Dilution of Treaty spirit
Former Limerick stars tell Dermot Crowe of the disillusion that is draining county pride
IN spite of everything, Stephen McDonagh will get into his car this morning with his six-year-old son Darragh and drive to Cork to watch Limerick contest a Munster Championship semi-final. He doesn't travel under any illusions. Their last championship match resulted in a 24-point flogging; their recent league campaign closed with a 31-point massacre. But it's the summer, there's the pull of tradition, and two players from his club, Bruree, have been selected.
He had his son in Croke Park last year when Limerick were being demolished by Tipperary. What would David Coleman (child psychologist) advise here? What did Stephen McDonagh say? "Will we go for a bag of chips?" he grins.
Time heals and kids bounce back quickest of all. "Darragh is mad to go (today). He wouldn't really be aware of it (the current crisis). I think it goes over their heads at that age and no harm at the moment the way things are going. He is aware that Limerick are doing pretty well in football, though; he's aware of that alright. He knows they are in the Munster final and anxious to go to that as well. He asked me the other night would I take him to the football."
Bad, bad, days. The jersey McDonagh wore has been sullied by one slaughter after another. He viewed the league demolition by Dublin at home in Limerick. "Horrific to watch; I found that desperate. Worse than any horror film. I watched about 20 minutes of the second half and couldn't watch any more. There were goals going in like it was ping-pong. I met (Bruree player) James O'Brien about three weeks ago and we didn't touch on the hurling. He asked me if I was going back hurling and I said no, I was over-age, just having the craic like."
O'Brien is playing today, as is his Bruree comrade, Kieran O'Rourke; they face impossible odds against a rejuvenated Cork. In a drawer in McDonagh's farmhouse are some of the jerseys he sported in matches when they stood for certain inalienable principles and rights. The right to feel confident. The right to believe. None of that exists now.
"We were always very competitive," says McDonagh. "We had a fairly good throwaway style of hurling and we were always a team that was hard to beat. We had good characters. Down all the times I remember, both as a player and supporter, that's the way I would define Limerick.
"I'm concerned about the current situation. I hope it won't set us back eight to 10 years. I think hurling in general needs Limerick, it is crying out for a county from the mid-tier to make a right burst. Just to freshen things a bit. That is no disrespect to Kilkenny or any of the hurling strongholds."
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LIAM O'Donoghue is a Limerick All-Ireland medal winner and All Star and earned a reputation as a fierce competitor on the field. He played senior inter-county from 1973 until 1988 and took up county management a year later for three seasons. Even though he loves Limerick, and wore the jersey with tremendous pride, he won't be travelling today.
"It's not because of the players who are putting on the jersey; I know they will give 110 per cent. It is unfair on them because I reckon they are not good enough -- if they were, they would be there from day one. Supporters are disillusioned and are not going to pay x amount of euro to go in and watch a second-string team play a team looking maybe to win an All-Ireland. You always look forward to the championship but I don't think we are this time. People have decided it is going nowhere."
Representing his county was an early ambition. His first break came in 1972. "Funny enough it was a kind of similar situation to what's happening now. The manager, Joe McGrath, was let go and Noel Drumgoole came in and some boys left in sympathy. Four or five of us got called up for a league game against Tipp in February in the Gaelic Grounds. From as early as six or seven, it was my desire and goal to one day wear the green jersey."
O'Donoghue won four Munster medals and revelled in the warm summer days on the playing fields of his province. "Going down to Thurles in Munster championships, the Limerick supporters were a very passionate people. I always felt it was a battle when you went out to meet another county and that was the buzz I got out of it. I had fierce pride in the jersey; I thought playing for Limerick was the ultimate. You knew you would be in a battle playing Limerick. I think that is gone out of the jersey now."
The dilution of spirit, he feels, precedes the current crisis. "In recent years, I don't think they have the same passion. Maybe it's because of different distractions. There's a lot of commercial stuff as well, which wasn't there in our time; in our day it was to win a Munster medal or a league medal, and just to represent your county, the camaraderie with the players, that you played for."
The jersey he wore in the 1973 All-Ireland final is in his 90-year-old mother's house. He fears its image has been tarnished. "I think there will be a lasting damage. I don't think myself it will ever be righted, even down the road. Players who were good enough to wear the county jersey, some of those will be lost, and you definitely will have a certain pull in different directions at club level. I don't think it will do us any good."
He didn't attend any of Limerick's games this year. "We are a proud people down here and we have been made a laughing stock. It hasn't been handled properly. I thought the way the players were notified (of being dropped) was all wrong, that was the start of it and I don't think the county board handled it too well either. The county board getting involved in management has been a problem for many years.
"I thought it would be sorted out in the first three or four weeks, I thought Justin (McCarthy) would walk away from it, because even with four or five players not wanting you, you are better walking away. Why he hung in I don't know, but he hasn't done Limerick any favours by doing so."
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CIARAN Carey, the epitome of the proud Limerick hurler in the 1990s, has been asked numerous times about the current crisis and declined to comment. "I never took a Limerick jersey for granted. Was I proud to wear it? Big time. But I think it's your performances and how consistent you are that really shows how proud you are."
Carey first played for Limerick in the senior championship in 1989. "I suppose your biggest thrill is the first time you got to wear one and that was at the Tony Forristal in 1984. You got a small taste of it then. Getting the jersey that time was the biggest thrill ever."
He's asked what he believes the green shirt conveyed to an opponent. "They knew it wasn't a cakewalk and they also knew there was serious spirit backing up the jersey. That was one thing that squad had. Heart. It would have been said a few times; it was like an automatic switch."
And now? He will travel to Cork expecting nothing. "What went on, it was horrible stuff. What I would be more interested in is: between Limerick's first game against UL last year and the last match against Tipp in Croke Park, had they improved? The answer is fairly obvious. I am not interested in what happens outside of that."
He took the county U21 team for two years in 2008 but quit after one, citing his ongoing senior club hurling career as the reason why. But he would like to return at some stage and has attended many of the senior games over Justin McCarthy's reign. The under-age structures are, he feels, well grounded. But he worries about the legacy of the current dispute.
"In my opinion it's borderline criminal. I could spin out 10 names to you who could be on the field (today) who could shove it on to Cork and not only that but catch Cork on any given day and it's criminal they are not there. The present players are doing their best, I wish them the best and hope they pull off a surprise. But, call a spade a spade."
Watching Limerick this year hasn't made for enjoyable viewing. "I had the same sick feeling in my gut leaving, irrespective of what they lost by. It was mind-boggling what was going on. Because the one thing you don't do, it is possibly the number one thing, you never wrong a player. At the end of the day, the present crew have individual clubs and they all have families, and I hope every lad who pulls on a green jersey on Sunday hurls well and hurls to his best. And that's what you must do when you are given a county jersey. We will be there and we will be shouting them on.
"But it's horrible watching it. At times I am sitting back and saying to myself how immature can grown men be? To let it continue this length and fester. Is there anyone to sit down and say: what is the best for Limerick hurling here? Has anybody asked that question and what answer did they get? I know in my heart and soul the players that aren't playing would give their left leg to wear the jersey.
"I get no pride or satisfaction seeing Limerick getting a hiding and that was happening on a regular occasion this year. When all this is done and dusted the truth will come out, and the truth always comes home, but at the moment it is very unhealthy in Limerick. And extremely sad. The question is, how much damage will be done by the time that time comes?"
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RICHIE Bennis has no trouble recalling the first time he pulled on the county jersey. "It was in a challenge game, and I played corner-forward on the late Kieran Carey. When I wore it for the first time it was unreal. I can see it as clear as I can see out in front of me now." He played his first league match in Cork in 1966 and his championship bow arrived the following year against Clare. From then until 1976, and his last championship game down in Cork, he was a lasting presence on Limerick teams.
He doubts he will be attending today's game and if he doesn't travel it will be the first time that has happened since he was a child.
"It's not their fault," he says of the players lining out. "It has done unlimited damage to Limerick hurling -- I don't think even Kilkenny could put out their third team and expect to beat Dublin today."
His daughter has the jersey from 1973 and he donated the hurley he used that day to the Live Aid charity, raising £500. "I don't even know where she has it (the jersey), but it's folded away somewhere and well preserved. In our time you would not swap jerseys, you had to give them back. There was a bit of a hullaballoo after 1973 when we didn't give them back. We were expected to but sure who was going to do that?"
Limerick lost plenty in Bennis's day, too, but they were not a county you took lightly. "Every county respected Limerick because they always knew there was a game in them. You always travelled in hope, even though you might have had a bad league campaign. But this is the first time that that's not the case."
Stephen McDonagh says people have stopped talking about hurling due to conflict-fatigue. He'd like to think that today might bring a twist in their fortunes but he knows better. "People are tired of it," he states resignedly, "which is a terrible thing."