Adrian Hession's Mayo hurling legacy after 20 years of service
By John Harrington
After 20 years spearheading the growth of hurling in Mayo as one of the county’s Games Promotion Officers, Adrian Hession recently moved on to pastures new.
Anyone familiar with the countless hours he put into developing hurling in the county will know just how difficult he will be to replace.
As a proud Mayo native, hurling fanatic, and someone with a prodigious work-ethic, he was the perfect person for the role and his impact was considerable.
When he started in 2003 he helped organise the first Cumann na mBunscol hurling blitz in Mayo in which just six schools competed. Last year, 56 schools were involved.
His fingerprints are also all over the growth of club hurling in the county in recent years.
Last year 10 clubs competed in the Connacht Gold Mayo Hurling Championships including Moytura and Claremorris who fielded adults teams for the first time ever.
Caiseal Gaels are another recent newcomer to adult hurling having built themselves up from underage level with no little help and guidance by Hession, and he played his part too in helping Ballina Stephenites field at adult level again in 2021 for the first time in 10 years.
Promoting hurling in a football-mad county like Mayo had its challenges now and then, but when Hession looks back on his 20 years in the role he does so with some well-deserved pride.
“At the outset people looked at me like I had two heads when I said I was taking up the position in 2003,” he admits.
“It was supposed to be a filler position for six months but six months became 20 summers. The more people I got involved I felt loyaty to keep supporting them.
“The rewards are good when you see after your 20 years of work four junior clubs coming from nowhere. It's really rewarding and you feel like there is a legacy there.
“There are clubs there I know wouldn't be around if I wasn't there to put my shoulder to the wheel and help them out and cajole them along the way. Moytura, Ballyvary, and Caiseal Gaels would all have started from scratch in my time and I would have been at their very first meetings.
“That has been the most pleasing thing but it has been a lot of hard work. It's not an easy sell in Mayo, especially when the footballers are in Croke Park every year and there's a mass exodus of people to go watch football. Kids see that and they fall into that pretty fast.
“So it has been a hard sell but very enjoyable work over the years.”
In a way, Hession was a victim of his own success. The more he developed hurling in Mayo at schools and club levels, the more work he was creating for himself.
He thinks there’s a lot of scope for a lot more growth in the coming years, but that it’s a job for more than one person.
Even though he’s stepped away from the full-time role he’s still helping out clubs and schools behind the scenes in a voluntary capacity as much as he can.
He admits it will be a big ask for clubs like Caiseal Gaels, Claremorris, and Moytura, to make the step-up from junior to senior hurling in the short-term but he’s adamant it can be done.
His confidence in the potential of Mayo hurling has a lot to do with the fact that his own club is Tooreen, who will contest Saturday’s AIB All-Ireland Club Intermediate Final against Monaleen of Limerick.
They’ll go into that match as slight underdogs, but having won four Connacht titles in the last five years will be quietly confident they can spring an upset.
Hession believes Tooreen’s attitude to the game provides a lesson for other clubs in counties where hurling is a minority sport.
They’ve developed their tradition for the game over a long period of time, but it has always been part of their DNA to test themselves against their supposed betters. Along the way have discovered they can be as good as anyone else regardless of where they come from.
“A lot of it comes down to confidence,” says Hession. “When people from the weaker counties go forward they have a lack of confidence.
“That confidence was built up bit by bit in Tooreen. It came initially from the founders of the club. The main man was someone called Michael Henry back in 1957. He left a legacy that it was important never to let the club fail and to go forward with confidence.
“That story always reverberated around the club and would have been passed down to the next generation. We had a lot of hurlers in the club then who played for Connacht and woud have gained respect within the Galway hurling fraternity from playing for Connacht and playing Colleges hurling in Galway.
“Our tradition and love of the game was also grown from going to national events with the club. We used to always go to the Kilmacud sevens in Dublin in September every year and competed too against big teams from Wexford, Kilkenny, and Waterford in the Carlow 11s tournament.
“That really sold the world of hurling to us here. Even though we're not from a traditional hurling county we would feel that we're a traditional hurling club and can mix it up and talk hurling with the best hurling people in Ireland.”
Promoting hurling in counties where Gaelic football has traditionally held sway can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task, but Hession says you simply don’t have any other option other than to keep pushing the boulder up the hill.
His biggest takeaway from 20 years as Mayo’s hurling development officer is that if hurling is to put down roots in traditionally stony soil then constant care and attention is the only way you’ll grow the game.
“The over-arching lesson is that you have to keep working at it for 12 months of the year,” he says. “If you let your standards drop within your club for a few months at all, then people can drift away and interest can wane.
“So, every promotional opportunity that arises, clubs have to take them if they really want to go to the next level.
“One thing about Tooreen is that no matter what initiative I came down from Croke Park with, be it Táin Óg, Super Games, Cúchulainn League, the club just jumped at it and didn't have any doubts as to whether we'd go into it.
“A forerunner to all that was a competition in Galway called the Suck Valley League which used to take place during the winter for North Galway clubs who joined up with teams from Roscommon and Mayo who were willing to travel to take part. We gained an awful lot of confidence from that.
“That Suck Valley League went on for around 10 years and a lot of the lads who currently play for our senior team played underage hurling in the Suck Valley League in the winter and then their Mayo competitions during the summer and also took part in Mayo development squads.
“So it was a big commitment, a lot of these guys have an awful lot of mileage on the road already in relation to the amount of hurling they have played and the amount of travelling they did.
“But the over-riding thing was that any opportunities that are organised, jump on them and gain from them. Be it heading north to Ulster or south to Galway, any opportunity to play games has to be capitalised on, especially from where we're coming from.”
One of the benefits of working hard to raise their level of a number of decades is that now young Tooreen hurlers no longer have to regularly travel long distances in order to play competitive matches as much as they once did.
Instead, more and more teams are now visiting them because they know they’ll get a good challenge that will be worth the journey.
“Some mornings I go do to Tooreen club not expecting a match but there'll be a team down from Galway playing a challenge match,” says Hession.
“So we have gained that respect in the last number of years where teams are starting to travel up to us to get good challenge matches and we don't have to work as hard to get our challenges because we've gained respect over decades of playing matches and being known as a decent hurling club.
“Also, we have a great facility at our door-step now in the Connacht GAA Dome. It's only seven miles up the road from us. So especially at underage we get teams travelling from counties like Clare and Galway looking to finish off their season by playing in the Dome and looking for challenge games against local teams. So we've picked up an awful lot of matches that way.
“The knock-on effect is that a lot of our U-8s and U-10s and U-12s are already getting used to playing challenges against teams from Clare and Galway on a regular basis due to the fact the Connacht GAA Dome is just beside us which is another massive boost for us locally.”
The development of hurling in every club in Mayo was Hession’s passion as well as job for 20 years, but on Saturday he’ll allow himself to be a bit more parochial.
Like pretty much everyone else from the parish he’ll be in Croke Park willing his own club on to achieve what would be a very special piece of history.
Considering how much he’s given to the game not just in Tooreen but throughout the county, he’d be entitled to take a bit more satisfaction than most if they could pull it off.
“It would mean the world,” he says. “I remember when we won the Connacht title in 2017 I was in the stand and I turned to the current club chairperson, Pat Freyne, and I said 'This is as good as it gets!'
“It felt like it couldn't get any better because no team outside of Galway had ever won a Connacht Intermediate title. That was in 2017 and six years later it has gotten better already.
“We didn't envisage being back year on year because at that stage we'd gone three years without winning our own county title let alone think we'd be winning Connacht titles. Now we're in an All-Ireland Final so things have gotten even better and it's unreal for our little club that we have.
“We can dream. The lads believe in themselves and that's the one thing that never wavers, the belief the lads have. I suppose it comes from years and years of travelling. They've played a lot of matches in Croke Park between playing Nickey Rackard and Christy Ring Finals over the last number of years. A lot of them have played football in Croke Park as well.
“So they're going to Croke Park with an awful lot of confidence. That's filtered down to the club. The supporters have gotten confident and the amount of matches they win by tight margins when they're down and their backs are against the wall at half-time playing agains the wind in the second half and look as if they're gone, they always seem to pull through.
“We've seen it many’s the time how their belief in themselves and in sticking to the process enables them to come out on top in the end.
“We'd love for it to happen again this weekend, it would be absolutely unbelievable for our club. We'll go into the game as underdogs but at the same time there's a lot of confidence within our own club as well.”