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*Hurlers at the M Donnelly GAA Wheelchair Hurling Interprovinvcial League held in St Josephn’s Doora Barefield GAA, Gurteen Co. Clare in September. Photograph: Brian Arthur

No41 2801

Helmets and hurling, it’s been a long running story in the world of GAA that has taken on a new twist.

There has always been a fascination with helmets in the game, top of the pile comes Brian Lohan’s iconic red helmet oft thrown off when the battle was really heating up, Cork’s Joe Deane opted for a similar style but a yellow version. Henry Shefflin and Lar Corbett both sported green and yellow Coopers while Ronan Curran’s employment with Mycro allowed him model their latest brand during the Rebel’s high flying exploits in the mid 2000s. And lest we not forget, Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin’s vintage round style mycro that could have possibly doubled up as a saucepan for boiling spuds.

It’s Donal Clifford of Cork that holds the distinction of being the first outfield player to wear a helmet in an inter-county match, that being the 1969 National League semi-final against Tipperary. 40 years later, Kilkenny’s Michael Kavanagh became the last outfield player not to wear one in an All-Ireland senior final.

In a sport that brings so much joy and memories, tragedy has left its mark on the game, many of those that have played have the scars to show and some wounds have been caused by improper use of headgear. In 1995, a study taken from a number of Cork hospitals showed that of those admitted with hurling injuries who wore a face guard, only five per cent had injuries which were to the head. In 2003, the South Eastern Health Board decided to write to the GAA after four people lost the sight in an eye as a result of injuries sustained in hurling activities in Waterford and Cork in June.

Such cases have become less common. Since the start of 2010 all players have been required to wear helmets during matches and training. The GAA was slow to make wearing helmets compulsory, with a breakthrough in 2005 when those aged less than 18 were required to wear them. In 2007 the rule was expanded to include players playing under 21 and it became mandatory for all ages three years later.

According to GAA rules it is the duty and responsibility of the individual player to wear a helmet with a facial guard that “meets the standard set out in IS:355.. as determined by the National Safety Authority of Ireland (NSAI). Such helmets shall not be modified from their original manufactured state in any circumstances,” and the Camogie Association the same with referees entitled to dismiss a player guilty of the offence who refuses to change their helmet if it has been pointed out by the match official.

Although the rules exist, they continue to be broken. A DCU report published in April 2017 revealed that one third of hurlers admitted to modifying their helmet in contravention of GAA regulations, potentially increasing their injury risk. A special motion to congress in November 2013 removed liability from the GAA should a player wearing a modified helmet sustain an injury they are not covered under the terms of the GAA Player Injury Benefit Fund. Faceguard replacement was found to be the most common modification (80 per cent), followed by removal of bars (13 per cent), and bending of the bars on the faceguard in the DCU study.

Whitegate’s Brendan Bugler highlighted the dangers of modifying helmets on Twitter recently with a reminder that players are not insured if they wear the NSA standard IS355 helmet. “Parents haven’t a clue regarding which helmets have passed the NSA IS355 safety standard test or not. Having spoken to a parent of a child that sustained a serious head injury and was not insured, it was something worth highlighting”.

Player welfare coordinator of the Camogie Association, Paul O’Donovan outlined to The Clare Echo that they are taking a proactive approach to educate players on the dangers of modifying helmets. “It has to have the standard mark by an approved manufacturer, getting a helmet and modifying the faceguard in anyway we don’t want people to do that”.

O’Donovan continued, “There were some cases where defective helmets had caused injury and that was one of the things and the GAA were very strong to stress the idea that don’t go modifying helmets. Check your own helmet to make sure that the faceguard is not damaged in anyway, from your own perspective as well as the players you’re playing with or against”.

Referees have been reminded to be vigilant on the issue but the onus remains with players and parents. While those playing hurling and camogie will continue to sweat, blood and tears fighting the cause at club and county, the message to note is that if the blood is spilled whilst wearing a helmet not in line with NSAI regulation and if it has been modified the danger is increased while every penny to repair the damage will have to come from the player’s own pocket.

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