There's only one Munster Hurling Final - one of the mind


FROM THE ARCHIVE - JULY 6TH 1998:Tom Humphries offers a paean – of sorts – to one of the purest cultural institutions of this great land

YOUR first Munster Final. You’ve forgotten many things, but you remember your first Munster Final. Your father brought you along, holding your four-year-old hand as your fair head bobbed low in the crowd, your saucered eyes gazed about at the shiny black pants, razor creases and best braces of the other men.

He’d put you on the crossbar of his stern black bike and carried you to early Mass while the dew was still on the grass. Home again, and he inserted you into two pairs of socks lest it rain and entrusted you with the safe transport of tea and sandwiches. All set, he pointed you towards Thurles. Always Thurles.

The square in Thurles. You remember the good white shirts and the innocent detonations of colour on the crinkly rosettes. Great ham-fisted men made light work of cool pints of porter. Your father there in the thick of it with the blinding sun lifting years off his face. You can see him now. Perfect as a photograph.

He pointed to the dowdy frontage of Hayes’s Hotel and it stuck in your mind. He walked you out of the town towards the ground talking all the while to his rosette cronies. The day seemed filled with talk. He stood at the town end terrace and had you on his shoulders till the game began and somebody let out a roar at you.

The afternoon was unblemished. Ring or Mackey or Doyle played sublimely that day. Hurling fit for the gods. Sawdust in the square. Scarcely a hand put to the leather so brisk was the striking. Through the thickets of legs and posts you saw what needed to be seen and tattooed it on your memory.

Afterwards, tired and hungry and braced for home, you walked up town and Ring himself caught your father by the sleeve and complimented him on a marking job well done in some minor game two decades earlier.

You shook the hand of the man from Cloyne. Your father, who voted Fianna Fail all his life and who scarcely ever took a drink in the presence of your mother even at Christmas, had marked Ring out of it once. Not so predictable.

He seemed seven foot tall that day, the father. On the train home you noticed that you were still clutching the tea and sandwiches. Surprise was never a more splendid companion. Later, when the train broke down your father carried you on one shoulder all the way back to the village. He carried the train on the other shoulder.

After that you never missed a Munster Hurling Final until you were in your mid-20s and working in England. You’d taken holidays for the sake of attending a couple of funerals earlier in the year and come the summer you couldn’t get home. Between one thing and another the spell was broken. Anyway, hurling is like soda bread, always better in the old days.

Look at you now. As old as your father was then, heading in pilgrimage to Limerick on a July weekend, one part of the greatest conglomeration of spoofers, sciolists, sentimentalists, snobs and soaks ever to descend on any Irish sporting event.

The Munster Bloody Hurling Final. Is any other game so celebrated, exaggerated, mythologised, eulogised, analysed and merchandised? Is anything else so neatly a part of what we think we are? Nothing comes near. This Munster Hurling Final business is the repository of all that is sacred and holy in our past lives, a vestige of ourselves which we might have discarded like pioneer pins and black berets and boys’ sodalities, but instead we have turned into an arm-wrestling match between past and present.

If you attend just one hurling game all year the chances are it will be the Munster Final. You’ll dig up the weather-worn cronies and make the pilgrimage to your past. Munster hurling finals appeal to the strangest constituencies.

Once a year suffices for these gatherings. You can forgive yourself your infidelity to the game. Winter hurling is an abomination which turns your stomach and in August you holiday in the Dordogne.

One game a year. So there. Absolution granted.

If the GAA is ever to introduce an open draw as a remedy for its structurally lopsided championships you will fight it tooth and nail. What would happen to the world without the Munster Hurling Final?

There have, of course, been many bad Munster Hurling Finals, stodgy afternoons that couldn’t be digested by the refined palates of the south. They are quickly forgotten, however.

There have been many fine Leinster hurling finals, too. Yet illusion wills away the facts when it comes to hurling. Leinster is second-rate stuff and the All-Ireland series is a mere post-prandial brandy.

So you put on your grey suit and leave both cars in the driveway and by the time you hit the station the reminiscences are fizzing gently inside you. You have seen the past and it works. For spoofing and slurping on Munster final day, the train is your only man.

You know just how the day will open itself to you. Early on you will open the bidding with a soft opinion: all Munster Hurling Finals should be played in Thurles, you’ll say. Limerick ceased to be a shrine when they built the desecration that is the Mackey Stand, you’ll say. Affirming nods all round.

By the time the locomotive hits Limerick, the Ireland you grew up in won’t have differed in any significant way from a decade-long episode of The Waltons.

At some stage, beyond sobriety and hopefully beyond the sightlines and earshot of anyone in your employ, you will tilt your head back and belt out a verse or so of Slievenamon, and before you’re done some hoor will start up with The Banks and you’ll subside into laughter. You’d great time for Clare and hats off to Limerick, but for Munster Finals, really great, it’s Cork and Tipp that you want.

You’ll invoke the great names and the great dates, of course. Right back to Cuchulainn. Tread softly for you tread on each other’s spoofs. Ring didn’t play that day actually. It wasn’t in Thurles that year actually. No, sure, he was scoreless and they took him off with quarter of an hour left actually: your man never spoke to your father after the game because he’d 39 stitches in his tongue that day. Careful there. The game will ambush you some time in the woozy, middle part of the afternoon.

Seventy minutes of frantic heroics, during which you’ll sit basking in the harmony of the spirits, hoping that Tipp will bring on Nicky English because you know the cut or his dash by sight. You’ll feel the sun on your pate and worry about burning. You’ll let your heaviness settle into the grooves of the infernally tiny seat until you wonder with a start if the credit cards in your back pocket aren’t being bent out of shape.

Your judgment afterwards will be damning. Hurling is in crisis.

The striking is no longer as crisp or as sweet as when first you came to Munster hurling. It may well have been a fine game, but you won’t feel certain of that till next year. For the moment it doesn’t stand up to the glories of the past. No game ever did. Even in the long and glorious past of Munster Hurling Finals.