Another generation raises the green and white standard for Limerick
Undaunted by decades of setbacks and disappointment Limerick are once more ready to meet the challenge
Limerick’s Seamus Hickey and supporters celebrate against Cork in Sunday’s Munster final at the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick. Photograph: Inpho
One of the most momentous provincial hurling championship seasons since the 1990s concluded at the weekend. Just as the world at large was cheered by Dublin’s long-awaited Leinster title a week previously, only a world-class curmudgeon (fuelled by miserable git supplements) could fail to smile at the sheer exuberance of Limerick’s celebration in the Gaelic Grounds on Sunday.
I don’t think there’s a county that does the big, public uprising as completely as Limerick. This newspaper’s hurling analyst Nicky English has always believed that the Limerick crowd has a unique symbiosis with its players and that subduing that support base is an important task for all opposing teams.
After Sunday’s match it was noticeable in the milling around on the pitch and outside the dressingroom tunnel, how many of the crowd were wearing the colours: not just replica jerseys but all sorts of appropriate combinations, often individually understated when seen close up but from a distance, small pieces of a giant green-and-white mosaic.
English has described the passion of that crowd as being effectively a “16th man” for the county in the way it interacts with a whole-hearted performance on the field, each driving on the other as the challenge for the opposition spirals upwards.
Six years ago the county reached an All-Ireland final and although they were – not unfairly – seen as having no chance against Kilkenny then in their pomp, the crowd refused to be swayed by any negative considerations and created a great panoply of sound – a futile attempt at once to protect and inspire the hurlers.
Speaking the morning after, Limerick selector Gary Kirby marvelled at the levels of support in Croke Park that day in September 2007: “I don’t think any team – even Dublin – have come out into the sort of noise our fellas came out to. The Limerick supporters got behind them and during the parade all you could see was green and white.”
One of the new wave of counties that broke across hurling in the mid-1990s, Limerick were set apart from Clare, Offaly and Wexford by one devastating distinction. They never won the All-Ireland. The famous four minutes and 14 seconds of darkness at the end of the 1994 final saw a healthy five-point lead mutate into a two-goal defeat by Offaly.
Two years later, despite a man advantage for most of the match, they lost by two to Wexford.
Failure of posterity
When the county produced its own De Profundis, Henry Martin’s Unlimited Heartbreak, an unflinching and detailed consideration of the disappointments that beset Limerick hurling, 1990s manager Tom Ryan agonised over the All-Ireland defeats but also lashed out at the failure of posterity even to notice.
“On top of that, the team never got f***ing recognition for f*** all – there and then, before or after. Never. Even Ciarán Carey’s point (to beat All-Ireland champions Clare in 1996) didn’t get on the top 20 score competition and we didn’t make Hurling: The Revolution Years (Denis Walsh’s vibrant account of that era).”
Eamonn Cregan, one of the players who provided some relief from this litany of disappointments by winning the MacCarthy Cup 40 years ago, is fond of a phrase that artfully sidesteps any suggestion of self-aggrandisement to make a wider point. “We’ve won one All-Ireland since 1940.” Somewhere down all of the years during which he has been saying this, a calendar page flicked over and 1973 became farther distant from the present than it had been from 1940.
Ryan however had a point. His team should have been a 24-carat good news story but their best years were affected by opposing drags on the public’s emotions.
In 1994 the All-Ireland final was against Offaly, not one of the traditionally great powers and its narrative became consumed with how Cregan, like a hurling Coriolanus, was managing the opposition to Limerick and pathos was provided by Cregan’s almost tangible emotional connection with his own county.
In the following two years Limerick lost out to counties who had been waiting even longer than they had for breakthrough success, Clare and Wexford both of whom had managers in Ger Loughnane and Liam Griffin who were gifted evangelists for hurling and their counties.
There was no Kilkenny or in those pre-qualifier days Cork or Tipperary to make Limerick unequivocally the people’s choice in the way they were six years ago.
The strange tendency to emerge at the same time as other great romantic stories continues. Even before the 1990s, Limerick managed to contest the 1980 final against a Galway side winning a first All-Ireland in 57 years and in the ’50s it was Limerick who made way in the semi-final for Wexford, who were about to win a first All-Ireland in 45 years. Of the seven All-Ireland challenges as Munster champions between 1940 and this year, only one was terminated by Kilkenny.
This year Dublin have won Leinster for the first time in 52 years and sit in the other semi-final awaiting whoever the quarter-finals at the end of the month send forward to meet them.
Last Sunday bridged the years all the way back to 1996. In the days of next month and, they will hope, the early autumn the great imagining will intensify. Just one match away from reaching at least one All-Ireland final for each of the decades since 1973 and two matches away the elusive jackpot of two Liam MacCarthy Cups since 1940.