After a weekend where hope and history so perfectly rhymed, how fitting it was that the Limerick homecoming should sign off with a sing-song.
John Kiely, somewhat hoarse and terribly reluctant to take the microphone, gave us ‘Piano Man’, Shane Dowling following his manager with local favourite, ‘Seán South of Garryowen’.
Declan Hannon rounded off the party with a rousing rendition of ‘Caledonia’. The Limerick captain put his own take on the famous folk song, with mention of Liam MacCarthy finally returning to Limerick.
His team-mates, linked arm-in-arm, swayed back and forth behind him. Limbs and bodies may have been aching, but having gone where so many previous Limerick teams had not, minds were totally at ease. Players and county were burdened no more.
Hannon was the last player presented to a packed Gaelic Grounds, Liam MacCarthy held aloft by the 25-year old centre-back and John Kiely almost a full hour after the new All-Ireland champions had made their way down the empty terrace at the back of the large stage.
“Phenomenal” and “unbelievable” was Hannon’s summation of their famine-ending victory, of the sea of green which they were welcomed home to, of their climb to the mountain-top.
“It has been an amazing journey. It has been an amazing 24 hours and there are many more to come,” said John Kiely.
The night was getting on, the sky above was black, but no matter. Hordes of screaming teenage girls remained pressed against the barriers.
Children, sat atop their fathers’ shoulders, continued to fervently wave their Limerick flags. As was remarked earlier in the evening, Limerick had 45 years of partying to do tonight.
“Forty five years is over and done with,” remarked Kiely. “When the final whistle went, it was incredible to believe we had done it. All the slaps I have got, my back is destroyed!”
As the players waited their turn to be called up on stage, Kiely broke away from the group and moved out in front of the stage.
His eyes remained filled with awe and wonderment as the panellists from Askeaton, Bruff, and so on were introduced.
He’d soon spot his two young girls, Aoife and Ruth, swinging the latter around in a scene of perfect bliss as his young charges continued to file up on stage.
Full-back Mike Casey wore a cowboy hat, Seamus Flanagan sported a medical boot. Man of the match Kyle Hayes draped himself in a Limerick flag, as did ‘keeper Nickie Quaid. Will O’Donoghue’s voice had given up on him. There’s always one.
Sean South getting an airing at the Gaelic Grounds right now. Team & management due on stage shortly! @Limerick_Leader #Limerick #GAA #Hurling #LIMvGAL pic.twitter.com/OBFIzF9gB9— Colm Kinsella (@ckSportLeader) August 20, 2018
Each of the All-Ireland winners was given a lanyard as they entered the stadium, Aaron Gillane, standing beside Gearóid Hegarty, noticing that theirs had ‘Artist’ written across the front of them. Artists they have shown themselves to be.
Gillane walked on stage with Patrickswell clubmates Diarmaid Byrnes and Cian Lynch. Childhood friends still together at their proudest hour. Lynch, with his jeans rolled up well above his ankles, told the 40,000-plus crowd that Limerick “are at the top and are here to stay”.
“Indescribable”, remarked Byrnes.
“We love hurling, we love Limerick,” shouted Pat Ryan.
It really didn’t matter what they said. Each was a hero and a hero’s reception they received.
From 3pm, the crowds steadily built. The familiar refrain of ‘hats, flags and headbands’ was tweaked to include ‘souvenir plates’.
The green and white ‘18-L-Liam’ plates were flying off the numerous makeshift tables erected along the Ennis Road, with one particularly young vendor reporting that ‘the boom is back’.
Having failed to procure tickets for the game in Croker, the Sheehan clan from Newcastlewest eagerly positioned themselves at the head of the gathering sea of green outside the Mackey Stand. They weren’t leaving anything to chance where the homecoming was concerned.
It was 4.15pm when the gates were opened to the sizeable queue of supporters which flowed down the Ennis Road.
First through the barriers was Sadie McGarry of North Circular Road, accompanied by her neighbour Una Heaton. Sadie, though delighted to be able to welcome home Limerick’s young heroes, wasn’t all that thankful for how the closing stages of Sunday’s finale played out.
“I nearly had a heart attacked watching it,” she said, no hint of humour in her voice.
Earlier this summer, the Gaelic Grounds had witnessed a most spontaneous standing ovation when thousands of Mayo supporters — in Limerick for their county’s first-round qualifier — rose to show their appreciation for the injured Tom Parsons.
We saw a reprisal of this last night as Limerick people stood to salute JP McManus, and his wife Noreen, as they walked down the front of the Mackey Stand.
Richie Bennis, a pupil of the all-conquering ‘73 class and manager in 2007, was present in the Gaelic Grounds to pass on the baton. He and his teammates had held onto it for long enough.
“I am delighted to officially hand over the mantle to the 2018 team as the last Limerick team to win an All-Ireland. It is well overdue. I won’t say, long may they enjoy it, I hope they enjoy it for 12 months.
“We were far the better team on Sunday, but we didn’t show it on the scoreboard. It reminded me of 1994 when Offaly caught us in the last five minutes. There were little seeds of doubt creeping in towards the end. Fair play to them, the players rectified it.
“I haven’t met any of my ’73 teammates since the win, but we can relax now and let the new kids on the block take over.”
An average of 846,100 viewers watched Limerick’s historic win over Galway in Sunday’s All-Ireland SHC final on RTÉ Two.
The audience peaked at 1,007,500 at the end of the game (5.11pm) — 73% of those watching TV at the time were tuned in to the match in Croke Park.