Sunday, July 19, 2020

JJ watching his dad Peter Flanagan, making a hurley in his workshop. Photos: Joe Evans.

This weekend saw championship hurling grace pitches all over Waterford and it’s wonderful to see it back.
It is something that we feared we wouldn’t see at all in 2020. Instead it’s going to be frantic over the coming weeks and months and one industry that this has had a massive knock on impact on is the hurley makers. From a famine to a feast in recent months but they, like all of us Gaels, they are loving it.
It’s a rare but wonderful career path and one that takes great skill but also a deep love for the hurley and the beautiful game of hurling.

BORN TO BE A HURLEY MAKER
Some people fall into their career, other people always know what they want to be when they ‘grow’ up, Peter Flanagan definitely falls into the latter category.
“I wanted to be a hurley maker from the age of ten. My father told me that I had to serve my time so I left school at 16, I was lucky to get an apprenticeship and I served my time as a carpenter. On the side I was always making hurleys for myself and Patrice but in 2005 I decided that I’d test the market the hurley making for six months and thankfully it went well so I went full-time then in 2006. At the time Patrice was playing camogie for Waterford and she was going into training and then other girls wanted them and it spread around the county that way and I was also lucky in that it was a golden era for hurling in Waterford too around then. Waterford won the league and the Munster Championship in ’07 and then got to the All-Ireland Final in ’08, won the Munster Championship again in 2010 so all that was a great boost to the business.”

Peter doing what he does best, watched by his ‘helpers’ and biggest fans, JJ and Katie.

FROM THE CORNER OF A COWSHED
It started in a small corner of the cowshed and slowly but surely Peter has taken over more and more of the cowshed and the cows have been pushed towards retirement. “I love making the hurleys here in the back of the cowshed because things haven’t changed here. When I went full-time at it, I was 25 or 26, I’m 40 now and to me it’s like stepping back in time every time I come across the fields from home and step in here and I like that. The shop and workshop by the house is different because it’s modern and professional, the way businesses should be.” The Flanagans have a superb shop just next to their house where they not only sell hurleys but virtually everything you could need for a sports team from balls, to bibs, cones and indeed great clothing.
While Peter is locked away in his workshop a few fields away from the shop he often misses out on meeting customers and having the chats about hurling but he makes up for that at matches and when he’s out and about. “We were at a challenge game the other night between Tramore and Butlerstown and there was a big crowd there and it’s great because people are only mad to get out of the house and see a bit of live sport. I was talking to Dessie O’Leary (the referee) after the game and he said for the first time in years he nearly has a queue of people offering to umpire for him instead of having to beg fellas to give him a hand out in years gone by. It was the same with the two teams, they both had heaps of subs and there’s loads of fellas that haven’t played in a few years that are back playing so that’s a great thing for the future of clubs.”

Waterford hurling great, Ken McGrath, was the first inter-county hurler to use a Peter Flanagan hurley. Here he was a couple of weeks ago with his kids Izzy and Flynn stocking up at Peter’s shop.

KEN WAS THE FIRST
A key part of any hurley maker’s success story is who’s using their hurleys and Peter couldn’t have asked for a better man to come on board as the first inter-county player to use his hurleys.
“Ken McGrath was the first inter-county player to use our hurleys and it really doesn’t get much better than that. It was funny actually as four or five years before that we were in a county final ourselves and I was captain and in the programme there was a profile and one of the questions was who are the players you most admire and I said, Ken McGrath, Willie O’Connor and DJ Carey and within four years I was making Ken’s hurleys for an All-Ireland Final. They were great days for Waterford hurling from 2002 all through that decade and I tell my own kids now all about that team and how good they were. At the same time Ken had the sports shop in Waterford and that got us into the city market and only a couple of weeks ago he was out to get hurleys for the kids so he’s been brilliant for us and he’s an absolute gentleman.” There’s been so many now through the years that it would be impossible to mention but one man who deserves a name check is the man who has made more championship appearances than anyone else, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, another loyal Peter Flanagan customer.

The rest of the Flanagan team, Peter’s wife Patrice and their kids, Katie and JJ.

CAMOGIE BACKING
“There’s no doubt either that at the start the camogie was a huge driver of our business. Paul Lyng was the Waterford manager and they were going well as well. That was probably a market that hadn’t really been tapped into as girls like a lighter hurler mostly and through Patrice we targeted that market and the camogie teams and clubs have always been great supporters of ours, which we really appreciate. And it’s been great following their path from junior to senior and to see how Waterford camogie has done over the past 15 years or so. I remember the likes of Beth Carton and Niamh Rockett coming into us as kids and now to see them doing interviews on radio and TV and winning All-Stars and stuff, I get a great buzz out of that and sport opens up so many doors. I left school when I was 16 but hurling is after giving me a livelihood through my passion for it and the GAA is great like that, you’ll always get someone who knows someone and the amount of people that would have gotten jobs through GAA contacts is massive.”

The lockdown meant that heaps of hurleys that were in for repair have yet to be collected.

LOCKDOWN SUPPORT
How was the lockdown for Peter and Patrice and the business?
“Sure look everyone knows how hard it’s been for people. I suppose for us it hit at the time of year when things are really starting to pick up, around March when clubs are back training and playing matches so we didn’t get those initial orders from clubs but in fairness to the clubs when things went into lockdown they rang and said look we’ll still take our orders, we don’t know when we’re going to go back but we’ll still take them and pay for them whenever we can go back and that meant an awful lot to us. It was a huge relief and it’s something we really appreciated because they didn’t have to do that but they did and it took the pressure off us. And there were other people who rang and bought vouchers and stuff just to support us and we are really thankful for that. I think because it affected every business and no jobs were secure anymore I think everyone was conscious of trying to support local business as much as possible and I’m a firm believer in out of bad things good things come.
How have things been since they reopened?
“The first week was very quiet and we were a bit worried,” says Patrice. “My father was telling us we should go back on the Covid payment and all but thankfully after that it picked up and once the GAA announced that there would be championships in 2020 it’s been manic.”

The shop at Peter Flanagan hurleys in Tramore.

THE PLIGHT OF ASH
At present Peter’s ash comes from County Offaly but is it hard to get?
“It is hard enough alright. Before the ash disease hit Ireland would have been self sufficient but once that hit there has been no ash planted. There are trees that are resistant to the disease and they are in the process of testing and planting trees that are resistant but that’s a long way down the road. It takes about 25 to 35 years for an ash tree to grow. The situation is not very bad at the moment as there’s still plenty of ash that hasn’t been affected by the disease but over the next five to ten years it will be harder and harder to get ash. Unfortunately in agriculture forestry is well down the pecking order behind dairy farming and so on. I’m biased but I’d love to see a lot more ash being planted and an awful lot of farmers have an association with the GAA so I know they’d only be delighted to be planting ash trees but the ash disease has put a lot of them off. There are one or two plantations in Waterford and hopefully that’ll increase.”

Déise great, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh has been a long time user of Peter Flanagan. Here he is in the shop with Patrice.

THE ART OF IT
So what happens an ash tree in a wood somewhere to make it into a beautiful Peter Flanagan hurley?
“It would be planked in the sawmill and when it arrives here then I stack it in the cowshed for anything up to nine or ten months to leave it naturally dry away. There are other ways of drying it but I think the old ways are best and by doing that you’re giving it every chance to withstand the clash of the ash because you’re not rushing the process. Then I’d mark it out with my template and cut it out and each hurley would take 30 to 40 minutes to make as it’s all done by hand and that’s where the buzz is for me, I love it.”
Would Peter be trying to count how many players in a match would be using his hurleys?
“As sue look you would but the way I look at it if you had five or six fellas on each team in a local match using your hurleys then you’re doing well but look with the internet now people can get hurleys from anywhere. I always knew this was what I wanted to do and I always wanted a shop where people could come and pick out their hurleys, whether they were from a junior club or the top senior club it shouldn’t matter because I would have felt when I was playing that when you told a lad that you were a junior hurler that you’d feel that you might be getting the leftovers but for me just because you play junior it doesn’t mean you’re any less committed. Then over the years, especially with the ash disease, we added clothing and many other aspects to the business to keep myself and Patrice and my brother Brian going in the business and thankfully it’s going well. Brian does a lot of the business side of it, the stuff I ran away from school from and Patrice is great at the marketing and dealing with the customers.”

Peter and JJ Flanagan in their TV ad.

TV STARS
“Look we’ve had a bit of luck over the years too. A few years ago a customer text us to say that there was a company looking for a boat builder or a hurley maker to do an ad for the Transport Authority of Ireland so myself and Patrice and JJ went up and we’d no idea what we were doing but when we got there it was a proper casting and we just treated it as a day out but we got the part and it was a proper set and everything and before we knew it we were on a TV ad and soon after I was getting texts and phone calls that we on the backs of buses and billboards and all sorts, it was mad. It helps with advertising and so on but what I loved about it is that JJ was in it too and it’s something he’ll always remember. It was actually his first day in school and he had to take two days off to go to Dublin to do a TV ad and that’s the picture we use now on the van. It’s a story we’ll always remember.”

Tramore hurley maker, Peter Flanagan, after making a hurley in his workshop this week. 

‘MOST REWARDING’
So what’s the plan going forward?
“Look the window is going to be shorter this year, we’re probably going to have a five or six week instead of an eight month window when it comes to club teams but we’ll work hard and make the most of it. November is usually one of our quietest months, but it might not be this year hopefully and then December picks up again with people buying hurleys and gear for Christmas presents and then January and February is quiet but I’d be making away and building up my stock. I like those quieter times too as it gives me a chance to spend more time with the family. I’ve no bother working hard and making hay when the sun shines at this time of year. I suppose one of the only downsides is that I gave up hurling when I was 28. I broke my hand that year and I knew that if I wanted the business to take off then I had to fully commit and I’d be a 100% man in both so one had to give and it had to be the playing. Starting my own business is the hardest thing I ever did, especially when I didn’t do a whole pile of listening in school but it’s so rewarding. In fairness there are loads of people who have helped us over the years like Liam Murphy from Ballygunner who put me on various course, the Chamber of Commerce have given us great help and lots of others and it all helps and it’s amazing that when you’re doing it for yourself it’s a whole lot easier to learn and take it in than when you’re in school and you don’t want to be there. When you love what you do I think it transfers into the timber and you have to have a passion for what you do.”
There’s absolutely no doubting Peter’s passion and skill for what he does and long may he continue to produce beautiful hurleys from his Knockenduff, Tramore base. Check him out Peter Flanagan hurleys on Facebook or his website at www.peterflanaganhurleysandsports.ie.

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