Joy­ful tales of Lim­er­ick’s de­liv­er­ance

Four sto­ries from the week­end when Lim­er­ick’s hurlers and sup­port­ers ended 45 years of hurt

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Malachy Clerkin

Ea­mon O’Neill didn’t know what to be do­ing with him­self. The na­ture of be­ing the team li­ai­son of­fi­cer for an in­ter­county team is that you’re mostly work­ing ahead of your­self. He had no fire to fight, ev­ery­thing was done. The trains were booked, the ho­tels were booked, the buses were ready, the Garda es­cort was sorted – ev­ery­thing was done. Still, he was a lit­tle on edge. Couldn’t help it.

“Satur­day was the long­est day of the year,” O’Neill says. “You’re won­der­ing how you’re go­ing to kill it. You’re won­der­ing is ev­ery­body al­right. You’re watch­ing the phone to see did you miss a text. We had train­ing on Fri­day night and then didn’t see them again un­til Sun­day morn­ing. We had no team meet­ing or any­thing on Satur­day.

“We didn’t change our sched­ules. It’s very im­por­tant to sleep in your own bed the night be­fore a cham­pi­onship match. These guys have done that all year. When they go train­ing they come from home. When they go to matches they come from home. These lads are com­pet­ing at an elite level of sport but when you strip it all away, they’re just or­di­nary guys. Ev­ery­body loves their own bed.”

Wayne McNa­mara put in 10 years as a Lim­er­ick hurler and fought the ocean for most of it. Since his re­tire­ment in 2016, he has gath­ered up a group of friends he goes to Lim­er­ick matches with and the ones he wasn’t meet­ing on the train on Sun­day morn­ing, he would see once they made Dublin. This sum­mer has given him a street-map to a world he only ever saw in at­las form be­fore.

“It’s dif­fi­cult,” says McNa­mara. “When you’re a player, you don’t re­alise what the fans go through. I gen­uinely had no con­cept of it when I was play­ing. Ob­vi­ously you re­spect sup­port­ers, 100 per cent. But un­til you cross over and be­come a sup­porter your­self, you have no idea what it’s like for them.

“The feel­ing you have as a sup­porter is noth­ing like what you have as a player. You’re up and down with ev­ery­thing that hap­pens. Whereas when you’re play­ing, you’re just fo­cused on play­ing. But when you’re in the stands and you’re on the road and you’re go­ing to all these matches – es­pe­cially this year when there was so many of them – you’re on an emo­tional roller­coaster.”

Rob Han­ra­han was on hol­i­day in France in July with his wife Michelle and their young two boys when his rein on the se­cret he’d been car­ry­ing around for four months could be held no longer. He had a ho­tel room booked for them in Dublin for the week­end of the fi­nal. Had done since March. “She looked at me like I was off my head,” he says.

Michelle Han­ra­han is from Cork. When she mar­ried a Lim­er­ick hurl­ing fan from Ard­patrick, it’s pos­si­ble the full force of mean­ing at­tached to such a term was not re­vealed to her straight away. She came from a place where All-Ire­lands were won. Maybe not so much in re­cent years but, y’know, in the past half-cen­tury at least. The ache in her Lim­er­ick life-part­ner-to-be, the un­spo­ken hole pre­sent in all Lim­er­ick hurl­ing peo­ple be­fore last week­end, was some­thing she got used to as they went along.

On Satur­day, they packed the car and set off – Rob, Michelle, Oisín (5) and Ma­son (1). Rob and Oisín are sea­son ticket hold­ers so they’d be go­ing to the game. Michelle and Ma­son would stay back in the ho­tel and wait.

Áine Fitzger­ald had the week­end off. But when you’re an as­sis­tant ed­i­tor in the

Lim­er­ick Leader and Lim­er­ick are play­ing in an All-Ire­land fi­nal, “off” is a bendy enough con­cept. One way or the other, she’d be writ­ing some­thing out of it. And if they won, she’d be writ­ing un­til the lap­top smoked.

Ea­mon, Wayne, Rob and Áine. Four peo­ple. Four sto­ries. Lim­er­ick peo­ple. One story.

Sun­day

Even for some­one with young kids, Rob was up way too early. He was pac­ing the floor from 6.30am, in and out of the toi­let, a barbed-wire roll of nerves. He was told to calm down. He tried. He re­ally did.

The train car­ry­ing the Lim­er­ick team left Col­bert Sta­tion at 9.40, ar­riv­ing at Heuston at 11.40. From there, Kevin Grif­fin’s team bus brought them to the Crowne Plaza in Santry. They had their pre-match meal and talked their pre-match talk. Through it all, Ea­mon was wait­ing on a shoe that never dropped. Ev­ery­thing he and they had planned was work­ing out as it should. Later, as they got off the bus in Croke Park, John Kiely turned to him. “In fair­ness, I said we wanted to be here at 2.18 and here we are, it’s 2.18 ex­actly.”

Rob and Oisín got to Croke Park early. It was Oisín’s first visit to the big house. He is his mother’s son, a Cork fan de­spite his fa­ther’s de­vo­tions, ob­sessed with Séa­mus Harnedy. On the walk to the sta­dium, Rob tried to talk a bit more Lim­er­ick into him, stop­ping on a wall at one stage to show him Ciarán Carey’s point on YouTube.

“He’s five and he’s just about get­ting to the crest of be­gin­ning to get it,” Rob says. “And then we went in and as we came out into the sta­dium to go to our seat, he just stopped and looked around him and went, ‘Oh, Daddy’. I was emo­tional any­way but that killed me. We rang his mother straight away and that was more tears. Of course, we went down to the mu­seum then and all he wanted to see was Christy Ring’s hurley.”

Wayne sat down in his seat and looked out on the scene be­fore him. He’d been on the fringes of the Lim­er­ick panel in 2007 when Kilkenny atom­ised them in the fi­nal. He’d been on Lim­er­ick teams that had done them­selves jus­tice in Croke Park and oth­ers that hadn’t. Win, lose or draw, all he wanted for this team was a day with no re­grets. No shadow to hang over them.

“Ab­so­lutely I was think­ing of ’07, yeah,” Wayne says. “Part of you is go­ing, ‘What if?’ But it was a dif­fer­ent time and Lim­er­ick hurl­ing was in a dif­fer­ent place with dif­fer­ent struc­tures and all of that – and we ran into the best team ever when we made the fi­nal. My big­gest fear all day for this team was that they’d get to the game and not per­form. I just wanted them to per­form, for them­selves, so they’d al­ways have that.”

Áine sat be­side her fa­ther in the Ho­gan Stand. Back in the day, he was a county board man and a Mun­ster Coun­cil man, so their tick­ets were good. All around her, in clus­ters, the ghosts of Lim­er­ick teams past. Stephen Lucey and his wife and fa­ther. Stephen McDon­agh from the ’94 team, who no­body was think­ing of at the start and everyone was think­ing of at the fin­ish.

“Hammy Daw­son was near us as well,” Áine says. “He’d be a leg­endary Lim­er­ick sup­porter, al­ways go­ing around with his Lim­er­ick teddy bear and flag. Noth­ing would do Hammy but with five min­utes to go in or­di­nary time, he had to go down the front to start the pitch in­va­sion! And we were all shout­ing at him to sit down. ‘It’s too soon, Hammy! Too soon!’ But he wouldn’t be told. He kept go­ing, fist-pump­ing as he went, be­cause he was full sure it was in the bag at this stage.”

Ea­mon’s seat was on the side­line, right be­hind where John Kiely pa­trolled the line and be­side county sec­re­tary Mike O’Riordan. At half-time in the dress­ing-room, he was in charge of the clock, count­ing down the al­lot­ted 15 min­utes so man­age­ment knew where they stood. Now, he was so en­grossed in the game, time was nowhere in his think­ing.

“I only re­alised when I watched the game back on Tues­day night that we were eight points up on 70 min­utes,” Ea­mon says. “I’ll be straight up and hon­est with you, I wasn’t aware of that at the time. You’re so in­volved in the game, you’re just in the throes of it. You’re eight points up, you’re look­ing around

When you’re in the stands and you’re on the road – es­pe­cially this year when there was so many matches – you’re on an emo­tional roller­coaster

I only re­alised when I watched the game back on Tues­day we were eight points up on 70 min­utes. I’ll be straight up with you, I wasn’t aware of that at the time. You’re so in­volved in the game, you’re just in the throes of it – Ea­mon O’Neill

you to make sure ev­ery­thing is kosher and ev­ery­thing is right.”

It all came down to what it came down to. An eight-point lead whit­tled to one. Joe Canning with a free from an­other post­code, the kind of chance you’d wave away if it was any­one other than Canning stand­ing over it. Who could bear to look?

“My wife was be­side me,” Wayne says. “And she started cry­ing with 15 min­utes to go. There were 55 min­utes on the clock and she was in tears even at that stage. She was cry­ing and say­ing, ‘We’re go­ing to do this!’ Then when there were 75 min­utes on the clock, she was cry­ing and say­ing, ‘We’re not go­ing to do this!’”

“The last eight min­utes were just tor­ture,” Áine says. “I didn’t see one sec­ond of it. I didn’t look. I couldn’t. Dad watched it, I couldn’t. I just stared at the ground. I couldn’t look up. I was just pray­ing. I knew Gal­way were com­ing back and ob­vi­ously ’94 was com­ing flood­ing back. And when Joe lined up the free at the end, we all thought, ‘This is go­ing to be a draw. How are we go­ing to en­dure an­other three weeks’?”

“There were two women in front of me,” Rob says. “I had never met them in my life. One of them started cry­ing be­fore Joe took his free, just go­ing, ‘Is he go­ing to score it? Is he go­ing to score it?’ And I said, ‘Well, given my track record here, yes!’ I couldn’t look. Oisín called it for me. ‘Dad, he missed! He missed!’ And then I could see Tom Con­don run­ning and all hell broke loose.”

“I had to make sure that all the equip­ment we have on the side­lines was go­ing to be there af­ter the celebrations,” Ea­mon says. “There’s pa­per­work and all sorts of bits and pieces there. So as the fi­nal whis­tle went, I was putting them all into a bag. There was a man sit­ting in the front row be­hind me and I said, ‘You prob­a­bly won’t get into the field, will you keep an eye on that for me?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be here when you come back.’ And I just ran.”

Ev­ery­body cried. Play­ers, ex-play­ers, back­room staff, sup­port­ers, everyone. Rob’s dad died in 1986, when both of them were far too young for it. Lim­er­ick hurl­ing gave him way more than it took over the years but the Lim­er­ick hurl­ing book isn’t called Un­lim­ited

Heart­break for noth­ing ei­ther. Add it all to­gether and it didn’t take much for the dam to burst.

“In ’94, I was on the Hill,” Rob says. “I was among a bunch of young lads and we were all mak­ing our way down from the top of Hill 16 un­der the score­board to get down to the front for the pitch in­va­sion. And I re­mem­ber when it all went wrong, turn­ing around to find a man from Of­faly putting his arm around me and go­ing, ‘It wasn’t to be’. He turned and went cel­e­brat­ing him­self but I never for­got it.

“When the fi­nal whis­tle went on Sun­day and we had fi­nally done it, he was one of the first peo­ple to flash through my head. I thought of him and of course I thought of peo­ple who were gone as well. And when

Dreams by The Cran­ber­ries came on over the sound sys­tem, I lost it then, I just started cry­ing and cry­ing.

“My un­cle was sit­ting five rows in front of me and he made his way up to me. This was the un­cle who took me to matches when I was young af­ter my fa­ther died. He’s a good man but no more than any other Ir­ish coun­try man, he wouldn’t be overly af­fec­tion­ate. He came up to me and I lost the run of my­self. I thanked him for ev­ery­thing. I gave him a kiss, he gave me a kiss. He started cry­ing too. We were all cry­ing.”

The rest of it blurs and bends and will be there for them for­ever, the day of days they can ac­cess for them­selves at any time. Áine started gath­er­ing stuff im­me­di­ately for the best and busiest week of her work­ing life – the Leader turned around a 52-page sou­venir sup­ple­ment in 48 hours. Ea­mon got stuck into mak­ing sure all was in or­der for the trip to Ci­ty­west, the ban­quet and be­yond.

Rob took Oisín down to the side of the pitch, where a woman from the Croke Park staff pre­sented them with one of the golden stream­ers that had fallen from the roof and, to the amaze­ment of them both, a piece of the sa­cred sod to bring home with him. “Take good care of that now,” she said to Oisín, his jaw on the floor.

And Wayne went off into the night with his Lim­er­ick hurl­ing mates, all the old ghosts busted, all the sad sto­ries fi­nally given a twist and a tweak and a punch­line.

“It’s just re­lief,” Wayne says. “Thank God, they broke the duck. Ob­vi­ously it’s pride and joy and eu­pho­ria and all that as well. But mostly it’s re­lief. The 45 years are over. We can build now. We can put our chest out as hurl­ing peo­ple. We are Lim­er­ick, we are All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons, we can say we’ve won it in re­cent times. Young lads com­ing through can see what it’s like. There’s no harp­ing back to teams from gen­er­a­tions ago. It’s here and now.” Here and now and theirs. For­ever.

When Joe lined up the free, we all thought, ‘This is go­ing to be a draw. How are we go­ing to en­dure an­other three weeks?’

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: DARA MAC DÓNAILL; TOMMY DICK­SON, RYAN BYRNE/INPHO

The Lim­er­ick squad and back­room team en­joy the win­ning feel­ing in front of Hill 16. Be­low: man­ager John Kiely

Team lia­son of­fi­cer Ea­mon O’Neill

Rob Han­ra­han and son Óisín with Lim­er­ick cap­tain De­clan Han­non

‘Lim­er­ick Leader’ jour­nal­ist and fan Áine Fitzger­ald

For­mer player Wayne McNa­mara

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