Johnny Callinan was just 17 years old when he was sent into the smouldering remains of the 1972 Munster final.
By his reckoning, Clare were trailing Cork by 32 points, numbed to the humiliation. Haulie Daly, Anthony’s uncle, was one of the selectors and they were both Clarecastle men. In the meltdown it dawned on Haulie that he could salvage something imperishable. Just a trinket to take home.
“‘Young Callinan, go in there,’ Haulie says to me. The secretary wrote out the slip. ‘Where am I going on?’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter – it doesn’t matter. Just go on.’ His reasoning was that Jimmy Smyth [one of Clare’s greatest ever players] had played minor, junior and senior in the same year and Haulie wanted me to play minor, U-21 and senior in the same year. We were only beaten by 22 points in the end.”
For generations, Clare’s relationship with the Munster final was full of unrequited feelings. They weren’t part of its rampant mythology, and they scarcely figured on its roll of honour.
The Munster final had imposed a limit on everything: their ambition, their status, their horizon; glory. In their experience so much about it was oppressive, and yet it was a boundless source of wishful thinking. They were infatuated by it, and inflamed by it, along with everyone else.
Callinan remembers being brought to Munster finals by his father in the early 1960s, lifted over the turnstile in Thurles or Limerick. When he died his Dad’s friends continued to take him, faithfully observing the midsummer ritual.
“We were all caught up in it. Even though Clare hadn’t won one in living memory, I was brought up completely on the Munster championship. It was the only game in town.”
After Clare beat Limerick in the round robin game at the end of April, Brian Lohan immediately framed the outcome in that context.
“The Munster championship is just such a massive competition for us – and historically it’s such a big competition for us.”
The feeling Lohan described was impervious to the pain that had been handed down through the decades. Between 1932 and 1995 Clare had contested 11 Munster finals, and lost them all. The 22-point beating in 1972 wasn’t even a record defeat; they had conceded 11 goals to Limerick in 1918 on the way to a 31-point annihilation. Yet it was rooted in their collective psyche.
“When I was growing up I never even dreamt of an All-Ireland,” says Seanie McMahon. “It was something that wasn’t even for us. It was nearly like a different game because we were never there. The Munster final was the one. That’s where the heartbreak was. That’s why winning it was so special. For me, that was the game.”
They processed the heartbreak in different ways, on a case-by-case basis. In his long and brilliant career Callinan was involved in six finals, the last of them in Killarney in 1986 when Cork beat them by just three points.
Leaving the field in Fitzgerald Stadium a Clare supporter called him over.
“Give me the hurley,” he said, “you won’t be needing it again.” Callinan flicked the hurley, shaking the wire in front of the pup’s face.
“After the match I eventually had to go to a pub with only Cork people in it,” says Callinan. “All the Clare people were delighted, they were having a great weekend in Killarney and we were after going close. I knew the end was nigh for me – getting beaten again.
“It’s not a game that we left after us, or anything like that. The 1981 final against Limerick, that would be the one that I would be sorest over. We beat Cork [for the first time in 40 years, in the semi-final] and then Joe McKenna ran riot in the final [for Limerick]. There’s no good memories out of defeats.”
In his autobiography, Anthony Daly writes about coming back to Clarecastle after calamitous Munster final defeats. In 1994 they had been beaten badly for the second year in a row and landed back in the Coach House Inn.
“My sister-in-law Anne started clapping in a genuine show of affection or appreciation,” wrote Daly. “Nobody joined her. They were looking at her as if to say, ‘What are you applauding those chokers for? They’re after sh**ting themselves again.’
“They were only thinking what everyone else was saying behind our backs. It was that kind of sombre mood that prompted the late Michael ‘Nuggy’ Nihill, who was a great Clare supporter, to ask on Clare FM the Monday after the 1994 final, ‘When are Clare going to stop ruining the Munster final?’ . . . In 1993 and 1994 some of our people felt we had denigrated the entire history and culture of Clare hurling.”
Callinan couldn’t see any good in all this torment. Around that time, and for years before, he had been a vocal advocate of dismantling the provincial system and replacing it with an open draw. In his 17-year career he had played just 27 championship matches. Like others, Clare laboured under the twin yokes of history and colonial neighbours.
“I’m a bit of a contrarian here,” says Callinan. “I don’t give a s**t about the Munster championship. I honestly don’t. The Munster championship was a sacred cow, and it was overblown. I’ve never been a supporter of the provincial championships. In my naivety, when the back door came in, I thought the Munster and Leinster championships would be done away with.
“Now, maybe I’m peeved as well. I togged out in five Munster finals and missed another through injury in ‘74, and was beaten in all of them. When Clare won the Munster final in 1995 they stopped in Clarecastle with the cup and I must admit I did say to [Ger] Loughnane, ‘We can die happy now.’”
Loughnane and Callinan both played in the 1978 Munster final, one of bitterest in their history. Clare had won back-to-back National Leagues and Cork had won back-to-back All-Irelands, and if they weren’t the top two teams in the country they were both in the top three. Clare played against the wind in the first half and trailed by just two points at the break; at the end of a low-scoring game, Clare were still two behind. Broken.
RTÉ filmed an atmospheric eight-minute piece about Munster final day in Thurles, without dwelling on the play. Afterwards the RTÉ crew intruded gently on a grieving Clare dressing room, full of people standing around and shuffling in loaded silence. Seamus Durack, Clare’s All-Star goalie, said that he had cried after a match for only the second time in his life.
Then they interviewed Loughnane, standing bare-chested, his mop of sandy hair tossed like a salad.
“When we started out three or four years ago our aim was to win an All-Ireland,” Loughnane said. “You might think, inside in this dressing room, that aim has been forgotten. I can tell you, it’s not forgotten. We were beaten before. I can tell you, we’re going to be back again.”
It took 17 years for Loughane’s prophesy to come true. More than anybody else, he burst the dam in the Clare players’ minds. A couple of days after the 1995 Munster final he reflected on a life’s work.
“I had firmly made up my mind that I wasn’t going to get out of hurling until I won a Munster championship,” he said.
“That was my 13th Munster final [with Clare and St Flannan’s] I’d lost fecking 12. It became a total and utter obsession. You’ve no idea how much of an obsession it was. When it was over it was just relief. I know people were euphoric, but I didn’t have that feeling of euphoria. Just relief that something that had been a total obsession had been realised.”
Under Loughnane they won three Munster titles in four years but have won none since. In the last 25 years Clare have contested just five Munster finals, and lost them all.
Davy Fitzgerald led them to an All-Ireland and a National League, but during his six years as manager they won just one match in Munster. Between 1999 and 2017 Clare reached just one Munster final. On that front, on those bare numbers, it was as bad as their worst days.
“It is a big thing for us still,” says Fergie Tuohy, who played on the 90s team, and was a selector on the Clare team that reached the 2008 Munster final.
“The more you go without something, the more you crave for it. Because it’s within your province, it gives you a standing.
“Lohan is of the 90s mindset. Playing the Munster final in Limerick was his decision at the end of the day, with the management. I’d say in the back of his mind he was thinking of 1996 – when we were All-Ireland champions and Limerick turned us over in the Gaelic Grounds. He wouldn’t be saying it publicly, but in the back of his mind I’d say he’d just like to set the record straight. ‘Now ye’re the champions, and we’ll take ye at home.’”
Under Lohan, Clare have gone baldheaded to win the Munster title. Last year, they gave a performance that would win nine Munster finals out of ten. Over the following month, though, they never fully recovered and in Croke Park they paid a heavy price.
“I think what killed us last year was the extra time,” says Callinan. “It absolutely flattened us. Limerick got the Munster championship, but they also got a four week break. The four week break is a huge prize – bigger than winning the Munster championship, in my view.”
Callinan has been involved in fundraising for Clare teams since the 1990s and is heavily involved in Club Clare now. He has no quarrel with Lohan’s unyielding passion for this championship: Munster first, then the world. He still believes that the provincial system will be torn down one day, though he’s not holding his breath. The provincial councils now, he says, are like “little empires”.
“It reminds me of that phrase they used during the banking crisis, it [the Munster championship] has gone too big to fail.”
Once more. With feeling.