One day in September 1980: Galway’s day of deliverance

Victory over Limerick signalled Galway’s arrival as an enduring hurling force

Galway goalkeeper Michael Connelly blocks the ball to keep the Limerick attack at bay during the 1980 All-Ireland hurling final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Galway goalkeeper Michael Connelly blocks the ball to keep the Limerick attack at bay during the 1980 All-Ireland hurling final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

 

September 7th, 1980. Galway versus Limerick. 2-15 to 3-9. It will always be the GAA’s day of magic-realism. Even if you have no interest in hurling, you have probably seen the pictures and heard the words. The quality is low-fi and shadowed, setting the tone for the decade to come.

All-Ireland finals occasions were State pageants: the big, nationally televised day out for the Catholic Church, the Dáil and the Association. But somehow a free and even trippy element crept into the afternoon.

The press box in the old Hogan Stand was a tiered, open-air balcony then. Next door, Mícheál Ó hEithir and the radio men were crouched in little booths, peering out across the landscape like tail-gunners.

Paddy Downey, the Gaelic Games correspondent for The Irish Times, would have sat that day on the extreme right of the front row; his seat. The front seats were leather and had a swivel facility. Downey moved and spoke in a way that can only be described as regal. And much tobacco and thought would have been spent before he finally committed the feel of the day to print with the opening line of his match report.

“At last, at long last, the hurlers of Galway are teeming through the garden of the golden apples and at the gate, all the dragons, and the ghosts of dragons, are dead. The prize which the county had sought in vain for more than half a century was captured at Croke Park when John Connolly’s men stormed to victory over Limerick in an All-Ireland final which will live in vivid images for many a year in the memories of those who saw it.”

Smoke that. Has anything ever better captured the sense of what happened that afternoon?

But roll back to a few hours before the stadium has emptied and before Downey is typing those words, anxiously checking the wrist watch. Roll back to when the game is still, as they say, in the melting pot.

It’s not that uncommon to score three goals in an All-Ireland final and still lose: 31 teams have experienced it since 1887. But the Limerick forwards would have that twice but for Michael Conneely, Galway’s 31-year-old goalkeeper.

In the 10 minutes before Joe McKenna eventually bagged Limerick’s second of the match, Conneely went through a phase where he seemed invincible, repelling a barrage of Limerick shots and finishing with a man of the match award.

“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as man of the match,” he confessed this week. “And my biggest fear going into the day was that I would let the other players down. I didn’t want to do that. And with a bit of luck it worked out. We had been beaten in 1979 and there was this talk of us being cursed and that it might never come. But we had put in a huge effort and were pretty relaxed going into that final.

Loser’s medal

“We had so much training done under Cyril Farrell. And I owe an awful lot to PJ Molloy because outside training, he was a brilliant help to me. We would do an hour ourselves before training started. And then I’d go over to Athenry at lunchtime and we would train between one and two. In Kenny Park. Just the two of us. We had a bit of a competition going. It was very enjoyable. And it meant that by the day of the final, I just felt well.”

PJ Molloy played his first championship match with Galway in 1974. It was an All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny. They made it as far as Birr for the occasion.

“I suppose the crowd wasn’t as big that day –not as many Galway supporters and Kilkenny were probably waiting for greater things.”

It was an 80-minute match and Galway managed a respectable 3-17. Trouble was that Kilkenny finished with 2-32. Molloy is one of the very few who witnessed, as a player, the slow-burning transformation from Galway as outsiders to their reign, in 1987/88, as undisputed heavyweight champions. He retired after the league in 1988 having played in six All-Ireland finals.

“To win two medals. A lot of sad Monday mornings, to be honest. That is why I so respect players – the likes of the Mayo football team. And people being critical that they could have and should have won it. Players give their lives. They give their lives. And they wake up on this Monday morning. And it is like a death in the family. It is all gone. The year is over. You have nothing going home, only a loser’s medal.”

The peculiar thing is that September 7th held no fears for Molloy. Deep down, he feels that Galway got a lucky break in that they played Offaly in the semi-final that year and not those dreaded black and amber stripes.

“We’d be sorry for losing the All-Ireland to Offaly in 1981, but maybe if they hadn’t beaten Kilkenny in ’80 then we mightn’t have won the All-Ireland semi-final. Maybe it was a mental block but they [Kilkenny] had a superior dominance over us.”

But the big change was the emphasis on physical training by Cyril Farrell, who had taken over from Babs Keating. Farrell relived the year in an interview with Newstalk during the week and described his philosophy in that hurried speaking style of his, as if he is in always rushing to catch a train.

“Full blast and no break and then a few nights off,” was how he put it.

“We always had curses and hard luck stories.”

Farrell wanted to run the superstition out of the maroon.

“The physical element was tough,” says Molloy. “It was long distance running. It was brutal really. Much like Mike Mc [McNamara] would do with Clare when they made the breakthrough.”

He laughs when asked if the showers were really cold after a night of freezing wet training on January 8th, 1980. “I remember it. Yeah. Times have changed so much. With the county board then it was down to money as well. The more prominent hurling counties probably found it easier.”

A miracle

After a season of that Full Metal Jacket stuff, they felt primed. Like Conneely, Molloy had a good feeling in the days before the final. He was very friendly with Pat Hartigan, Limerick’s five-time All Star fullback who had suffered a dreadful eye injury the previous year.

“I said to him a few days beforehand: Pat, after Sunday we will have one thing in common anyway. We will both have All-Ireland medals.”

Strangely, when Molloy was substituted towards the end of the final, he saw Hartigan standing behind the goal.

“Pat, I suppose, was bottler and mentor that day.”

Something prompted Molloy to head over to Hartigan rather than to the dug-out.

“I knew him very, very well. So we had a little chat for a few minutes waiting for the final whistle. We both knew Galway had it, I think. There was only a few minutes to go. And the Galway crowd were .. . encroaching.”

They were gathering in platoons, behind both goals and along the sidelines. It’s difficult to convey now the sense of a miracle occurring. Limerick had been champions in 1973 and seven times before that. They had 13 Munster titles. They have proven themselves. In trying to win their All-Ireland, Galway were tilting at windmills.

Nobody believed in “the curse” – long established in the West before the dark shadow that supposedly trails the Mayo football team. Everyone thought it was nonsense. But that’s not to say they didn’t feel cursed. Since 1923, they had played and lost nine All-Ireland finals. And that’s why Galway people strained to take the field while the last sequences of the final played itself out. In goal, Conneely was so locked in concentration that he didn’t really notice them.

“You were worried right through. I think Eamonn Grimes came through towards the end and he drove the ball wide and it was into injury time. I felt that we were sound then because we were four points up. The back line – Conor [Hayes, recalled from an escapist summer in Amsterdam by Farrell just to play the final] and Jim Cooney and Niall Mc [McInerney] were just excellent. You had great faith in them.

“A lot of the work was done beforehand. Then, goalkeeping was about stopping the ball and you drove it as far as you possibly could and hoped it wouldn’t come back. But goalkeeping is fascinating now, I would love to be out there again even though I can only just about watch it now.”

Everyone knows what happened next. The ecstatic pitch invasion. Joe Connolly’s speech, a torrential flow of Gaelic poetry, at once pagan and spiritual. And the playful closing salute, with the Eastern European inflection. “People of Galway. We lof you.”

The line drew a cackle of undisguised delight from Ó hEithir in the commentary booth. “We’ve heard it somewhere before.

The players knew that Connolly’s speech was majestic but they were too dazed to fully comprehend it.

The bedlam

“We’d never experienced anything like it,” says Conneely. “Joe didn’t have to prepare that. It just flowed out of him. I don’t believe he sat down and wrote anything. It came right from his heart. It is brilliant. But it is hard enough to take it in immediately. Because we had been beaten so often and here we were after 57 years and obviously there were no cameras recording it so you weren’t seeing it again afterwards. All you had was what came to mind. And I am sure there are plenty moments forgotten too.”

The bedlam continued to the dressing-room. All of Galway seemed intent on gaining access: most did. There was no stewarding at the door. When Seán Silke finally made it in, he said: “I’d nearly agree to play the match rather than go through that again.”

He was followed by the then bishop, Eamon Casey.

“There’s another bishop trying to get in,” one Galway official remarked. “Thank heavens he’s a bit thinner and shouldn’t have the same trouble.”

Tull Dunne, the godfather of Galway football landed in to give his blessings. “Thank God I lived to see the day,” he declared. That was the sentiment. On the way home, the fires were lit as soon as they left the city.

“Even in defeat we had pretty good homecomings,” Conneely says.

“But beyond our wildest dreams. The celebrations started in Lucan. There were people out with fires and flags. We couldn’t get out of the bus in Kinnegad. There is a great connection between Westmeath and Galway. The same in Athlone. It was around two when we got to Eyre Square. And it was quarter to four in the morning before we sat down for something to eat in the Sac [the Sacre Coeur hotel]’’.

Molloy chuckles when he remembers the scenes in Eyre Square that night.

“It was pure crazy. Health and safety has really changed everything.”

In fairness to Galway, September 7th was their day and they wrung every last ounce from it. Over the years, it solidified into something monumental: Galway’s arrival as an enduring hurling force and, because of the articulate Connolly and Joe McDonagh’s soulful rendition of The West’s Asleep, a snapshot of a society in the midst of all sorts of under-the-surface changes.

But it was just a day, too. It slipped through their fingers like quicksilver. Thirty-eight years and now they meet in a final again. Michael Conneely would love to be there but serious back issues in recent years make the journey impossible. Molloy fully intends to be back in Croke Park. Like most former hurlers, he is lost in admiration for where the game has taken itself in the intervening years.

“The whole game has changed. They are playing and hurling like professionals. The intensity of the game – and that goes for every team. And the sacrifices and preparation that players are making is unreal. It is the greatest game in the world. There is no doubt about it.”

It felt like it on that Sunday in 1980 too. All the dragons and the ghosts of dragons.

On it goes.

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