Limerick provide a tremendous lift amid the Covid gloom

Long-sufferiing fans still pinching themselves as county bid for a second title in three years

Limerick fan  Stephen O’Byrnes  celebrating with Kyle Hayes  in the Citywest Hotel  at the Limerick All-Ireland celebrations in August, 2018.

Limerick fan Stephen O’Byrnes celebrating with Kyle Hayes in the Citywest Hotel at the Limerick All-Ireland celebrations in August, 2018.

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Pride of place in my study belongs to a picture of captain Declan Hannon hoisting the Liam MacCarthy Cup to tens of thousands of delirious Limerick fans in Croke Park around five o’clock on Sunday August 19th, 2018.

Joy was unconfined as a 45-year purgatory of waiting for another All-Ireland win was at an end. The haunting strains of Dolores O’Riordan and the Cranberries’ Dreams echoing around the stadium added to the delirium. Grown men, myself included, cried.

That night we gathered again at the victory banquet in the Citywest Hotel and got to meet our heroes. Then it was back to Limerick the following afternoon for the team homecoming; they travelled on an open-top bus from the railway station across town to the Gaelic Grounds. It’s estimated over 60,000 people turned out along the route or packed into the field. Heady stuff!

Recalling those events now in our dystopian world of mask-wearing, social distancing, empty stadiums and fear of an invisible, deadly virus, it’s hard to reconcile then and now. No wonder some commentators suggest that the winners of this year’s hurling and football titles will carry an asterisk in the years ahead.

Two years ago, that glorious summer was peppered with wonderful games in Cork, Limerick and Thurles, followed by heart-stopping wins in Croke Park, against Cork in the semi-final, and Galway in the final. Green and white flags and bunting smothered every town, village and crossroads across the county.

We attended fund-raisers in Limerick and Dublin and, after the meal, we’d gather round for a drink, replaying last Sunday’s match and speculating how things would go the next day. And, of course, we argued about John Kiely’s best starting 15.

This year, we’re all confined to home; telephoning friends to discuss our chances on Sunday, and reading about team news in the Limerick Leader and other media platforms. It’s a far cry from the frenzied engagement of two years ago, but it’s a helluva lot better than having no championship at all – or suffering defeat along the way!

However, there will be so much missing on this All-Ireland final Sunday. The scramble for tickets, making arrangements to travel to Dublin, where to meet up on Saturday night, and after the game.

But, above all, missing will be the convulsive drama that unfolds as 82,000 fans pack into Croke Park on Sunday afternoon. First, the minor final; then the thunderous roar when the two teams take the field; all the pre-match rituals, especially the teams parading around the ground, behind the Artane Boys Band, in a green and blue cauldron of sound and colour. And then, after the throw-in at 3.30, destiny unfolding over the following 85 minutes in ecstatic joy or inconsolable despair

First final

Aside from the many novelties enforced by Covid, there is another very unique feature about Sunday’s game. It will be the first final between Limerick and Waterford in the 133-year history of the championship.

And compared to the aristocrats of the game, in terms of titles won, both counties are relative minnows. The Big Three are Kilkenny with 36 titles, Cork 30 and Tipperary 28, whereas this Sunday Limerick will be chasing their ninth title, and Waterford just their third. For the Déise, it’s a 61-year wait that goes back to 1959!

For Limerick, to be back knocking on heaven’s door for a second title in three years is still nosebleed territory; a tremendous lift amidst the Covid gloom.

Most fans, like myself, are scarred by the dashed hopes of final defeats in 1980, 1994, 1996 and 2007.That’s why most Limerick supporters remain cautious and nervy, even if we have already beaten Waterford in this year’s Munster final on November 15th last.

And while, as with Waterford, we have always been a strong hurling county, down the decades we were always a couple of players short of a championship -winning team. That was until a few years ago. Now we’re blessed with a powerful, talented team, nay squad, with quite a few match-winners on the bench as well. And with John Kiely and Paul Kinnerk at the helm, we have a really smart and experienced management.

We can only imagine the stress endured by players and mentors over the past three months (for all county teams) as they battled to keep their squad Covid-free; training on dark, miserable evenings, and driving alone to matches. No fans to cheer them on, playing tough matches in all kinds of weather, and then having to disperse individually and drive back home.

But it will be worth all the sacrifices, and all the mental anguish, if Declan Hannon is the man hoisting the Liam MacCarthy Cup at around 5pm on Sunday evening.

And Limerick people, at home and abroad, will cheer to the rafters in the quiet of their own homes. More mass celebrations will have to wait for another time, but that will be a price well worth paying if we notch up our ninth All-Ireland title.

Stephen O’Byrnes is a public relations consultant and former journalist. He hails from Kildimo-Pallaskenry, the club of Limerick hurler Kyle Hayes.

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