Hurling and Science – incompatible foes?

This afternoon, Cork claimed their third BT Young Scientist award in five years. But at what cost?

There were no cries of “Welcome back to Leeside BT Young Scientist, we’ve missed you a lot” when Bandon Grammar’s Gregory Tarr hoisted aloft the prestigious gong this afternoon. There were no declarations of famines ended, nor was there any statements of defiance aimed at those in the media who’d written them off all year. No need for a “Well [whoever science punditry’s answer to Joe Brolly is], what do you think of that!” in this instance, for when it comes to science, the production line shows no signs of stopping. Eight BTYSTE (to give it it’s official acronym) awards have now been returned to the Rebel County since the turn of the century, a competition which has developed into a duopoly between ourselves and Dublin in recent times.

The West Cork man held off challenges from schools representing both Limerick and Dublin, a victory which surely removes much of the gloss from their recent pre-Christmas triumphs in the sporting domain, while firmly proving that while the country’s two most opulent juggernauts may continue to hoover up silverware in both hurling and football, money simply can’t buy brains. However, the striking dichotomy between our laboratorial achievements and our on-field fortunes over the past number of years does raise a salient question – can sporting success coexist with scientific accomplishment? Or is the concept of the dual star (specifically that of the scholar / hurler) merely an unachievable ideal destined for failure.

It can be no coincidence that Cork’s hurling and football woes have coincided with a Golden Era for Young Scientists on Leeside. Celtic Crosses are not grown in a lab, as the old saying goes. While the unholy trinity of video games, social media and the popularity of ‘foreign’ games are often attributed to our underage failings, do questions now need to be raised regarding the distractions offered by education and a reluctance on the part of adolescents in Cork to prioritize Colleges hurling. “You can repeat the Leaving, you can’t repeat the Harty” was once a maxim that reverberated around school corridors, from the North Mon to St. Colman’s in Fermoy. Does such a rationale still exist?

A remnant of a bygone age perhaps, but one suspects that the message still rings true in schools such as St. Kieran’s and Flannan’s, hurling sanctuaries where the long white coat remains the sole preserve of the umpire. In Kilkenny, a county where the immortal kingpin notoriously “doesn’t do tactics”, scientific innovation equates to nothing more than playing a third midfielder or going short to the corner back from a puck-out. While Kieran’s have amassed seven of the last ten Dr. Croke Cups, the only recognition our students receive on a national scale is the one lad who manages to achieve eight A1’s every year after pursuing Classical Studies as an extra-curricular pastime. But when all is said and done, what good is 800 points when not one of them is from play?

It could be argued however, that sporting prowess need not be diluted by scholarly ambition and certain freakish high-achievers have proven that a balance can be struck between both. For example, it is unlikely that Harvard University takes All-Ireland Final hat-tricks into account when awarding their scholarships, which would suggest that when Clare’s Shane O’Donnell wasn’t making hay against porous Rebel defences, he was studiously busying himself with scientific advancement. Completing his Doctorate in Microbiology at the renowned Massachusetts institution before returning to native shores, the multi-faceted Clareman unsurprisingly became the sole inhabitant of the Venn Diagram intersection comprising Ivy League alumni and All-Ireland medal recipients. Having never won a Young Scientist, O’Donnell’s accomplishments also provide a heartening example to those who may have slipped through the cracks at underage level, yet still yearn for a shot at senior science.

At the very least, the nascent development of hurling in Christian Brothers and Rochestown College, schools customarily renowned for the academic performance of their students, indicates that the small ball refuses to play second fiddle to the allure of education. The success of Midleton CBS at colleges level in 2019, coupled with Christians progression to the final last year, briefly restored some hope that the war on academia is not yet lost. With 41 Harty titles to our name, compared to 12 Young Scientist awards, Cork’s young boffins have a lot of work to do if our rich hurling heritage is to be usurped.

Back in 1995, when Clare defeated Offaly to record an historic All-Ireland breakthrough, Anthony Daly’s acceptance speech famously referenced a jibe aimed to him by Kieran Delahunty, a Waterford opponent who had previously advised that Clare should “stick to the traditional music, boy”. If Patrick Horgan finally manages to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand next summer, he may be inclined to echo Daly’s iconic retort.

We love our science in Cork, but we love our hurling too.

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