Turf & Grain visits the workshop of Michael Sucllion, who took over Scullion Hurls from his father Joe in 2003, to talk about his processes and why Gaelic Sports such as Hurling are so important to Ireland.
Scullion Hurls, of Loughguile, was established by Joe Scullion in 1979. Despite never having played hurling before moving to Loughguile at 21, the sport became a big part of his life, coaching at both the club and county level once his playing days were over. A carpenter by trade, he loved to work with wood and initially made hurls as a pastime. What started as a hobby grew to become a full-time business in 1989, spurred on by Loughguile victories in the All Ireland Senior Club Final of 1983 and the appearance of the Antrim County Hurling Team in the All Ireland Final of 1989, where many of the players used hurls crafted by Joe.
Joe’s son Michael spent a lot of time in his father's workshop while growing up; watching him work, learning from him how to shape wood and helping him with his growing business. As an adult, Michael studied Building Engineering at college and worked as a draughtsman for several years before deciding that it wasn’t for him. Home called, and he returned to Loughguile and the family business, which he took over from his father in 2003.
The wood that Michael grew up shaping in his father's workshop was Ash, from which all traditional hurls are made. The Ash tree is common and can grow in a variety of soils and climatic conditions. One of Ireland’s most useful and versatile native tree species, it provides a valuable habitat for a wide range of dependent species, as well as strong, durable, flexible, and attractive timber for hurls. However, Ash trees are becoming increasingly diseased, inflicted with a fungal infection known most commonly as Ash dieback, a disease that has the potential to cause significant damage to Ireland’s Ash population. Scullion Hurls belongs to the Irish Guild of Ash Hurley Makers, and the large majority of Michael’s shaping work is crafted from a single block of wood, shaped by hand in the traditional way. Michael can make a finished hurl from a block of Ash in under 20 minutes.
“When my father first started he did each stick by hand, but we did install a machine which can help expedite the process for some of the standard size hurls. Goalie’s hurls are always done by hand as the heel needs to be thicker. I get a lot of custom orders, and we cut hurls unique in length and weight based on the player’s preference, which really sets us apart from the hurls you would get at a regular sports shop. Hurlers get very attached to their hurls, naturally, and how a hurl feels when you hold it and hit the ball is very important, and something that is very difficult to replicate with the synthetic materials that some manufacturers are using now to make hurls. A lot of players are starting to get really specific in what they choose, asking for their hurls cut to specific lengths, even to within a half inch. I think that in modern sport, where the psychological side of the game is becoming increasingly important, having a custom hurl can make a player feel like they have an edge, and the confidence to go out and perform.”
“When we cut the tree, we don’t chop it above the root the way most timber is felled. We take up the whole tree, as we need the root to make the hurl. To cut it is almost an art in itself, and you either need to cut it yourself or use one of the specialists that cut the tree specifically for the purposes of hurling. The way the base of the tree grows into the root provides a natural turn in the wood that you can see in each hurl. We can normally make about ten hurls from a tree, with the rest going to make nice flooring or other decorations. No part of the tree is wasted.”
In 2013, Scullion Hurls opened its doors as an Economusee, or working museum. The Economusee network was established across the world to promote and keep alive traditional crafts and knowledge, whilst ensuring economic growth within rural communities. This allows visitors to book visits to observe Michael crafting hurls in his workshop first-hand, and to gain a greater understanding of the process of making hurls, as well as the cultural and historical significance of the sport.
“During the season the workshop is very busy, so when I started welcoming visitors it was difficult to maintain a balance of being productive and giving visitors a worthwhile experience. Also when we became part of the network in 2013, there were only two other Economusee in Northern Ireland, but now that there are 6 of us it feels like the network is much more established and is picking up steam. These days I’m managing hosting visitors much better by setting aside days where we will have several visits and planning production around that. When we have visitors, I like to start by explaining the history of the sport, as hurling has been around for thousands of years. Normally to do this I’ll let visitors watch a short film about hurling and its history before I let them have a go at shaping hurls themselves with hand tools. I’ve had visitors from all over the world, but we also get a lot of people from Ireland, and local groups such as cross-community school trips.”
Players across two generations have won All-Ireland Club Championships with sticks made by Scullion Hurls, and the fortunes of Scullion Hurls and Loughguile are closely intertwined.
“It was probably the highlight of my career to see players from Loughguile win an All-Ireland Club Championship with my hurls at Croke park in 2012. The winter here is long and hard, and the start of the hurling season is part of what gets us through it. When spring comes, the season starts and the buzz resumes. It is more than a sport, it is a focal point for the entire community, a way of life. When you’re a child in Loughguile, you have a hurl in your hand almost as soon as you can walk. Hurling provides discipline for young people, it gives them responsibility and pride for the place that they come from. I think the best thing the GAA has done in recent years was to introduce intermediate and junior championships; it’s great to see young players or players who don’t play at the county level get to play at Croke Park. It’s special that people who have moved down to Belfast for work will travel back to their hometown several times a week to practice with the people they grew up with.”
“Your home club isn’t something that you can lightly walk away from, which is something that feels unique to Gaelic Sport in Ireland. It’s a tribal, family game and it’s just in you, a part of you. My father and brothers all played hurling, my sister played camogie. My mum was the jersey woman for the club for a long while, and when Loughguile were doing well there were often multiple sets of red and white jerseys hanging on the line in the back garden. Hurling is an important sport for people of all ages, and I think it keeps you young; some of the people playing at the club have been playing for twenty years, and as each season rolls around the thoughts of giving it up roll off with it.”
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