Former Kilmallock and Limerick star Mike Houlihan is hopeful his club can cause upset in Limerick decider
Last Monday would have been Mike Houlihan’s brother’s 50th birthday, had he lived to see it, and this weekend marks 25 years since he won a junior B championship with Kilmallock.
When Gerard Houlihan died on March 31 last year he was just 48. Because of the restrictions in place at the time the funeral was limited to a tiny gathering of mourners.
Those social limitations were alien to human instinct and the natural desire for deeper intimacy. It has taken Mike Houlihan time to absorb that loss, to try to make sense of it. He spoke to his brother on a Monday and the next day came the news that he had died, suddenly, leaving behind a wife and four children.
Gerard Houlihan was self-isolating at the time, having contracted Covid-19, and died alone in his house.
“It really brought home in our family the way it could affect you,” says Houlihan, speaking of the pandemic in the family pub in Kilmallock. “Like, there was ten at the funeral. We couldn’t see our nieces and nephew for nearly three months after, to meet up with them, or sympathise. So it had a big effect.”
When the topic of missed chances and All-Ireland medals that went abegging comes up later in the conversation, it is real life events like this that have him waving away all need for sympathy or self-pity.
His time in the green jersey was one that tends to be defined by two All-Ireland final losses in three years, each one leaving plenty of scope for lasting regret: one lost with a five-point lead and most of the play to Offaly, the other to Wexford’s 14 men.
But he’ll have none of that.
“I have no regrets,” he says firmly. “What regrets can you have? Like, you get your chances, you have to take them. What regrets have you? There are things more meaningful to me now than an All-Ireland medal. But at the time there wasn’t. End of the day it is the ultimate in the game but you had your chances. I won’t complain about it anyway.”
There is a large Mayo flag draped on one of the pub walls. His wife’s father hailed from Killala and won an All-Ireland minor medal with the county in 1966. He looks over at the green and red banner. “They are saying Mayo should have won an All-Ireland. How many more chances do they want? Don’t say that now, I’ll get killed,” says Houlihan, laughing heartily.
We are here to talk about the present rather than the past, though the two are rarely not connected. Today Houlihan’s son, Micheál, will be on the team taking on Patrickswell in the senior hurling final in the Gaelic Grounds and is their free-taker and leading marksman. Though the clubs have met frequently it will be their first final since 1992, when Houlihan played and won his first senior county medal.
“Sure Kilmallock is a hurling stronghold,” he says. His pub is bordered to the rear by Fitzgerald Park, the local GAA grounds. “We have representatives on the county panel. With Limerick on a high at the moment it’s brilliant to be in a county final. There is a spotlight on club hurling in Limerick so it’s brilliant for us to be in it.”
Kilmallock lost a final in 2017 to Na Piarsaigh and last won in 2014, which led to an All-Ireland final appearance the following March where they went down to a superior Ballyhale Shamrocks.
“In fairness they played a team with four hurlers of the year,” Houlihan says in mitigation. “There aren’t too many teams going to play a team with four hurlers of the year. We are playing a team on Sunday with a hurler of the year [Cian Lynch] and he’ll probably get a second one this year. And that is a formidable enough outfit to be meeting, besides the two other good inter-county players that are going to be on it.
“Look, we were there in ’93 in the All-Ireland club final, we met Sarsfields of Galway. They proved to be a good team, they did back to back, they won in ’93 and they won it in ’94.”
Houlihan won county medals in 1992 and ’94, and failed to win another before he retired in 2006. He hurled in two more finals in 1999 and 2005, playing alongside his late brother in the first of those. He took over the team for a year in 2007 when they were beaten in the semi-finals by Croom. And while he has been involved with different teams, it is not something he feels to be his fit.
“Over the last three or four years I haven’t done much. Like there are people that are interested in that in the sense, not that you wouldn’t be interested in helping your club, we’d all do something if asked, but there are some people that are more interested in training teams. The Davy Fitzs of the world are interested in training teams. They want to change the game. Donal Óg Cusack. The innovators of the game – they’re interested in all that, aren’t they?”
You aren’t? “I don’t want to change the game of hurling at all. If you take hurling out of hurling it is not a sport you can enjoy to watch.”
Can you enjoy it now? “You enjoy everything when you’re winning, don’t you? It’s probably brilliant to see high scores, and you’re gone into the 3-30 bracket now and that, but there’s often been more enjoyable games at 1-10, 1-12 a piece, with more activity on the field of play. If I had an issue, it’s hard to remember all the good scores now, they are so hard and fast; ’tis puckout, get it, score it, or a wide. It happens so quick up and down.
“The ability of forwards now to be the aggressor compared to the back. Before the back would command the forward, now it’s gone the opposite. Fair dues to a man that can score ten points in a game, I’d love to have been able to do it, but is it gone just … are there too many scores? Always when you went home debating a game you would say your man got a great point but sure there is nothing now about scoring it from the corner flag.”
In the 25 years since he was at his peak, the game has changed fundamentally to the point where there are calls for intervention. In Houlihan’s time the hip-to-hip hurling suited him all day long, pulling hard and not always necessarily on time. He earned the sobriquet ‘Iron Mike’ as a formidable and confrontational midfield dynamo, collar pulled up like a peacock in full feather.
“We let it fly in the air,” he says wistfully. “I played against Tony Keady the Lord have mercy on him, and Michael Coleman and Gerry McInerney, these guys, Brendan Lynskey and the f*****g knuckles would be skinned off you. What they want to do today is to have everything perfect. Every coach, stat, turnover, that’s what they are trying to achieve. Back then you did your best to put it in the vicinity.”
You enjoyed the physicality of it? “That’s why you were picked.”
A few days after Limerick won the All-Ireland in 2018, the coach moved up through Kilmallock with the MacCarthy Cup. They weren’t scheduled to stop but the best-laid plans can come unstuck. Houlihan recalls the moment. “The bus was passing through town and there was a lady that went out, Graeme Mulcahy was on the bus and she wanted to go out and meet him. She stood in front of the bus and stopped the bus outside the bar. Noreen Burke is her name. In fairness to John [Kiely, the Limerick manager] sure he saw a bit of sense at the end of the day, even though they were on schedule. And the players did say they enjoyed it because they didn’t get time to be in a bar and have the crack because it was all about moving locations.
“Everyone was happy, they met young people and they signed autographs. We had them this year as well, which was great. Last year we couldn’t have anybody, we were closed.”
The pub doors were shut from October last year through to June 7. He moved into the bar trade in 1998, a year before retiring from inter-county hurling. Tonight could be a lively one in Houlihan’s bar if the club manages to win a first senior title in seven years.
“It is like a game of cards now,” he says, extending his hand, noting the aces in the Patrickswell pack. “Look, we’d be hoping we might have an ace of hearts or something, to take one trick out of their hand. That’s basically it. “You could go in thinking do we mark this and mark that, but you nearly need to play your own game and see how you get on. They [Kilmallock] probably did that against Doon [in the semi-final], did their own style of hurling and it might work for them again.
“Last year they got well beaten in the semi-final [by Doon] but they’ve made steady progress this year in getting to a final. You had Richie English and Darragh O’Donovan playing this year [for Doon]; they weren’t playing last year, they were injured. We understand what we’re up against. But you can’t box unless you’re inside in the ring. Sure we’re in the ring, We weren’t in it last year.”