his medium than the axe. It has been said, a woodworker must emphasize the strength of the grain and exploit its weaknesses. And through countless efforts, Randall has memorized the angle of the axe head, the force, the finish, and seemed to possess the foreknowledge of how this unique piece of wood needed to be, wanted to be worked so that it might best be played on the pitch. 

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