By Ray O’Hanlon
The clash of the ash at Croke Park could soon have a distinctly American ring to it. A Vermont company has started up what it hopes will be a sustained and lucrative trade in exporting ash tree butts to Ireland for use in making hurley sticks.
The initial batch of ash butts — the lower three-and-a-half feet of an ash tree, including the roots — were sent from Brattleboro, Vt., to Ireland last week.
The new trade route is a three Bs affair. From Brattleboro, the first container traveled to Boston and from there was shipped to Belfast.
The container is expected to arrive in Belfast by the end of this week. It will be picked up by the West Belfast-based company Irish Ash.
“We have lots of Ash trees in Vermont and our first container has exactly 110 ash butts in it, Sean McKeon, who heads up the exporting company, Vermont Deal, said.
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“We are hoping that the demand for good Vermont ash will mean our having to send over between 50,000 and 100,000 butts a year in the future.”
McKeon, a native of New York, moved to Vermont 11 years ago. He has strong family ties to Ireland, County Longford in particular, and has long been interested in Irish sports.
Hurling is a more recent passion, but the more he sees of the game the more he likes it.
“I’ll be coming down to Gaelic Park for the big hurling game over Memorial Day weekend,” McKeon said.
The trip will be for his new business venture as much as the joy of watching a top-class hurling game.
Along with company colleagues, McKeon is planning to meet with New York GAA officials and Ger Rogan, who will be traveling with the visiting Irish hurlers and who is also the man who crafts the hurley sticks for Irish Ash.
About half-a-million hurley sticks are made in various part of Ireland in any given year, according to McKeon.
Most of the ash wood is already imported from Scandinavia and Wales.
But Vermont ash, McKeon believes, is as good if not better in quality than any other variety.
“It’s because of the dramatic temperature swings in Vermont throughout the year. The wood is stronger and more versatile as a result,” he said.
Vermont Deal — the “Deal” part of the company name is a word play on a common term used for White Pine in Ireland — is also planning to explore the possibility of making hurley sticks for the U.S. market, mostly concentrated in cities such as Boston and New York.
“A really nice aspect of this is that wood that might ordinarily be sold in Vermont for firewood can now attract a much higher price because it is being made into something,” McKeon said.
McKeon takes a hard-nosed business approach to what he hopes will be a successful venture. But the new connection to Ireland is about more than just dollars and cents.
“Doing something like this has a romantic twist to it. It’s also fun and an excuse for traveling to Ireland on a more regular basis,” he said.