When it comes to hurling, tears, near misses and misfortune have become a way of life for Limerick — a tragic story now chronicled in a new book, writes Michael Moynihan.
YOU may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can surely make a stab at its worth based on its title.
Henry Martin has written a history of Limerick hurling and the primary teacher from Galbally crystallises the experience of following those green-and-white jersey with the irresistible title: Unlimited Heartbreak.
"There are 18 chapters, with two covering 1940 to 1972; the rest of the book goes from 1973 to the present day.
"Chapter eight onwards covers from 1994 to the present day, roughly speaking, so there are 10 chapters covering the last 15 years."
And there’s plenty of space to cover the ultimate heartbreaker, the stunning conclusion to the 1994 All-Ireland senior hurling final, when Limerick were five points up with five minutes left — but lost by six after Offaly’s late, late rally.
"Unbelievable," says Martin. "I’m proof-reading the book at the moment and there are times you’d be close to tears reading about it. There’s a full chapter on the last five minutes alone.
"That was devastating. In the eyes of the players I’d have interviewed, it was the ultimate heartbreak. The sheer bad luck and in particular the fact that they were so close to winning an All-Ireland final. You’re talking about placing one hand on the trophy and for whatever freak reason, the whole thing slipped.
"And you’d wonder if Limerick hurling ever really got over that. A lot of passionate Limerick hurling people have gone to their graves since without seeing the county win an All-Ireland."
The game didn’t lack sideshows. Offaly were managed that year by Eamonn Cregan, a Limerick legend.
"That did give it another twist. I was in Rathkeale the other night and Eamonn was there training the Limerick Tony Forristal team, and to this day maybe he feels he owes something to the county because of that final.
"Now you’d have to say that in real terms Eamonn owes nothing to Limerick hurling, given what he contributed as a player and manager over the years, but from interviewing him I’d say maybe there’s still a little guilt there from that day, that it’s a hard thing for him to have to carry."
Freakish disaster was no stranger to Limerick before 1994, of course. Martin goes back a further decade and offers proof: "There has been a lot of heartbreak over the years with Limerick, particularly at the hands of Cork.
"In 1984, for instance, Limerick conceded two bizarre own goals. John Fenton’s sideline from out in the middle of the field, which Tommy Quaid dropped, and Leonard Enright conceded an own goal."
There have been bright days, of course, such as the three-in-a-row All-Ireland U21 titles gathered by the county earlier this decade. But even that achievement was stained by subsequent underachievement by those players at senior level.
"That’s covered in depth in the book," says Martin. "There’s no question about that, it’s a massive disappointment in many ways. A lot of model players, model professionals, came through from that team — the likes of Damien Reale, who’s given Limerick sterling service. Some players struggled with injury and didn’t get the breaks — the likes of Paudie Reale, lads who were outstanding at U21 level.
"But there were other players, and there’s no point in saying otherwise, who didn’t put their shoulders to the wheel. They’re no longer around and maybe in the long term Limerick hurling is better without them, in my opinion and the opinion of many players from yesteryear.
"When I interviewed Pat Hartigan one of his comments stuck in my mind for a long time afterwards — it’s not enough to want to be as good as your opponent, you must want to be better than him. Pat won five All Stars in a row from 1971 to 1975, and of all the quotes I got, that was one that stuck in my mind. How many of the players who didn’t make it from those teams wanted to be as good as their opponents, or better than them?"
For all that, Martin’s examination of the past leaves him hopeful about the future for Limerick.
"In the last two years Limerick have got their act together. They’ve started to realise that you can’t take for granted that hurlers will come through — or that if they do come through, that they’ll show the dedication necessary to thrive at senior level. As a result, you have to produce enough hurlers of that quality that you can disregard the undisciplined.
"Limerick have worked at that. They’ve brought in big names but the likes of Eamonn Cregan are working hard on eradicating bad habits, while Tom Ryan is involved in coaching out in Moyross. What we need is our other underage coaches to study what they’re doing rather than letting players develop bad habits. At the end of the day they might get away with those habits at underage but they’ll be found out at senior level."
Is there a role for current senior manager Justin McCarthy in that new coaching structure? "The one thing about coaching coaches is that they need a certain amount of innate ability. Tony Roche, the chairman of Limerick Bord na nÓg, said at a meeting last year that in his opinion you couldn’t walk onto a coaching course at 10am on a Saturday and walk out a fully qualified coach at 1pm the same day.
"I agree with him. Coaches need a certain aptitude and you need to pick out a particular type of individual to coach players. Some big names may not be suited to coaching, for instance. Justin would have a lot to offer Limerick in that regard. I know that he’s improved some of the younger players massively this year for Limerick, the likes of James Ryan have improved beyond all recognition."
Limerick need to show that recognition tomorrow against Tipperary. But Martin stresses that Tipp don’t intimidate Limerick in hurling terms.
"That’s very fair to say, and Babs Keating said it to me for inclusion in the book. He’s always had a fear of Limerick hurling which probably goes back to 1962, when Limerick drew with a Tipperary side which won four All-Irelands in five years. In fairness, Tipp won well in the replay but the referee did a bit of a Jimmy Cooney the first day, blowing up early only for the game to be restarted, and Tipp got the draw. Then in 1966 Limerick beat Tipp on a day that Eamonn Cregan got 3-5."
There’s more recent evidence to support Martin’s case.
"Tipp hold no fears for Limerick. Twenty years ago Tipp wiped the field with Limerick in Páirc Uí Chaoimh but in 1990 Limerick would probably have won if Mike Barron hadn’t been sent off in the Gaelic Grounds.
"Being hammered the year before and facing the then-All-Ireland champions didn’t affect Limerick’s confidence.
"There’s also the fact that Limerick have a good record of comebacks against Tipp in big games. Tipperary have been building up big leads in games this year but that won’t intimidate Limerick. If Limerick are 10 points down they’ll still feel they have a chance, just as they did in the second game of their trilogy two years ago.
"I was watching the highlights of 1981 recently, for example, and at one stage Tipp were 14 points up but Limerick came back and drew. As for tomorrow, the contrast in styles will have a big bearing on the outcome, a war of attrition would suit Limerick while Tipp would prefer an open game."
Martin hasn’t shied away from awkward moments in Limerick’s hurling past, but his labour of love isn’t designed to provoke. "Controversy and Limerick hurling go hand in hand, but it’s not a purely controversial book. There’s valuable stuff in it. Limerick hurling is close to a lot of people’s hearts and I hope it’s a book that people will be happy to have."
Unlimited Heartbreak: — The Inside Story of Limerick Hurling by Henry Martin is published in September by The Collins Press, price €19.95. It will be available in all bookshops and can be pre-ordered online from www.collinspress.ie.