Saturday 21 September 2019

Dermot Crowe: 'The Limerick-Clare rivalry doesn't go away. It is always there - and can be resurrected in an instant'

The 1981 Munster hurling final encapsulates the essence of an enchanting head-to-head where drama, skill and Banner heartbreak has been the norm

Defeat for either Clare or Limerick could mean the end of the championship for the Munster rivals. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Defeat for either Clare or Limerick could mean the end of the championship for the Munster rivals. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

"If I was able to go back, and someone were to say would you like to play one more game again, I would love to play Limerick at the opening of a pitch on a Friday evening on a lovely summer's evening with both counties having a full outfit." - Seamus Durack, Former Clare goalkeeper

Today the Gaelic Grounds hosts the latest iteration of a rivalry once likened by Cork hurler Gerald McCarthy to a club quarrel. McCarthy was speaking back in 1981, ahead of that year's Munster final meeting between Limerick and Clare. You have your sporting rivalries, all with their own distinctive trademarks, but this one, in McCarthy's view, had a parish edge and sensibility.

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Clare joint manager Gerry O'Connor. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Clare joint manager Gerry O'Connor. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

From the gospel of Clare and Limerick, there are landmark passages that can be recited from memory. From the vast catalogue of perspectives, each one is as personal as the next. That 1981 Munster final probably shaped my own earliest impressions of Limerick, viewed through the lens of a young Clare follower, the idea forming that, generally, they were just better than us. And that this was how they saw themselves too.

Before Clare met Limerick in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, Jim McInerney, whose son David will be playing today, told a story about a county minor team he had been looking after. Needing a good challenge match, they took the youngsters to Cratloe to play Limerick.

You know minors and what they're like, and you know challenge matches and what they can be like too - not always reliable - but McInerney figured you couldn't go wrong with Clare and Limerick. The match, to their bewilderment, had little fire. "We couldn't believe it was so tame," McInerney lamented. This was not what he expected when those colours mixed.

Contrast that with the story of the challenge that Limerick seniors got from Clare behind closed doors before they played Wexford in the 1996 All-Ireland final. Earlier in the summer, Limerick ended Clare's reign as All-Ireland champions in the Gaelic Grounds, with Ciaran Carey's epic winning score. Clare came out of storage approaching September when the request was made. Damien Quigley recalled it later.

"They dished it out that night; now we wouldn't have been holding back either," the former Limerick hurler said some years back. "But they thought enough of us to bother their arses to play the game. We played Antrim in the semi-final; no disrespect to them but we didn't have a really meaningful match after Munster. We did not know we were playing Clare till that night, we were told to get into our cars. I thought after it was an act of madness to play the match. I got a fierce dirty belt with five minutes to go. I thought I might not be playing the final."

In Clare we see Limerick hurling as fundamentally characterised by aggression and physicality and a ferocious will to win. Early personal impressions are coloured more by the bombast of Liam O'Donoghue than the elegance of Eamonn Cregan. O'Donoghue seemed the quintessential Limerick hurler for me. Like the defiance he demonstrated in 1981 in Thurles in the half-back line during a fierce wrestle for supremacy in the third quarter.

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We watched from the sidelines, inside the perimeter fencing, due to a crowd overflow in the stands. From that position at ground level, separated by only metres from the play, the contest was made even more riveting and memorable. Clare led by three points at half-time, missed a penalty just before the whistle, and faced the wind in the second half. Limerick came back at them. Drew level. And then there was a period where the scoreboard stood still and they went at it, toe-to-toe, and it was mesmeric and unbearably tense.

The 'Clare, Clare, Clare' chant reverberated around the ground, the followers of Clare sensing danger, the threat, knowing this was a critical point in the match. They did not want to concede Limerick the lead. And O'Donoghue, bearded and in his element, repelled Clare time and time again. At the other side, Sean Stack was majestic, as always. And it seemed to go over and back, between O'Donoghue and Stack for a while, in a long breathtaking rally.

We travelled down that morning on a minibus, a group of juvenile players and their mentors, looked after by a wonderful old club officer from Inagh called Tom Harvey. Tom's influence in making days like these possible did much to leave us with a lifetime fascination for hurling and a lasting affection for those Clare players in spite of all the heartbreak that would follow and persecute them.

Those days taught us all the lessons of life: hope, disappointment, reasoning, dealing with failure, keeping the faith. They helped cultivate a useful gallows humour. They showed us that while we mightn't like Limerick, the hate we thought we felt was an artificial childish hate, not of the kind to want to do them real harm (most of the time anyway); it was envy and resentment and bitter disappointment more than anything else. All of these little lessons were being absorbed, without knowing. In 1995 the enormity of the emotional release - the exhilarating and visceral eruption of joy - came from the build-up of days like this in 1981 when we went home crushed and were made feel that that was just the way it was and how it was meant to be.

The day started so well. In the curtain raiser history was made. Clare defeated Tipperary to win the county's first ever minor provincial title after a tight finish. To see a Clare hurling team celebrate winning something was a rare and privileged thing. To be offered the chance to go to Thurles for matches like these was also a privilege, for they were absolutely bewitching occasions for a young fella at the time. This was Ireland of the 1980s. There was not much excitement otherwise. You followed your club and the big buzz was to be discovered in following the Clare hurlers, where the crowds were in their tens of thousands and the atmosphere on some days was truly electric.

Clare were in the Munster senior final on merit, having beaten Waterford by three points and taken out Cork, the National League champions. But Limerick were Munster champions and All-Ireland finalists the year before. In 1974 they walloped Clare in the Munster final. They broke Clare hearts in '55, too, with Mackey's greyhounds. This is what they did to Clare continually in finals and big matches.

The counties met regularly in the 1970s. In '76 Clare beat Waterford in Munster after losing the National League final to Kilkenny in a replay, and then met Limerick in the Munster semi-final and lost 4-12 to 1-13. But a year later Clare defeated Limerick by two points to reach the Munster final and won again in '78, with Limerick reversing the results in '79 and '80.

"The one thing about the Limerick-Clare rivalry," said the former Clare hurler Pat O'Connor back in 2013, "is that it does not go away, it is always there, and it can be resurrected in an instant. It is back at the flick of a switch."

He explained the rivalry based on his own experience. "The matches against Limerick were very physical. Very physical. Limerick always had fantastic backs. I used to have my own personal duels with Pat Herbert. You'd want your insurance checked out beforehand. He was a very tough customer but as honest as the day is long, which is Limerick hurling. It is physical and full of heart and you earn all your scores. They are always desperately committed. Their work rate was the big thing in our time; they were constantly in your face. They constantly believed they were better than Clare."

All that rings true. In '81 the hurling was unrecognisable from what you have now, with the control and precision and the tactical depth. But sometimes you long for one recidivist day (to hear the old music) where the counties might come to an arrangement to play the way they once did. For all its flaws and imperfections, it was captivating theatre. Random flourishes. First time whipping on the ball. Hip-to-hip combat. Players literally throwing themselves into the battle. That period in the second half when the contest was at its peak, when Clare and Limerick were flat out, it is hard to think of anything that could stir a child's heart and interest in the same way. They went at it, gloves off. The first to crack would lose.

"If you can't come with the intensity that Limerick will throw at you, you are at nothing," says Seamus Durack, the Clare captain that day in '81. "They give it everything. Why do you think there is that spirit that is in Thomond Park when teams play Munster? They create an atmosphere all of their own. Which is feisty, sometimes on the edge, but I would not call them dirty. They force you into a battle and if they win that you lose the game. You have to challenge them toe-to-toe."

But Limerick in '81, fighting qualities aside, had something extra that Clare did not. The teams were neck and neck for an hour before Limerick broke free in the final 10 minutes and won by six points. The difference was their full-forward, Joe McKenna, who scored three goals and three points from a final tally of 3-12. Damn you Joe McKenna, but you were unstoppable. Every ball that came Joe's way seemed to stick in his hand and in a flash he'd be streaking away before putting it past Durack, who spoke afterwards of his disbelief that he had lost yet another Munster final.

"Marvellous stuff this is now, what greater spectacle is there in the world of sport," raved Mick Dunne from the RTÉ television commentary box when the game was in the balance and the hurling in full flow. In the first half, after a Limerick penalty was saved and the teams tied at 1-2 apiece, Dunne was equally appreciative: "I don't think I have ever heard such noise in Semple Stadium in all the years I've been coming here. The crowd is lapping up every second of this."

And then, with 'Clare, Clare, Clare' heard around the stadium deep in the second half, a ball is pulled on and caught by McKenna and he palms to the net: 3-9 to 2-8. In the blink of an eye our goal is breached. A huge Limerick roar greets it, fans in green start spilling on to the pitch, mobbing McKenna. They dominate from there and move safely into the clear.

"Spellbinding," observed Dunne. "Limerick celebrating as if their first."

Having won the All-Ireland in the relatively recent past, and having the Mackey-inspired successes of the 1930s and '40, Limerick were considered a level above Clare in the hurling world. We knew that, and we knew that they knew that. In 1985 Eamonn Cregan, who played in the '81 Munster final, was coaching Clare when they reached the National League final against his own county. Clare were installed as favourites after defeating Kilkenny and Galway in the run-in. Clare needed a title more but Limerick won 3-12 to 1-7. How did you make sense of that collapse? Newspaper headlines reflected a 'cakewalk' and one rated the Clare display as 'pathetic'.

How pathetic? Clare scored their goal two minutes from the end from a Cyril Lyons penalty. Only two of their points came from play. Pathetic alright. Mistakes led to two of the three Limerick goals in the opening quarter. Liam O'Donoghue played in the half-back line, still there. Stack was captain of Clare, and the late Leonard Enright led Limerick to a second successive League title.

The 1990s changed everything when we came out from under Limerick's shadow. A Limerick team that seemed destined to win an All-Ireland didn't and Clare took two, despite losing badly to Limerick in the '94 Munster final. To beat Limerick in the '95 Munster final, then, had a special significance. They were hard work, and it didn't take long to be reminded of it when they broke Clare hearts again a year later in the Gaelic Grounds, when Carey's point suggested that for all that Clare had achieved, Limerick would always feel they could beat them.

Clare won two more All-Irelands before Limerick's salvation last year - who would have thought that possible? By the 1990s when Limerick were striving to win, in '94, and more pointedly in '96, friendships had been formed with people who were dyed-in-the-wool Limerick followers. One of those friends would pray - daily in the nearest available church - beseeching the Lord to carry Limerick over that line. And by then I was hoping that Limerick's day would come too because they had suffered more then enough. I wished it had come sooner than it did. I was happy when it did.

In the '90s we were frequent callers to Na Piarsaigh after Munster championship matches in the Gaelic Grounds. Often we stayed longer than we should have among that special mix of rival followers, relaxed in each others' company after games. The Na Piarsaigh club, a modest achiever then, has moved into a different dimension since.

Everything moves on and changes. But today an old fire will be relit and it is tribe against tribe, with all those working from each side of the divide in the nearby Shannon region having a particularly keen stake in what follows. So we suspend all else. We suspend civil relations. We suspend friendships. We find green or saffron and blue an act of provocation, drawing up old wounds, inducing in us the most primal of instincts. Because today defeat could mean not just losing to Limerick or Clare but also the end of the championship.

Limerick's hurlers are back in the ascendancy, expected to win, but in this fixture normal rules of logic don't always apply. Limerick know that only too well. They will expect a tornado. They have been here before.

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