I'm sure a lot of people know of that slogan that has become a goldmine for someone in the t-shirt printing industry: "Irish by birth, Munster by grace of God."
I'm one of those souls blessed with my place of birth, a proud Limerick woman, and my passion for Munster rugby has brought me to places - monsoons in the old Stradey Park in Llanelli, taking over The Shed in Gloucester - that only serves to affirm the special bond among us with red shirts on our backs.
Why was I so drawn to rugby? I'm originally from Ardagh in west Limerick which wouldn't have been a rugby stronghold by any means. Dan Larkin was from a neighbouring parish which was as close as the game got to us but, as a family, we watched everything. Soccer. GAA. Limerick hurling. But I loved watching the interprovincials, the Five Nations as it was. It really resonated with me and touched my core.
I would know a lot of people through social media because of Munster rugby and I have never met them
The opportunity to really live out my passion for Munster rugby though came with the redevelopment of Thomond Park and the chance to buy a season ticket. Two of my sisters, Olive and Audrey, and my niece, Kelly, also bought season tickets for the West Stand and - for someone who had moved away after college at 21 - that connection has become like part of my family and those match trips are just so special and I miss them so much.
Not being able to go to Thomond Park is nearly like a bereavement. We’re going nowhere in the last year and a half, it is so sad. I can’t even see all of the matches on television because they’re on so many different channels. But I can always count on Limerick 95fm. Donn O’Sullivan and Ronan O’Mahony, who played for us, are on commentary and they have that dry Limerick wit and in fairness they do a brilliant job. They can be hilarious. People would say to me, ‘Is everyone from Limerick mad?’ And I’d say, ‘not really, but a lot of us are!’
I miss my match day routines. I don’t drive. I live in Bray and would get the bus into Dublin and then the train from Heuston and then walk from the station just to get a bit of clear head time before I get into the madness of Thomond Park.
In 2008, when the All Blacks came back, I'll never forget that as long as I live. I think it's up there with the Heineken Cup wins in 2006 and 2008 in Cardiff. The whole night captured what Munster rugby is all about. The originals who had beaten the All-Blacks all those years back in 1978. The soldier coming down off the helicopter with the ball. The team facing the All Blacks and the four Kiwis who played for us doing the Munster haka.
I got the train back to Heuston the next day and I was based in Arran Quay at the time, hopped on the bus just three stops down to get in a bit quicker, and I had got my Munster jersey on. The bus driver said to me, “You wouldn’t have a programme from last night, would you?” I said, “I do, but I’m keeping it.”
But that's the sort of connection Munster rugby has with people. In supporting the team, you realise it's not just people from Limerick or Cork or Kerry or Tipperary or Clare or Waterford. I remember being in Newport for a match and I was trying to find this deadly bar we'd been in for a previous match. I heard a bit of a noise from a public house down an alley and when I walked in there were at least 150 Munster fans playing music and singing and a couple behind the bar helping serve pints.
I got into a conversion with another Munster supporter and discovered he's from Wexford, one of those I call the refugees who find their salvation with us. There's others from Meath I've met and all over the country. I remember another time after a match in the RDS and I'm talking to a man, whose grandson was in the Leinster academy and who was with him, and he tells me he is a Munster fan.
Why is it? Maybe it is that idea of the parish and that closeness to your fans. Munster rugby’s roots are very much working class Limerick and if anyone came into the team and had any notions at all, there was a time when Paulie or Rog or Dunners would be like ‘get a grip’, that’s at the root of it and that culture is still there.
I miss it
There’s been more good days than bad, that’s for sure. There’s been miracle matches and so much more. But sad days too. Axel’s passing. I wasn’t in Paris, I was intending to watch the match in Jimmy Doyle’s pub on the seafront that day when my phone started hopping with messages and calls and I just couldn’t believe it. I still get emotional to this day thinking about him.
Munster rugby has provided so many memories. Like that time in Stradey Park in Llanelli in 2008 when a monsoon descended on us for the entire game and Marcus Horan scored a late try and I just remember there were 40 phases where we just owned the ball to close out the match. Even the Scarlets supporters were congratulating us.
To me, there's a misconception about rugby in England and on trips away with Munster I've discovered there's a real connection. If you have never been to England before for rugby, everyone assumes it is very middle class game and only the wealthier people play the sport but our experience in any of those places, be it in Leicester or Gloucester or the Ricoh Stadium or Northampton, it's a bit like Munster rugby and I think that's why the fans get on so well. There's a real core of down-to-earth people who have been following it all their lives.
I would know a lot of people through social media because of Munster rugby and I have never met them but we would all be supporting, and tweeting about the match. There’s a lovely guy down in Clare, I have never met the man, but I was looking for a Munster face mask and next thing I get two masks in the post from Ian, who is a Scottish guy living in Clare and a huge Munster supporter. But that sums us up. There is that huge family part of it that is very special, particularly when you are living away.
*Carmel O’Connor is a project manager with the Talk About Youth project, based in St Andrews Resource Centre in Pearse Street in Dublin 2 which delivers youth work to young people in the south inner city area.