Limerick hurling: home to hope and hardship

It has been 41 years since Limerick hurlers won the Liam MacCarthy Cup and some of their near misses have been tremendously painful – no more so than 1994

All-Ireland Final 1994; Limerick v Offaly Joe Dooley of Offaly chased by Dave Clarke

All-Ireland Final 1994; Limerick v Offaly Joe Dooley of Offaly chased by Dave Clarke

Thu, May 15, 2014, 16:45

Stragglers in the Gaelic Grounds on the sombre afternoon of the double bill of league hurling semi-finals might have noticed TJ Ryan and Donal O’Grady sitting alone among the discarded newspapers and sweet wrappers strewn along the Mackey Stand.

It might have been a consoling sight for Treaty hurling fans: the joint managers of the reigning Munster champions, studying the form and plotting the summer ahead, literally in the shadows. As it turned out, the men would not be seen together again. Forty-eight hours later, O’Grady had quit, having taken grave exception to county boards intimations that the management had “apologised” for the team’s performance against Offaly, of all counties. Ryan agreed to carry on alone.

Just like that, it seemed that Limerick had returned to a familiar state of fractiousness and disharmony and, most of all, of blowing a promising opportunity.

Limerick hurling people of a certain vintage are entitled to a bitter smile over the fact that Offaly were inadvertently involved in Limerick woes.

This summer marks a sensitive anniversary for Limerick hurling. For those that remember it, 1994 might well have come marked by a firebrand. September 4th, 1994, a day christened “Ceasefire Sunday” in the newspapers because of historic developments in Northern Ireland. There were 56,458 people at Croke Park for a novel final: Limerick v Offaly.

Folk hero
Limerick, chasing their first All-Ireland title since 1973, the lone year of splendour since Mick Mickey and company had lifted the MacCarthy Cup in 1940 to claim the county’s third All-Ireland in seven years. And just to make things more complicated, Offaly managed by Éamonn Cregan, the Limerick city hurling original and a folk hero in the county.

Could Cregan have guessed, when he took the Offaly job, that not only would he manage his team to the final but that his native county would also show up there for the first time in 14 years? Even if so, he could never have dreamt what would pass in those last five minutes.

“In all of my years reporting for this newspaper or before it, I’ve never seen such a dramatic finish to an All-Ireland final,” Paddy Downey of The Irish Times wrote as his opening line that evening.

He continued: “It reminded me of a dreadfully wet day in Killarney in 1971 when Limerick played Tipperary in a Munster final. They seemed to be winners then too but Tipperary came back to claim the day. And when the final whistle sounded the Limerick players, almost all of them as I remember, fell to the ground and wept.”

‘Unprintable words’
In the seconds after the 1994 final, Limerick people were too numb for tears. It finished 3-16 to 2-13, a final score which looks comprehensive. But the scoreboard had read 2-13 to 1-11 in favour of the losers with five minutes remaining. Offaly had been flat and uninspired all afternoon.

At half-time, Cregan had words with his players. “Unprintable words,” he said later. “He ate the shite out of me anyhow,” elaborated Offaly’s Johnny Pilkington that evening. “Really ripped into me.”

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