September 1, 1997. The day John Kiely began teaching in The Abbey was Conor O’Brien’s first as a student in the Tipperary town secondary school. Just as there was heartache for a young O’Brien in seeing Tipperary go down to Clare later that month, there had been for Kiely as a member of Tom Ryan’s Limerick panel against Wexford 12 months previous.
As manager and player, they claimed an All-Ireland colleges B title together five years later. Limerick’s 1984 All-Star and Kilmallock man Paddy Kelly was also over that team, the presence of Tipp’s closest rivals was, as far as O’Brien was concerned, something he had to get used to from an early age.
“Two proud Limerick men but my abiding memory was of John’s passion for the game. He was a fantastic motivator. Such a solid guy and down-to-earth and you can see that coming through in his teams.
“In The Abbey at the time, we would have lads coming from Galbally, Oola, Pallasgreen, maybe one or two from Doon. It was 70-30 Tipp in the school, I suppose. I was there when John Kiely brought back the cup and whether the numbers had gone up or they were making more noise I don’t know but it seemed there were more Limerick there.
“Doon CBS would have Cappawhite and Hollyford and Annacarty lads going over so it’s always good craic on the border.”
O’Brien was raised on the feats of Pat Fox and Anthony Crosse, his local Éire Óg Annacarty idols were his county idols. The former Tipperary defender was just six when he sampled his first taste of the rivalry with Limerick in a Munster semi-final in Thurles. Of the 2-18 scored by Tipperary that day, his own west men provided 2-10 of it, Fox weighing in with four points on his way to being crowned hurler of the year.
As Cormac Bonnar stepped away, he watched as Crosse filled ‘The Viking’s’ boots in 1993 only for his career to end against Limerick in Cork two years later.
For those on the panel hailing from the north of the county where the boundaries touch Limerick, it has remained so but O’Brien was often a lone soldier looking over the western frontier. From six in 1989 and ‘91 to three in 2001 to none in 2010 and ‘16 (O’Brien was an unused substitute for the latter two), the west’s decline in All-Ireland winning starting teams has been dramatic.
In his 2019 training squad, Liam Sheedy named four west men — Ger Browne (Knockavilla-Donaskeigh Kickhams), Tom Fox (Éire Óg Annacarty-Donohill) and Conor Hammersley and Dylan Quirke (both Clonoulty-Rossmore, the reigning county senior champions). Largely because of injury, Browne is the only survivor on the current panel.
How to explain the demise? O’Brien accepts rugby has flourished in the area but believes the west was always punching above its weight. “You look at the late 80s and in West Tipp you had really strong senior hurling teams. You had Cappa(white) winning the county in ‘87, Clonoulty winning it in ‘89 and you had Cashel winning counties at that time.
“Eire Óg wouldn’t have been that strong at the time — we won a West in ‘86 but wouldn’t have been contending for a county although we had Fox. Nicky (English) was coming from Lattin-Cullen so you had phenomenal players and in the 90s you still have a few like Aidan Butler and the Bonnars and in ‘99 you had Fergal Heaney, Fergal Horgan, Big Dec (Ryan), the two lads from Cappa (Eugene O’Neill, Thomas Costello) and then hurling in the west dipped.
“You go through the divisions and there are 13 or 14 senior hurling clubs in the north so that’s why they have the biggest representation.
“Rugby would be relatively strong in the west. Cashel are AIL then you have Clanwilliam strong and Kilfeacle strong and soccer in Tipp town with St Michael’s probably going to win that FAI Junior Cup.
“We just weren’t reaching the standards. Before Cappa won the county in ‘87, the last West team to win that was Éire Óg back in 1943. Maybe we’ve always been the poor relation but it is disappointing that we don’t have more. Hopefully, you had a nice representation on the minor panel this year with six or seven. I’m involved with the U16s and we have eight. The tide might be turning a small bit.”
Over the border, O’Brien has seen Doon flourish while Garryspillane are also heading in the right direction now that they’re back senior and have won the last two premier minor titles.
“A lot of good hurlers coming from John The Baptist in Hospital as well. If Limerick qualify for the Munster minor final on Sunday they will have qualified for six of the last seven finals so that’s where Limerick are at.
You can imagine what John Kiely being in charge of Limerick is doing for Garryspillane at the moment. Doon had four on the panel last year.”
Tomorrow can’t compare to what was on the line in 2009 when Tipperary won the counties’ All-Ireland semi-final but Limerick city-based Garda O’Brien knows the value of local bragging rights.
“We knew if we lost that it was going to be a long winter for those of us who’d see others from the county on a daily basis. Next Monday, we wouldn’t be looking forward going to work if Limerick beat us. It’s no secret they have no fear of Tipp and love playing Tipp — they make no qualms about saying that either.”