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Dublin: 6 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019

The Austin Gleeson hurley and the craft behind the magic of an Irish sporting summer

“I never got to play in Croke Park… the next best thing for me is making the hurleys for the lads who do.”

THE ‘WELCOME TO WATERFORD’ sign just beyond Youghal has been rendered somewhat redundant this week.

A cluster of blue and white flags decorating the Rincrew Roundabout like candles on a birthday cake confirm that Cork is in the rear-view mirror.

On the Waterford side of the Blackwater Estuary, the locals have taken the first available opportunity to remind their neighbours to the west of the difference between All-Ireland semi-finalists and finalists. Having seldom had reason to keep their colours flying into September, they’re making the most of it in 2017.

Travelling along the N25 towards Grange, it’s difficult to imagine that success on All-Ireland final day could mean more to any other county. Whether it’s flags, bunting or homemade ‘Hon The Deise’ signs, blue and white is never out of sight.

Outside a service station in Dungarvan, an eager entrepreneur has set up his own merchandise stall. The 172-W-LIAM licence plates have been bestsellers. A large banner on the wall behind him reads: “Waterford for the All-Ireland, Galway for the races.”

A woman behind the counter of a shop in Lemybrien elaborates on the impressive display of county colours: “We’re not really into the hurling at all in my house but we still have the flags out at the moment. It’s all about the match this week. That’s Waterford for you — hurling mad.”

They’re all pulling in the same direction, from butcher to baker to hurley maker.

He’ll afford himself the weekend off for the pilgrimage to Dublin, but in the meantime the days have been long for 37-year-old Peter Flanagan on his premises in Knockenduff just outside Tramore.

image_uploaded_from_ios (3) Peter Flanagan at work. Source: Paul Dollery

Demand for Flanagan’s hurleys has exceeded supply in the build-up to tomorrow’s game — to the extent that sales via his website have had to be suspended indefinitely.

A player who has been using his product since the age of 12 is largely responsible. If All-Ireland final day is like Christmas in Waterford, then the Austin Gleeson hurley is the must-have toy.

The poster boy for the current Waterford senior hurling team, Gleeson paid a visit to Knockenduff last week to pick up four new sticks ahead of the game against Galway. The 22-year-old reigning Hurler of the Year tends to go through them quickly. Others, like versatile veteran Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, take a different approach.

“We had a youngfella in here one day and he had one of Aussie’s hurleys. Aussie had given it away to him, no bother. That hurley came from an ash tree that was probably growing for 30 years and then he might give it away after hardly using it,” Flanagan laughs.

“But I know he’s probably always being asked for them by kids, in fairness. That’s just the way the younger players do it too. The older lads like Brick seem to prefer to keep the hurleys going for as long as they can.”

Austin Gleeson Austin Gleeson in possession during Waterford's All-Ireland semi-final win against Cork. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

No machine-based mass production takes place in Peter Flanagan’s workshop — or ‘the cowshed’ as he refers to it, for obvious reasons. Each stick is handcrafted with precision. The quality of the hurleys is reflected in the calibre of the hurlers who rely on them.

Planks of ash from trees which have stood for 25-to-30 years are collected from sawmills, before being left to season for 10 months while sheltered on the farm in Knockenduff. From there, Flanagan produces hurleys for four-year-old beginners and potential All-Ireland winners.

In the family home, Peter’s wife Patrice has been kept on her toes in recent weeks with the sales and marketing side of the business, while simultaneously having one ear to the ground in the hope of locating match tickets for relatives travelling home from the US and Australia.

Patrice also runs the shop adjacent to the house, where hurlers can come to select their own piece of craftsmanship. The walls of the shop are adorned with images of other well-known customers. The likes of Ken McGrath and Tony Browne can vouch for what’s on sale here.

image_uploaded_from_ios (1) Planks of ash are left to season in the cowshed in Knockenduff. Source: Paul Dollery

On the far side of the field at the back of the house, Peter Flanagan produces in the region of 75 hurleys a week from the cowshed. The templated shape of Austin Gleeson’s 34-inch camán is perched prominently on the wall behind the belt sander.

But Flanagan is flexible enough to accommodate all sorts of requests.

“There was a lad a while back who was on holidays from France and he came in looking for a hurley,” Peter explains. “He asked me if I’d have one with blood on it. I repair hurleys as well so I went out the back and found him an old one with a bit of blood on it that had been there for a couple of years. Off he went back to France, happy out.”

Long before it became a business venture, Peter Flanagan was making his own hurleys. It was his passion before it became a profession. He left school at 16 to become a carpenter, yet he was never likely to be satisfied with making coffee tables for the rest of his days.

“If you had asked me at 10 years of age what I wanted to become, a hurley maker would have been it. Serving my time as a carpenter gave me a good insight into working with timber and having attention to detail,” he says.

image_uploaded_from_ios (2) Michael 'Brick' Walsh and Austin Gleeson are among Peter Flanagan's most well-known customers. Source: Paul Dollery

“I used to make hurleys for myself and Patrice when she was playing camogie for Waterford. In 2006 we decided to make a go of it as a business. Thankfully we’re still here now and things couldn’t really be going any better.

“When you’re making hurleys, I’d say the main thing — and I think this is the case with any craft — is that you have to love what you do. I get to work from home where I was born and raised. I love what I do and when you have that, that expresses itself in what you’ve made.”

During his own playing days, Peter captained Tramore in the Waterford junior hurling final in 2004. For the questionnaire in the match programme, he namechecked Ken McGrath as the player he most admired. Four years later, McGrath was using one of his hurleys in an All-Ireland final.

“I always looked up to Ken, even though he’s only two or three years older than me. He was my hero,” Flanagan says. “When he opened a shop in town, I sent him in a few samples and he liked them. I suppose that was a bit of a turning point. You need someone like that to get your name out there when you’re starting out from scratch.

“Ken started using the hurleys, then fellas like his brother Eoin, Brick Walsh and Declan Prendergast followed after that. It has an effect of filtering down to clubs then from fellas like that and it just spiralled from there. We’re 11 years in business now and enjoying it more than ever.”

Eoin Larkin tracked by Ken McGrath Waterford's Ken McGrath in pursuit of Kilkenny's Eoin Larkin in the 2008 All-Ireland senior hurling final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Flanagan modestly dismisses the importance of his craftsmanship by describing the hurley as merely an extension of the arm: “With inter-county hurlers, they have the ability anyway no matter what hurley they’re using.”

But the reality is that the relationship between hurley and hurler is much more complex. When it clicks, no distance is too far to travel to ensure it’s maintained — as evidenced by one recent visitor to Knockenduff, who made the four-hour round trip from Tracton in Cork.

Before a game, a player might be content to rescue a pair of unwashed socks from the bottom of the laundry basket in a last-minute dash to pack the gearbag. But you’ll rarely find a serious hurler who compromises when it comes to hurleys. They’ll be ready to go in the hallway, having been prepared the night before.

Much more than an extension of the arm, the hurley is the wand that weaves a kind of magic which is unique to an Irish sporting summer.

The work of Peter Flanagan and his peers in the trade will be on display tomorrow in front of over 80,000 people at Croke Park, and in excess of one million on live television. Although it’s a massive platform, hurley-makers don’t benefit from the same brand exposure afforded to the manufacturers of Roger Federer’s rackets or Rory McIlroy’s clubs.

image_uploaded_from_ios Austin Gleeson's image takes pride of place on Peter Flanagan's premises. Source: Paul Dollery

Peter Flanagan is satisfied nevertheless. Waterford are still hurling in September and business is as brisk as he could ever have hoped for. As a supporter first and foremost, his only concern now is the outcome of tomorrow’s game. Waterford’s drought is twice as old as the ash in the hands of the men tasked with ending it.

“It’s 1959 since Waterford won an All-Ireland,” Flanagan says. “It’s a long wait, especially for people who are as passionate about hurling as we are here in Waterford. My own parents would only have been about 10 years of age back then.

“Getting to an All-Ireland final gives the whole county a boost so I can only imagine what it’ll be like if we win. You’d nearly be walking around with your chest out. We’d finally be part of the club with the Kilkennys and the Tipps.

“When Waterford are challenging, it’s massive for business too. If they weren’t going well, would I be hurley-making for a living? It’s hard to know.

21105941_10159189803070576_2962620347986971258_n Austin Gleeson collecting his All-Ireland final hurleys. Source: Peter & Patrice Flanagan

“It’s been mad in the last few weeks. The shoulders are hanging off me. But it’s absolutely brilliant. We’re very lucky. You have to make hay while the sun shines.

“I get a wicked buzz when I see the hurleys being used in the likes of Thurles and Croke Park. It’s a little seal of approval. When you see fellas using them at the highest level, it makes all the hard work pay off. I’d be laughing to myself about how they came from the back of the cowshed in Knockenduff to entertaining the whole country at Croke Park. It’s mad when you think about it.

“If Aussie scores the winning point on Sunday, I won’t be jumping up and shouting ‘I made that hurley!’ but inside I’ll be happy and proud, and that’s as good as it gets for me. I never played inter-county hurling myself, never got to play in Croke Park, so the next best thing for me is making the hurleys for the lads who do.”

Hurling may be the best thing we do as a nation but is something many never get to do at all

‘At times he can do a few rash things…I was like that myself when I was playing’

Source: The42 Podcasts/SoundCloud

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Paul Dollery

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