Colm O'Callaghan, Head of Specialist Factual Programmes at RTÉ, writes about the inspiration behind RTÉ's epic new series The Game, celebrating the sport (and art) of hurling, which continues on RTÉ One this Monday at 9.35pm - watch The Game here, via RTÉ Player.

The first informal conversations about a potential television series that would eventually go to air as The Game took place in RTÉ five years ago but, in essence, the core of the idea caught root in The Glen Field, on the northside of Cork city, during the early 1980s.

READ: Mikey Stafford on The 7 Ages of Hurling.

As part of its preparation for the 1982 Féile Na nGael tournament – a national competition for under-14 hurlers – my own club, Glen Rovers, added one of its best known former Cork players, Johnny Clifford, to our coaching ticket. Féile has grown and developed out of all proportion in the thirty-five years since but, even then, was another significant step on the ladder, if not altogether out of childhood, then certainly onto a road where the arts were darker, the language more industrial and the pulling far more intense.

Glen Field 1982
1982 Féile Na nGael tournament (featuring the author)

Most of Johnny Clifford’s considerable wisdom – and he wasn’t too slow to remind us how important his wisdom was – was wasted on me. I was far too much of a social hurler - too callow, polite and ultimately just not committed or good enough. And I couldn’t concentrate. During our training sessions, and often our competitive games, my mind would wander and my attention would frequently be caught by some of the club’s older senior players - Patsy Harte, Jerry O’Sullivan, Finbarr O’Neill – as they fetched up outside the crude, concrete dressing rooms behind us to be seen by the club’s long-time masseur, Kid Cronin. The players looked other-worldly - fine, strapping and almost always fiercely tanned, serious men - and the honk of wintergreen from the bunkers was unreal.

Johnny Clifford cut as distinguished a dash then as he did when he first played senior hurling with Cork in the mid-1950s. He was sun-kissed and silver but his fingers, hands and nose all told their own stories too - he looked like he’d been panel-beaten. And, on one level, I suppose, he was - as a hurler he was at his peak when, literally, anything could go and frequently did. But he was assigned to us for a purpose :- Johnny was our own éminence grise and he was handing on the nous and the codes.

Johnny Clifford cut as distinguished a dash then as he did when he first played senior hurling with Cork in the mid-1950s. He was sun-kissed and silver but his fingers, hands and nose all told their own stories too - he looked like he’d been panel-beaten. 

And it became quite the story for us. Our team – which featured a swarthy young man at full-back who’s gone on to become the country’s most eminent neurosurgeon and, at midfield, a red-headed tearaway who already had two false front-teeth and who’d regularly push them out on the end of his tongue as part of his sledging routine - went on to become All-Ireland Féile champions in 1982. And Johnny Clifford soon had other matters on his mind too - he took over as manager of the Cork senior hurlers and was back in Croke Park the following year when they were unlucky to lose to Kilkenny in the year’s championship decider. Thereafter for the guts of a decade, Clifford was a mainstay on the sidelines with numerous Cork teams and brought an array of silverware back home.

Saturday afternoon, February 20th, 1982, was unseasonally sunny and I can remember well the good vibes on-board our customised club van as it wound its way through town, across the river, to the expansive Saint Finbarrs’ grounds in Togher, where we were taking on our fiercest local rivals, Na Piarsaigh, in the Cork city Féile final. And we were fortunate enough too, needing a poxy, long-range goal from distance to win a low-scoring game by a couple of points. In his spare time, their hapless goalkeeper worked as a local milkman’s helper and, after the match, his tears gave the more quick-witted of us – and there were at least two – an obvious punchline to cap a fine day out.

But as we were going about our business on the field, another big local story was playing out off of it. Two of our players were the sons of local Fianna Fáil politicians and, while we were putting one over on Na Piarsaigh and their remarkable, pint-sized tyro, Micky Mullins – who, at one stage, was actually playing us on his own - their fathers, Dan Wallace and Seán French, were up in The Parochial Hall in Gurranabraher, locked into a marathon count to decide who would take the last seat in the Cork North Central constituency during the first General Election of 1982.

The previous month, the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government had fallen asunder when the then Minister For Finance, John Bruton, attempted to introduce a VAT charge on children’s shows as part of a national budget. But we were already well into a period of real political tumult on the northside of Cork city.

As the former Clare manager, Fr. Harry Bohan, says in the second episode of The Game, as he recalls a simpler, far less sophisticated Ireland and the links between religion and sport: ‘That’s what we had. Mass and the match’.

One of The Glen’s most famous ever clubmen, Jack Lynch, had resigned as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil in December, 1979 and, with his subsequent retirement from public life went the days when his vast surplus of votes could help to swing a couple of running mates home with him. The field during that election in February, 1982, also boasted a rare bit of glamour :- an odd, bi-lingual broadcaster called Liam Ó Murchú, a past pupil of our school and a man with his own long association with Gaelic Games, and hurling, especially, had been parachuted onto the Fianna Fáil ticket in a constituency where he’d grown up but had left decades previously.

But not even a drive-by canvass around our school - with his silk cravat, stack heels, a promise to repair the dilapidated swimming pool up around the back of the monastery and his connections out in Glen Rovers - could help him to make an impact and get off of the ground. He was more or less voted off the card and struggled to recover his deposit. And this is what we grew up with - local political ingénue, sport and the odd, unexpected bit of glamour, all of them often wrapped around each other. As the former Clare manager, Fr. Harry Bohan, says in the second episode of The Game, as he recalls a simpler, far less sophisticated Ireland and the links between religion and sport: ‘That’s what we had. Mass and the match’.

And its those aspects of the GAA – and especially the game of hurling – that most made me want to commission a series as ambitious and big as The Game which, to my mind, is far less a sports documentary strand and far more a subtle – and sometimes not so subtle - story of Ireland through the prism of a remarkable game that’s specific to this country.

The national film and television archives, and particularly the rich and varied libraries in RTÉ, are heavy with material about hurling and hurlers. From a young presenter – and one-time Bray Emmets player – called Dara Ó Briain pucking around as part of a weekly children’s programme to a rare, instructive exchange between the broadcaster Donncha Ó Dúlaing and arguably the greatest player of all, Christy Ring of Cloyne, Glen Rovers and Cork, and all points in between. Much of that material is of its time, overly reverential, hagiographic and hasn’t dated at all well. I produced some of it myself.

The game has become faster, deadlier, more athletic, more disbelieving, and its still spinning forward apace. And yet the more hurling changes, the more it stays the same :- players come and go, titles are won and lost and the game remains as vibrant, joyous, urgent and affirming as ever.

But the game of hurling – mirroring Irish society, as it always has done – has changed out of all recognition in the years since I pulled on those distinctive green, gold and black hoops in Blackpool - because the game of hurling is always changing. Its changed fundamentally since Offaly raised themselves from the dead to win an unlikely All-Ireland in the dying minutes in September, 1994. Or since Setanta Ó hAilpín burst so spectacularly onto the senior scene as a gifted opportunist in the summer of 2003. Or even since Brian Cody’s remarkable four-in-a-row Kilkenny team that’s dominated the game, more or less, since the turn of the millennium. And certainly since Johnny Clifford announced himself with a goal for Cork in the 1954 All-Ireland final.

The game has become faster, deadlier, more athletic, more disbelieving, and its still spinning forward apace. And yet the more hurling changes, the more it stays the same - players come and go, titles are won and lost and the game remains as vibrant, joyous, urgent and affirming as ever. The former Cork goalkeeper – and one of the great contemporary hurling thinkers – Dónal Óg Cusack reminds us within minutes of the first episode of The Game that "No one owns hurling. Hurling just lives". And as citizens, we hold it in trust and make sure its watered and fed regularly. But why?

That question is at the heart of the ambition of this series and was what made me so adamant to get it to air. Why does the game continue to enthrall us, what makes some of us so protective of it and what really goes on deep within those ferocious rucks that are part and parcel of the game now? The former Clare forward, Niall Gilligan, once described a typical hurling match to his captain, Anthony Daly, as something where ‘a thousand mad things happen and then somebody just wins’. As definitions go, its as good any and better than most. And with the best of contemporary tools, technology, lenses and techniques available to us, perhaps we could see beyond those face-guards and into those tight crowd scenes and maybe see just how mad some of those thousand things are?

When I commissioned The Game, I wanted to create a series that could endure as a full-bodied history of hurling for the next decade or so. And if we get that far, we’ll be doing well.

Was it that there was hidden, buried or long-lost archive out there too? Previously unseen old film stock that might help us to picture up some of the passages about hurling’s deep sociological and political aspects - the role of the clergy, not simply as patrons and coaches and teachers but as players of the game at the highest levels too? Or the changing shape of the inter-county hurler? The role of broadcasting in the development of hurling and the creation of superstars? The role played by landed gentry and ‘the big house’ during the very earliest days of the game? Or, on a far more primal level, that feeling when a favourite hurley is blown apart in combat?

How, asks Ger Loughnane, the former Clare wing-back and then twice All-Ireland winning manager, at the start of the series ‘do you describe a feeling?’. Before quickly describing a feeling :- that one known to so many of us that derives from that first, crisp, connection of ash onto leather, stick on ball.

ChristyRingCorkvTipperary1952
Christy Ring - Cork v Tipperary 1952

Hurling has never been so popular and so attractive and, to my own mind, is worthy of a fresh examination. Whether or not we’ve succeeded in shedding new light, the viewers will decide quickly enough. But the production company who made the series for RTÉ, Crossing The Line Films - and especially the director, Gerry Nelson - have certainly given it a real rattle.

These days, I’m part of a small, dedicated crew that attempts to coach camogie to a team of eleven and twelve year olds on the southside of Dublin. And you knock a great bit of fun from it - we have a fine squad and, among them, a couple of knacky, natural hurlers. And, while some of our stronger players are practicing their frees and working on developing their weaker hands, others are hard at it within other groups, hand-standing, back-flipping and mastering their aeriels. Some evenings our training sessions are disturbed beyond repair when someone’s mother or father arrives with a new puppy and our squad, to a girl, drop their hurleys and scatter from all angles to welcome it.

But on Saturday lunchtimes or Sunday mornings, from sidelines all over Dublin, whenever one of our young charges takes a loose rap to the hand, fails to connect with her puck out or is upset because she’s forgotten her ear-muffs and would rather have a conversation about Taylor Swift with her opponent than hurl her up a stick, its easy to remember why you’re there. You’re Johnny Clifford, basically.

Our group now has its own Féile firmly in its sights but, before that, they’ll take another couple of big steps on the road. From the end of the year, their club jerseys must be numbered and the rules dictate that all girls must now wear skorts, a crude cross-breed between skirts and shorts that are mandatory under the current camogie code. For some of them there’s loose talk about ‘playing-up’ with older teams and maybe even a run out with a Dublin development squad at some stage.

And that’s all fine. But ultimately, hurling is about much, much more than that. Our primary purpose is to keep as many of those terrific, noisy, wide-eyed young girls playing the game for as long as they can. To enjoy the sport, stay healthy, to make friends and to, perhaps, understand a little bit more about who they are and where they come from. God knows they’ll be retired long enough.

When I commissioned The Game, I wanted to create a series that could endure as a full-bodied history of hurling for the next decade or so. And if we get that far, we’ll be doing well. Because in hurling, as in life, nothing stands still. Paraphrasing Christy Ring, better is always just around the corner and the sport’s next superstar could well be pucking around with a cut-down rubber hurlóg in a kitchen in Tullamore, Tracton or Templemore as you read this. Or outside in your back garden, mastering a grip, beating a ball off of a wall, her ear-muffs placed perfectly on her head.

The Game throws-in on RTÉ One on July 30th at 9.35pm