Back in the early 1960s the Cork hurling icon Christy Ring was prevailed upon to overcome his shyness and engage in a film about his hurling prowess.
The story goes that one of the crew, who knew little about hurling bar thinking it a very dangerous game played by the slightly unhinged, asked “Ringie” if he was ever afraid on a hurling field.
Ring looked at the man with a mix of disbelief and contempt before replying: “Only when I play with bad hurlers.”
When you look at the world’s greatest game, as it was played this past Sunday in Thurles for example, you get to understand something about Ring’s point of view.
As Clare and Limerick played their third draw this year – and went to extra time before Limerick narrowly came out as Munster champions – there was no place for fear, not even on the stands and the terraces.
And those hurlers simply had to know what they were about if they were to live to tell the tale.
Thurles is a strange and different place without the throngs of match-goers. I remember going there once, on a non-match day, on a Monday in early February, when the streets were near deserted.
I realised that though I had been in this strong market town dozens of times, I had never had an opportunity to see it because on my match-day visits the streets were too crowded to afford any vision.
On a Munster final day all roads just lead to Thurles. And if I ruled the Gaelic world all Munster finals would be played there in Semple Stadium, the spiritual and temporal home of hurling.
We can leave Páirc na nGael in Limerick, and Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork, for other big occasions – a proper Munster hurling final is in Thurles.
My earliest childhood memories, growing up on the Tipperary Road on the edge of Limerick city, are of sitting on a wall watching an unremitting procession of cars draped in blue and yellow, punctuated by the odd stray one from the Mitchelstown side draped in red and white. These were the days of epic clashes when a success-starved Limerick provided the venue for big battles between Tipperary and Cork.
Stories about such days are still part of Limerick folklore. The best story is of a certain ice-cream vendor from Rathbane who sold tap water for six pence a bottle outside the grounds one boiling hot match day. He had to make several trips home to replenish stock.
But despite all that, Thurles is the special place. You had better have time on your hands if you ask a group of Limerick hurling fans about how to get to Thurles. There is an endless list of potential routes with as many variations thereon: via Nenagh for the wimps; Newport and the Silvermines for the more daring; Cappamore, Doon and Dundrum for the real diehards.
The most important thing to note about Thurles is that it is not really regarded as a “home venue” for
the Tipperary hurlers. Its location helps pack them in from many other counties. I have been there over years when the Limerick hurlers served up some hope followed by deep disappointment, through 45 years of waiting for the big one. But often, even during those barren years, the intrepid Limerick supporters outnumbered their rivals in a real example of hope winning out over reality. There have been dreary periods of years when Waterford, Clare and Limerick were seen as “making up the numbers” while Cork and Tipperary scrapped for the right to face off against that third kingpin, Kilkenny.
For now those times are just an unpleasant memory.
It was especially gratifying to be in Thurles this past Sunday and watch Clare and Limerick take centre stage. It reminded me that I was there last time the sides met in a Munster final in 1995, when Clare blew away Limerick en route to a first All-Ireland win since 1914.
Limerick’s late and narrow squeeze home this time was a joy – but the real joy was the intensity and quality of the contest in which courage and skill were at a premium.
The tightness of the contest did not do much for these frayed nerves and ageing heart. But the balm that is great sport is the perfect antidote to everyday worries of the world.
Neutral observers tell me it was a very special game. It will take many supporters, on both sides, to sort out their emotions.
But in time I’m sure we will agree. We can be sure Christy Ring would not have been afraid in Thurles last Sunday. There were no bad hurlers on that park.
Good news is scarce right now, with economic storm clouds gathering, the shameful war in Europe, and Brexit which looks intractable with problems for all solutions.
Still each weekend, we get a chance to put such things on hold and savour the sheer uplifting joy of good hurling played by those with the courage and the skills. In the weeks that are left, let’s savour it.