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Ready and willing to finally pass on All-Ireland torch

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Stephen McDonagh with his children Cian, Sophie, Ava and Darragh and their cousins Sean O’Gorman and Kate O’Gorman will visit his father-in-law at the Mater Hospital this morning before journeying on to Croke Park. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Stephen McDonagh with his children Cian, Sophie, Ava and Darragh and their cousins Sean O’Gorman and Kate O’Gorman will visit his father-in-law at the Mater Hospital this morning before journeying on to Croke Park. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Stephen McDonagh with his children Cian, Sophie, Ava and Darragh and their cousins Sean O’Gorman and Kate O’Gorman will visit his father-in-law at the Mater Hospital this morning before journeying on to Croke Park. Photo: Caroline Quinn

"Ever since our dramatic win in the Munster final, the interest in hurling among young and old has climbed to a fever pitch in a city where soccer and rugby held the dreams of our youth. Now there is a bright future for hurling in Limerick. There is not a street in the city or a field in the county where boys will not emulate the stylish mastery of hurling displayed in Croke Park on Sunday by the heroes of Limerick."

Alderman Mick Lipper,

Lord Mayor of Limerick, 1973

On Wednesday last Eamonn Grimes, maybe out of a sense of duty, phoned Declan Hannon, the Limerick hurling captain. Grimes isn't going to disclose the details but is more open about life as the last Limerick captain to receive the MacCarthy Cup. Were that distinction to disappear today there would be no happier man than he. It is his most earnest wish that Hannon will become only the second man since Mick Mackey in 1940 to join that elite band. When Grimes climbed the steps 45 years ago, ending a 33-year wait, it fuelled hopes of a revolution. It couldn't stop there. Could it?

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Good Luck sign at Banogue Cross, Co. Limerick. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Good Luck sign at Banogue Cross, Co. Limerick. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Good Luck sign at Banogue Cross, Co. Limerick. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Grimes has reached the age of 71. He remains the last winning captain. He wants to make it clear that he is not being disrespectful in seeking a new identity. It was a tremendous honour which brought him lasting respect and infinite joy. But there came a time when it became more of reminder of the failure that followed. At every turn on the road during these last 45 years, where it looked like he might have an heir, there was crushing disappointment laying in wait.

He was there in '74 as Kilkenny exacted revenge in the final, when Sean Foley captained the team. He came on for his last appearance in the 1980 final defeat by Galway, flashing a late chance wide. The unfortunate Foley was captain that year too. He was a spectator during the two heartbreaking endings of the 1990s, and present again when they fell to Kilkenny in 2007. The past has not tread softly on Limerick dreams. In all of this he has been last captain. Last captain.

It is a mere annoyance compared to the bigger challenges in life. Two years ago he had a quadruple bypass operation, ten years after three stents were inserted in his arteries. In the space of a few days he had two collapsed lungs and a spell in intensive care. The man who last lifted the MacCarthy Cup as captain was told on leaving hospital that the most he would be able to lift for the following 16 weeks was a cup of tea.

They did not tell him that he had to stop attending Limerick matches. On Friday he travelled to Dublin with his wife, Helen, to stay with their daughter. All-Ireland finals are always a reminder that their wedding anniversary is almost upon them. The couple married eight days after Limerick defeated Kilkenny in the rain in 1973. His close friend JP McManus drove them from the wedding reception the same night to Dublin airport in a Morris Minor (he can still recite the registration plate, "EIU 277"). From there, they took a flight to Mallorca for a 10-day honeymoon. It was a temporary relief from the madness which followed Limerick's win. But even there, they weren't entirely safe. A couple of priests at the resort recognised Grimes and one remarked that he was a long way from the hurling field.

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Eamonn Grimes, former South Liberties, Limerick county Hurler and captain of the 1973 winning All-Ireland team, pictured with his two All-Star trophies (1973 and 1975) and replicas of the Liam MacCarthy Cup (The MacCarthy Perpetual Challenge Cup) and his All-Ireland medal for 1973 win.  Donoughmore, Co. Limerick. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Eamonn Grimes, former South Liberties, Limerick county Hurler and captain of the 1973 winning All-Ireland team, pictured with his two All-Star trophies (1973 and 1975) and replicas of the Liam MacCarthy Cup (The MacCarthy Perpetual Challenge Cup) and his All-Ireland medal for 1973 win. Donoughmore, Co. Limerick. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Eamonn Grimes, former South Liberties, Limerick county Hurler and captain of the 1973 winning All-Ireland team, pictured with his two All-Star trophies (1973 and 1975) and replicas of the Liam MacCarthy Cup (The MacCarthy Perpetual Challenge Cup) and his All-Ireland medal for 1973 win. Donoughmore, Co. Limerick. Photo: Caroline Quinn

He returned home to a litany of social engagements. "Sure Jesus, we were partying until the following March."

On Friday last, he had made a pact with himself that he was switching off his mobile and giving his head peace. The mobile had been pinging all week. "It's crazy," he said, "but it's a lovely crazy."

Like '73? Yes, he says, like then. He recalls the Friday before the final against Kilkenny, when he was in his car on the last day of August, heading towards evening, bolting for Adare. Two days before the final, ferrying match tickets to a well known publican. "I was going over a bridge and driving a chocolate brown Anglia and I hit the bridge and heard this thump. I broke the sump in my car. And I looked back and there was a streak of oil. I was going too fast, nearly killed myself sure, trying to get rid of them. And that's what it was like then."

The yearning was very much like now, the world much different. On September 2, the day Limerick took on Kilkenny in the final, a publican in Clontarf received a phone call that he would later describe as "extremely unusual". The caller explained that he was in an Irish bar in Los Angeles where a group of around 400 Limerick supporters had gathered for an RTÉ transmission of the final that did not come through. Faced with a desperate situation, they decided to call a pub in Ireland and ask to have the receiver placed near a television so they could listen to the commentary. Tim Kinsella, owner of the Pebble Beach Bar, was pulling a pint when the phone rang.

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"The phone was tuned into the final for the full 80 minutes and every time Limerick scored I could hear screaming and cheering on the other side of the line," explained Kinsella. The call cost over £90 - or around €1,100 in today's money - but the Limerick followers on the west coast of America didn't regret the bill that needed to be settled. It was money well spent."

The year before South Liberties won their first senior hurling championship, enabling them to nominate a captain to lead Limerick in '73. Grimes was the chosen one. He was a special talent. In 1966, on the eve of sitting a Leaving Cert exam, he made his senior championship debut against Tipperary, the reigning All-Ireland champions. They caused a shock by winning the match and Grimes was introduced to the hardest man he ever hurled against, Len Gaynor. Cork beat them in the Munster semi-final.

In the next four seasons they won one match in the province, a replay over Clare in 1970. The nearest they came to a breakthrough was the '71 Munster final defeat by Tipp in Killarney. Two years later Grimes led them to their first Munster title since 1955.

Memories flood back now. On the night before the 1973 All-Ireland final he and a few others went into Dublin city centre, stopping at Clery's where the MacCarthy Cup was on public display. He roomed with Pat Hartigan. "The following morning we got up, we had Mass, and then we had breakfast and got a paper and I went back up to the room. They were all on the bus and they did a count and I was missing. And they came back to the room and I was fast asleep."

After the final whistle his elderly father made an attempt to reach him as he was being carried off the field. "I think he made about four attempts without the walking stick to come down the steps. He couldn't walk without the stick prior to it." Then in his mid-70s, he died a year later. "He took a massive heart attack in the Gaelic Grounds; we were playing Waterford in the League," says his son.

His father trying to reach him, trying to defy all common sense and his ailing physical condition, is one of the day's abiding memories.

"I will always remember that," he says. "Ah that . . . that was family."

* * * * *

"That is the pattern every day since we defeated Tipperary in the Munster final. The surge of interest has been staggering. If we win the All-Ireland we will win every young boy in the city."

Declan Moylan, Limerick County Board treasurer, speaking to John D Hickey of the Irish Independent before the 1973 All-Ireland final

Limerick hurling has hit many troughs over the past 45 years, its people have frequently despaired, but maybe there was no period as trying as eight years ago when the players went on strike in a dispute with the team management. The previous year they had been destroyed by 24 points by Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final, and the following League ended in inevitable relegation as they fielded second-string teams. In their last match against Dublin they were beaten by 31 points. The vast majority of their better hurlers refused to play. Followers were faced with a dilemma of whether to shun the team or offer those playing moral support.

At that time, Stephen McDonagh was preparing to head to Cork for a Munster semi-final he knew they could not possibly win. He planned to take his six-year-old son Darragh with him, who had also been in Croke Park when they were trounced by Tipp the previous August. These were the memories his young son would be carrying but McDonagh felt a child might still reap some benefits, remember the good bits. And anyway, he wanted to go.

"Darragh is mad to go," he explained about the Cork game at the time. "He wouldn't really be aware of it (the strike). 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 all right. 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."

McDonagh expressed his concern about the damage that was being inflicted by a divisive dispute. "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."

We are back in the same room in McDonagh's farmhouse in Bruree where we had that conversation eight years earlier. Darragh is now 14 and the family has grown to four, along with Cian, Sophia and Ava. All enter the room at some point, four beautiful happy children, maybe on the brink of witnessing something that will have a profound impact on their lives. They may be fortunate to be growing up in a different era for Limerick.

"All are going," says McDonagh chirpily. "I have the cheque to prove it. They are all going. I said if I was in a position to get tickets, which I was lucky enough to get, I said I would take them all. So we are all going. If we are lucky enough to win it, they will have a memory for a lifetime."

He had planned to drive up early this morning and first visit his wife Kay's father, Dan, in the Mater Hospital where he is recovering from a recent back operation. They will park the car there and drive back home afterwards, come what may. In 2014 McDonagh got involved with the county minor team that reached the All-Ireland final, with a number of the current seniors emerging from that group, like Sean Finn, Cian Lynch, Seamus Flanagan and Tom Morrissey. His two sons were at numerous training sessions and went to all of the matches.

"Tom Morrissey presented a few camogie medals last year in Granagh-Ballingarry (where the girls hurl) and the first question he asked was, 'How are the boys?' Little things like that. 'Twas great for them. I remember when we were beaten, when Kilkenny beat us (in the All-Ireland minor final), they were devastated. Absolutely devastated when the match was over. They were with Kay. I remember coming back, I turned on my phone, and immediately Kay sent me a message to come and get the lads quick, that they were devastated. I went up and found them and I brought them down into the dressing room and the following match then was the great match between Tipp and Kilkenny. So we watched that right down at pitchside in the Cusack Stand. Barry Kelly and Brian Gavin and I don't know who the other linesman was were coming in at half-time and they were getting hell from the Kilkenny crowd, dog's abuse, they got to experience all of that. That was an experience that will last them a lifetime you know."

Because of that involvement for a year with the minors he feels a deeper and more personal connection to this venture. When they were in the final in 2007 he went with Kay, as their kids were very young. "That was a great Kilkenny team. Deep down I don't think we felt we were going to win. This time it's different. We are going up with a good bit more hope behind us."

When you are so long waiting, the temptation to wonder what winning would be like is challenged by the fear of increasing the pain if you do and it does not materialise. "I think it would be fantastic really," says McDonagh. "If we could just scramble over the line. I think you'd see an outpouring of emotion that would be . . . I think you would see something different. It would be fantastic. But that's the emotional side of it. You don't want to think too far ahead in case there will be disappointment again."

The two finals he lost as a player, the one against Offaly with the winning line in sight, and the defeat by a 14-man Wexford two years later, are stripped of any sentiment. "We didn't win them because we weren't good enough. We can talk about hard luck, but I am a great believer that the best team wins the All-Ireland. We were so many points up against Offaly and, sure, totally self-imploded."

As a boy he remembers being driven up to the 1980 All-Ireland final with his father. "Coming home devastated they were beaten, but the display that Eamonn Cregan gave. What a player like! Sean Foley, I grew up idolising Sean Foley, Joe McKenna and Leonard Enright. I remember being in school and Leonard was a rep with the Tayto company and coming down from school having vivid memories of seeing the truck and being in total awe of him. And Cregan. I saw him do things even as a young lad going to club matches, and we have wonderful skilful players here now, but the skill Cregan had . . . I don't think we produced anyone more skilful than Eamonn Cregan."

But you can't wish Limerick to an All-Ireland, as he well knows. "Nobody is going to give it to you. And sentiment won't give you one either. And if you didn't win one for another 40 years, Tipp and Cork and Kilkenny, they won't be crying like. We had a great team then in 1980, should have won an All-Ireland. I remember being above, with my dad, Lord have mercy on him, and Cregan very nearly single- handedly taking down Galway on his own."

* * * * *

"It would be lovely - not just for my sake - if we got a new man. There's a new generation after coming up that doesn't know me. But they know Declan Hannon and Kyle Hayes and all of those."

Eamonn Grimes, August 2018

The other great memory of the bedlam that followed their win in 1973 concerns his friend JP McManus. They have known each other since childhood. They walked across fields to primary school together. Long before Grimes became a famous hurler they were friends. And long after he retired they still are. McManus has been part of the narrative in some shape or form during all the time Limerick have been waiting to add another All-Ireland and for a few years before '73 as well.

In '73 McManus was chairman of South Liberties. "Go back to '71," says Grimes. "At the time we were training with Limerick you might have three sliotars. You'd come in after training, you might get a pint of milk and a sandwich. If you were lucky. JP got involved so we went from that up to the Shannon Arms. We went from milk and a sandwich to steak and salmon. And that was an incentive to go training."

So JP picked up the tab for those meals then? "He did."

He named a horse after you?

"Jaysus, he did."

Did the horse do you justice? "He did. He had one for Joe McKenna, he called it Joe Mac. And he had one called Pat Hartigan. The one I had was called Grimes.

"Joe McKenna, he ran in Liverpool, he won in Liverpool. And he ran down in Gowran Park and jeez, he broke his leg. And Pat's (horse) was fed to the greyhounds (he wasn't successful). I was left holding the can then. Won a number of prestigious races including the Galway Plate. We had some night after that. He is in Martinstown (Stud) now."

Which takes him back to that moment from '73 when JP arrived at the dressing-room seeking admission and the celebrating crowd gathered outside the door made entry impossible. He sought access through a narrow window and Grimes and the county treasurer helped pull him in. It was a tight squeeze and his clothes, Grimes remembers, were badly creased. But they got him through. "We pulled him in," says Grimes. "He was the chairman of our club and the man that fed us."

More recently he spotted him after they defeated Kilkenny in Thurles in the All-Ireland quarter-final, a match that looked to be veering away from them before Tom Morrissey set the tone for a dramatic finale. Their first championship win over Kilkenny since 1973. "I never saw him as delighted going over to the helicopter," says Grimes, smiling. "There was such a spring in his step. He controls his emotions now very much but it was like he felt there was something happening."

The day Grimes felt there was something happening? That would have been when they came from behind to defeat Galway in the National League in Salthill to secure a long-awaited promotion back to the top tier. "I said it three months ago after they beat Galway in Salthill. I said we were the only team that can stay with Galway, physically, and point for point. We'll match them. We have big men. In the right places."

For Stephen McDonagh it was the championship game in Cork. "To be honest about it, now, I didn't expect them to beat Tipp the first day. Going down to Cork was always going to be tough but I think the Cork match, the night in Cork, now I know they had a blip against Clare, but the night in Cork told me something about them. You know, down to 14 men . . . I was on the 21-yard line on the covered stand side that evening and possibly the two best performances I've seen coming out of Limerick were from (Graeme) Mulcahy and (Seamus) Flanagan that night. The work they did. The ground they covered.

"Two minutes into the second half, (Mark) Coleman got a ball over on the uncovered stand side and soloed 50 yards. And Mulcahy went after him, hooked him, shunted him out over the line, really set the tone. Now 'twas a pure act of defiance that night. I think Seamus Flanagan covered nearly 15km that night. I said to myself coming home that night, there is a little bit something different here now."

* * * * *

"If the boys play ground hurling, which is typical of Limerick, I think they will win."

Rory Kiely, former chairman of Limerick County Board, 1973

Maybe that says it best of all, how much it has changed, though the yearning stays the same. The baton passes from Mackey to Grimes and now Hannon has his hand out hoping to carry it forward for a new generation. But if you covered their faces and changed the colour of their shirts, would you know Limerick were hurling? It is almost certain that the safest forecast to be made today is that not a single player, Limerick or Galway, will strike the ball on the ground in open play.

And if history has taught Limerick anything, it is that nothing can be assumed. The current bid comes on the back of solid foundations at underage, but the three under 21 titles that led to nothing but increased anguish at senior, even if the circumstances were different, is one of those dark chapters of unfulfilled potential that have filled the pages of Limerick's narrative over the last 45 years. They have every right to feel confident today, to feel on an equal footing with Galway, but nothing is yours until you have it in your hand.

And no Limerick man has had the MacCarthy handed to him since Grimes, and before him none since Mackey. So, the idea that it will happen because it must happen . . . no, they are not buying that.

"Well, if you asked me in 2013 after Clare winning the All-Ireland, would it be five years before they'd win another one, I would have said in my opinion that would certainly not be the case," says McDonagh. "So you don't know. You don't know. I couldn't sit here and say for certain that Limerick are going to be here for the next five years. You don't know. I mean they've a great chance. But if you look at Waterford last year, OK Galway won it but Waterford were there or thereabouts for a while. You look at what happened (Waterford) this year. A ball of injuries. One calamity after the next. You never know what will happen in 12 months' time. I think they are in a great place now. But who knows what the future holds.

"From the grapevine, the level of effort that's gone in here, with the panel, the management, the training, behind the scenes since last September, obviously without the Na Piarsaigh lads until they came back, has been phenomenal. Is it possible to keep that going over two, three, four or five years? I doubt it. They have dedicated their whole life to this since September."

Eamonn Grimes remembers what it was like in his time, hearing of the 1940 team and the famous names: Mackey, Jackie Power, Dick Stokes, Paddy Scanlan. "And then you got to '73 and - bang! - you were after emulating these guys."

He can see the turf alight on the side of the road as they left the train in Castleconnell on the way home on the Monday evening. They went the rest of the way into the city on a float. Their lives were never the same again.

Bang. And it was gone. Limerick has been waiting for the same bang since. They do big bangs only.


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