Photography by Jeff Mauritzen. Words by Justin Kavanagh.
We’re watching Joe Fitz work his craft. Joseph Fitzpatrick represented Laois at senior hurling for 13 seasons; he still plays for Rathdowney Errill and he now makes hurleys for the next generation. He recalls stepping onto the field at Croke Park in the blue and white of Laois; “My heart was racing. It meant everything to me and my family.” We discuss the previous night’s Borris Kilcotton under-8’s game. Pat Moore was watching his grandson Dylan compete against Ballacolla. Pat’s son, Gary, was coaching: Three generations of GAA men keeping local hurling traditions going. The GAA is the social glue that binds communities across Ireland… and beyond. Emigrants form clubs, and teams representing London and New York compete for All Ireland glory each year.
The craft of hurley-making is also passed along: Joe Fitz speaks warmly of Peter Bergin, who repaired Joe’s sticks. In the process, Peter imparted “the knowledge.” Now Joe runs his own cottage industry producing three to four thousand hurleys a year. Each is crafted from a block of ash. The “blocking” of the wood by a supplier is key as the cut must follow the grain down through the “turn” in the wood to the root. The grain shouldn’t be too close together nor too far apart; 30–40 year-old ash is best, with the wood dried to 18–20% moisture.
Joe takes a plank of local ash cut by Fergal Cuddy, and carves using a scroll saw. He edges the heel, explaining that more needs to come out of older ash, as it’s heavier. Balance is everything for the hurler. As he shaves the wood, his eyes light up: the ancient artifact takes form. A quick smoothing off using sandpaper; Joe binds the handle with a rubber grip, adds two bands to the head to bind the wood, and there it is—a fiercely durable artwork in ash, in 15 minutes flat.
I ask about the old battle scar running up his hand and wrist. “No, that was from the sandpaper strip coming off a while back,” he explains, “36 stitches all told.” That’s Joe Fitz for you; still putting his body on the line for his club…and his craft.