Hope is in the Clare air – even the dolphins can feel it

All-Ireland preview: hurling fever grips the Banner county in a way not seen in almost two decades

“There’s hope in the air,” declares Jim O’Sullivan as the bunting goes up all around him in Shannon’s Skycourt centre, “and God knows we can’t say there’s been much of that these past few years.”

O’Sullivan is a Corkman, but he’s been all Clare ever since coming to what was Ireland’s newest town in the 1960s.

It's the power of the local Wolfe Tones club that gave the two Lohan brothers to Clare's All-Ireland-winning teams of 1995 and 1997, and it has always been a melting pot and point of reference for people who were drawn to Shannon, when the town grew out of the airport and industrial estate.

It means that when O’Sullivan talks hope, he’s primarily talking hurling. The game is a way life that captures the pulse of the people more than anything else.


"It's going to be the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann that Clare didn't get and went to Derry instead," says Ennis antiques dealer Tony Honan as he puts the finishing touches to a window display that pays homage to the week that's in it.

The county town's first ever freeman, Muhammad Ali, is holding a hurley, while beside him sits a sepia-toned image of a boyish Christy Ring.

But pride of place goes to the Croke Cup, the oldest known intercounty GAA trophy, dating from the 1890s. It was recovered more than three decades ago, far from the madding crowds of Croke Park, having found a home as a flowerpot in an antique loft in Dublin.

"For years Ring going through Shannon was the closest we came to an All-Ireland, " says Honan, "but now, just look around and it's everywhere, you can see the lift everywhere that being in an All-Ireland brings."

The front of each business has a different hurling story to tell. The recession may have hit the county town hard, with the hustle and bustle of a decade ago replaced by scores of vacant units adorned by “To Let” and “For Sale” signs, but this week even those signs are draped in the county colours.

At the base of Ennis’s O’Connell Monument, rival hawkers vie for prime squatting rights to set up stall for the day.

“I was here first,” barks one street trader, weighed down with Clare memorabilia.

“But I was here yesterday,” comes the meek response of the vanquished, before he shuffles off towards O’Connell Street and opens for business there.

TV replays
Along the way he passes Club Dangan Menswear, whose window is dominated by a television replaying the 1995 and 1997 All-Ireland finals on a continuous 24-hour loop.

It's the same everywhere. A plaque on the wall outside the Queen's Hotel boasts its connections to James Joyce, noting that the hotel "found its place in literature through a number of references in Ulysses".

But it’s all about finding its place in the Clare hurling story now, thanks to a saffron and blue makeover, something that’s been mirrored countywide as hurling fever comes home to Clare in a way that hasn’t been seen since 1995.

It's in the massive screen erected by Ennis Town Council in the carpark beside the Queen's Hotel to broadcast the match, while over on the town's Fair Green the bandstand is being built for the homecoming on Monday night that will be broadcast worldwide via ennisapp.ie.

Then there’s the slew of songs circulating on the internet – everything from Depeche Mode to Daniel O’Donnell, with the Village People also thrown into the mix as hurling tugs on the tastes of all generations and all backgrounds.

"There's hope in the air," agrees Michael Coughlan in Bunratty. "But it's also in the water," he adds, pointing to a tributary of the Shannon outside the famous Durty Nellys pub.

“A couple of dolphins came up the estuary into fresh water in April” he says, “and stayed for a few weeks. It was the sign of a good summer, but it was also a sign for the hurling. The last time we had the dolphins was in ’95 when we won the All-Ireland.”