How Limerick’s trip to hurling paradise brought its people along for the ride

Four stories from the weekend when Limerick managed to end 45 years of hurt

 Limerick squad and backroom staff enjoy their win in front of Hill 16. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Limerick squad and backroom staff enjoy their win in front of Hill 16. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

Saturday

John Kiely celebrates with his backroom team, including Eamon O’Neill (right) at the final whistle. Photograph: Inpho/Tommy Dickson
John Kiely celebrates with his backroom team, including Eamon O’Neill (right) at the final whistle. Photograph: Inpho/Tommy Dickson

Eamon O’Neill didn’t know what to be doing with himself. The nature of being the team liaison officer for an intercounty team is that you’re mostly working ahead of yourself. He had no fire to fight, everything was done. The trains were booked, the hotels were booked, the buses were ready, the Garda escort was sorted – everything was done. Still, he was a little on edge. Couldn’t help it.

“Saturday was the longest day of the year,” O’Neill says. “You’re wondering how you’re going to kill it. You’re wondering is everybody alright. You’re watching the phone to see did you miss a text. We had training on Friday night and then didn’t see them again until Sunday morning. We had no team meeting or anything on Saturday.

“We didn’t change our schedules. It’s very important to sleep in your own bed the night before a championship match. These guys have done that all year. When they go training they come from home. When they go to matches they come from home. These lads are competing at an elite level of sport but when you strip it all away, they’re just ordinary guys. Everybody loves their own bed.”

Wayne McNamara put in 10 years as a Limerick hurler and fought the ocean for most of it. Since his retirement in 2016, he has gathered up a group of friends he goes to Limerick matches with and the ones he wasn’t meeting on the train on Sunday morning, he would see once they made Dublin. This summer has given him a street-map to a world he only ever saw in atlas form before.

“It’s difficult,” says McNamara. “When you’re a player, you don’t realise what the fans go through. I genuinely had no concept of it when I was playing. Obviously you respect supporters, 100 per cent. But until you cross over and become a supporter yourself, you have no idea what it’s like for them.

“The feeling you have as a supporter is nothing like what you have as a player. You’re up and down with everything that happens. Whereas when you’re playing, you’re just focused on playing. But when you’re in the stands and you’re on the road and you’re going to all these matches – especially this year when there was so many of them – you’re on an emotional rollercoaster.”

Rob Hanrahan and son Oisín with Limerick captain Declan Hannon after Sunday’s success
Rob Hanrahan and son Oisín with Limerick captain Declan Hannon after Sunday’s success

Rob Hanrahan was on holiday in France in July with his wife Michelle and their young two boys when his rein on the secret he’d been carrying around for four months could be held no longer. He had a hotel room booked for them in Dublin for the weekend of the final. Had done since March. “She looked at me like I was off my head,” he says.

Michelle Hanrahan is from Cork. When she married a Limerick hurling fan from Ardpatrick, it’s possible the full force of meaning attached to such a term was not revealed to her straight away. She came from a place where All-Irelands were won. Maybe not so much in recent years but, y’know, in the past half-century at least. The ache in her Limerick life-partner-to-be, the unspoken hole present in all Limerick hurling people before last weekend, was something she got used to as they went along.

On Saturday, they packed the car and set off – Rob, Michelle, Oisín (5) and Mason (1). Rob and Oisín are season ticket holders so they’d be going to the game. Michelle and Mason would stay back in the hotel and wait.

Limerick Leader journalist Áine Fitzgerald in matchday mode
Limerick Leader journalist Áine Fitzgerald in matchday mode

Áine Fitzgerald had the weekend off. But when you’re an assistant editor in the Limerick Leader and Limerick are playing in an All-Ireland final, “off” is a bendy enough concept. One way or the other, she’d be writing something out of it. And if they won, she’d be writing until the laptop smoked.

Eamon, Wayne, Rob and Áine. Four people. Four stories.

Limerick people.

One story.

Sunday

Even for someone with young kids, Rob was up way too early. He was pacing the floor from 6.30am, in and out of the toilet, a barbed-wire roll of nerves. He was told to calm down. He tried. He really did.

The train carrying the Limerick team left Colbert Station at 9.40, arriving at Heuston at 11.40. From there, Kevin Griffin’s team bus brought them to the Crowne Plaza in Santry. They had their pre-match meal and talked their pre-match talk. Through it all, Eamon was waiting on a shoe that never dropped. Everything he and they had planned was working out as it should. Later, as they got off the bus in Croke Park, John Kiely turned to him. “In fairness, I said we wanted to be here at 2.18 and here we are, it’s 2.18 exactly.”

Rob and Oisín got to Croke Park early. It was Oisín’s first visit to the big house. He is his mother’s son, a Cork fan despite his father’s devotions, obsessed with Séamus Harnedy. On the walk to the stadium, Rob tried to talk a bit more Limerick into him, stopping on a wall at one stage to show him Ciarán Carey’s point on YouTube.

“He’s five and he’s just about getting to the crest of beginning to get it,” Rob says. “And then we went in and as we came out into the stadium to go to our seat, he just stopped and looked around him and went, ‘Oh, Daddy.’ I was emotional anyway but that killed me. We rang his mother straight away and that was more tears. Of course, we went down to the museum then and all he wanted to see was Christy Ring’s hurley.”

Wayne McNamara in his no-helmut playing days
Wayne McNamara in his no-helmet playing days

Wayne sat down in his seat and looked out on the scene before him. He’d been on the fringes of the Limerick panel in 2007 when Kilkenny atomised them in the final. He’d been on Limerick teams that had done themselves justice in Croke Park and others that hadn’t. Win, lose or draw, all he wanted for this team was a day with no regrets. No shadow to hang over them.

“Absolutely I was thinking of ’07, yeah,” Wayne says. “Part of you is going, ‘What if?’ But it was a different time and Limerick hurling was in a different place with different structures and all of that – and we ran into the best team ever when we made the final. My biggest fear all day for this team was that they’d get to the game and not perform. I just wanted them to perform, for themselves, so they’d always have that.”

Áine sat beside her father in the Hogan Stand. Back in the day, he was a county board man and a Munster Council man, so their tickets were good. All around her, in clusters, the ghosts of Limerick teams past. Stephen Lucey and his wife and father. Stephen McDonagh from the ’94 team, who nobody was thinking of at the start and everyone was thinking of at the finish.

“Hammy Dawson was near us as well,” Áine says. “He’d be a legendary Limerick supporter, always going around with his Limerick teddy bear and flag. Nothing would do Hammy but with five minutes to go in ordinary time, he had to go down the front to start the pitch invasion! And we were all shouting at him to sit down. ‘It’s too soon, Hammy! Too soon!’ But he wouldn’t be told. He kept going, fist-pumping as he went, because he was full sure it was in the bag at this stage.”

Eamon’s seat was on the sideline, right behind where John Kiely patrolled the line and beside county secretary Mike O’Riordan. At half-time in the dressing-room, he was in charge of the clock, counting down the allotted 15 minutes so management knew where they stood. Now, he was so engrossed in the game, time was nowhere in his thinking.

“I only realised when I watched the game back on Tuesday night that we were eight points up on 70 minutes,” Eamon says. “I’ll be straight up and honest with you, I wasn’t aware of that at the time. You’re so involved in the game, you’re just in the throes of it. You’re eight points up, you’re looking around you to make sure everything is kosher and everything is right.”

Joe Canning drops his late, long-range free just short, Photograph: Inpho/Ryan Byrne
Joe Canning drops his late, long-range free just short. Photograph: Inpho/Ryan Byrne

It all came down to what it came down to. An eight-point lead whittled to one. Joe Canning with a free from another postcode, the kind of chance you’d wave away if it was anyone other than Canning standing over it. Who could bear to look?

“My wife was beside me,” Wayne says. “And she started crying with 15 minutes to go. There were 55 minutes on the clock and she was in tears even at that stage. She was crying and saying, ‘We’re going to do this!’ Then when there were 75 minutes on the clock, she was crying and saying, ‘We’re not going to do this!’”

“The last eight minutes were just torture,” Áine says. “I didn’t see one second of it. I didn’t look. I couldn’t. Dad watched it, I couldn’t. I just stared at the ground. I couldn’t look up. I was just praying. I knew Galway were coming back and obviously ’94 was coming flooding back. And when Joe lined up the free at the end, we all thought, ‘This is going to be a draw. How are we going to endure another three weeks’?”

“There were two women in front of me,” Rob says. “I had never met them in my life. One of them started crying before Joe took his free, just going, ‘Is he going to score it? Is he going to score it?’ And I said, ‘Well, given my track record here, yes!’ I couldn’t look. Oisín called it for me. ‘Dad, he missed! He missed!’ And then I could see Tom Condon running and all hell broke loose.”

“I had to make sure that all the equipment we have on the sidelines was going to be there after the celebrations,” Eamon says. “There’s paperwork and all sorts of bits and pieces there. So as the final whistle went, I was putting them all into a bag. There was a man sitting in the front row behind me and I said, ‘You probably won’t get into the field, will you keep an eye on that for me?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be here when you come back.’ And I just ran.”

Everybody cried. Players, ex-players, backroom staff, supporters, everyone. Rob’s dad died in 1986, when both of them were far too young for it. Limerick hurling gave him way more than it took over the years but the Limerick hurling book isn’t called Unlimited Heartbreak for nothing either. Add it all together and it didn’t take much for the dam to burst.

“In ’94, I was on the Hill,” Rob says. “I was among a bunch of young lads and we were all making our way down from the top of Hill 16 under the scoreboard to get down to the front for the pitch invasion. And I remember when it all went wrong, turning around to find a man from Offaly putting his arm around me and going, ‘It wasn’t to be.’ He turned and went celebrating himself but I never forgot it.

“When the final whistle went on Sunday and we had finally done it, he was one of the first people to flash through my head. I thought of him and of course I thought of people who were gone as well. And when Dreams by The Cranberries came on over the sound system, I lost it then, I just started crying and crying.

“My uncle was sitting five rows in front of me and he made his way up to me. This was the uncle who took me to matches when I was young after my father died. He’s a good man but no more than any other Irish country man, he wouldn’t be overly affectionate. He came up to me and I lost the run of myself. I thanked him for everything. I gave him a kiss, he gave me a kiss. He started crying too. We were all crying.”

The rest of it blurs and bends and will be there for them forever, the day of days they can access for themselves at any time. Áine started gathering stuff immediately for the best and busiest week of her working life – the Leader turned around a 52-page souvenir supplement in 48 hours. Eamon got stuck into making sure all was on order for the trip to Citywest, the banquet and beyond.

Rob took Oisín down to the side of the pitch, where a woman from the Croke Park staff presented them with one of the golden streamers that had fallen from the roof and, to the amazement of them both, a piece of the sacred sod to bring home with him. “Take good care of that now,” she said to Oisín, his jaw on the floor.

And Wayne went off into the night with his Limerick hurling mates, all the old ghosts busted, all the sad stories finally given a twist and a tweak and a punchline.

“It’s just relief,” Wayne says. “Thank God, they broke the duck. Obviously it’s pride and joy and euphoria and all that as well. But mostly it’s relief. The 45 years are over. We can build now. We can put our chest out as hurling people. We are Limerick, we are All-Ireland champions, we can say we’ve won it in recent times. Young lads coming through can see what it’s like. There’s no harping back to teams from generations ago. It’s here and now.”

Here and now and theirs.

Forever.

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