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What could be more Irish than this? Sorry, it's mostly outsourced to Asia now

It’s all about the labour costs and lost skills, GAA suppliers say.

Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

HURLING – IT’S A national obsession and one of the country’s proudest traditions.

But these days you would most likely find that central part of the game, the sliotar, came to Ireland via the cheap factories of the subcontinent or China.

At Waterford-based Urma Sports, one of over 30 suppliers of GAA-approved sliotars across the country, all the company’s match-ready hurling balls are made in India.

Director Eric O’Brien said sourcing the product from overseas all came down to cost and, as far as he was aware, it would be hard to find an official GAA supplier which did not ship its sliotars in from offshore.

“The retail cost of sliotars now has gone down a lot and the cost of making them in Ireland would be just too high,” he said.

“They’re all hand-stitched and it can take up to an hour to make each one. We can’t make them in Ireland with the cost of labour, the higher wages.”

O’Brien said his company had been importing its sliotars since “day one” when it started carrying the product about 6 years ago.

There is no-one that would still do them in Ireland. There used to be a few from the older generation, but they are gone, unfortunately. I would love it if they were made in Ireland, it would be something that we would take pride in.”

Urma’s GAA sliotars currently sell for about €5 apiece. The minimum wage in Ireland for adults stands at €8.65 per hour, while in some Indian provinces it is below €3 a day for unskilled or semi-skilled workers.

Over at O’Neills

Meanwhile, one of the game’s oldest and biggest sliotar suppliers, sportswear giant O’Neills, also uses Indian labour to make its hurling balls – although the company said 75% of the work involved in producing each item came from  Ireland.

The cores for the sliotars are made at its factory at Strabane, in Northern Ireland, and the leather cut in-house before all the components are shipped to the sub-continent for hand-stitching.

“Up to the 1990s this was conducted in Dublin, however the hand-stitching labour is no longer available,” O’Neills marketing manager Cormac Farrell said via email.

The market place is flooded with hurling balls from foreign countries with no Irish contribution. A lot of these do not  conform to the official size and weight specifications.”

General view of a sliotar and Cork hurling Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Earlier this year O’Neills, whose sliotars sell for €12 each, came under fire for using factories in Bangladesh where workers were legally able to be paid below-poverty wages to make some of its clothing lines.

The GAA publishes strict rules for the size and weight of sliotars, and the thickness of their leather, with annual tests carried out to ensure balls which carry the official mark continue to comply.

MARC Sports

Mark Ganly, from MARC Sports, said all of his company’s GAA-approved sliotars were imported from Asia and it was not possible for them to get the product made in Ireland.

“It’s the shortage of the skills, really, to get them hand-stitched,” he said.

Ganly wouldn’t say which country his company sourced its sliotars from, but he added that generally all hurling balls now found in Ireland came from either India, Pakistan or China. MARC’s sliotars sell for €60 per dozen.

O’Donnell sliotars still standing

But not every sliotar manufacturer has outsourced its labour, at least not yet.

O’Donnell’s GAA-approved sliotars are made by Conor O’Donnell and his father in Co Clare, where he said the family was still hand-stitching its own balls after over 30 years in the trade.

And, in their case, that work doesn’t necessarily carry a higher cost – the balls are still priced at between €50 and €55 a dozen, O’Donnell said.

I think we are one of the last who actually still make them in Ireland. We make them ourselves and we sell them ourselves – it costs a little bit more, but it’s not too expensive because we don’t have to pay any wages.”

“My father started making them in 1982 and I kept doing it. A lot of people just import them and then put their stamp on them. It’s sad that most of the tradition has gone.”

The GAA didn’t return TheJournal.ie’s calls for comment yesterday.

READ: Think these much-loved Irish products actually come from Ireland? Well, think again >

READ: New balls please? GAA to experiment with yellow sliotar in hurling >

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About the author:

Peter Bodkin  / Editor, Fora

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