After St Patrick’s Day had segued into the Bank Holiday Monday, I sat down to watch Michael Conlan’s fight against Ruben Garcia Hernandez. Madison Square Garden was hopping. It was full of Irish, juiced up on beer and patriotism, but the roof nearly came off The Hulu Theatre when Conlan made his entrance walk.
The beams on the structure must have been nearly ready to collapse by the time Conlan entered the ring because the walk lasted eight minutes. The craic began with two bagpipers leading Conlan to the ring to the backing track of ‘The Minstrel Boy’. That was followed by ‘The Rising of the Moon’ before the haunting track ‘Grace’ came on. Conlan wasn’t finished there either because the walk finished to the Wolfe Tones track ‘Celtic Symphony’, which was even more explosive considering the controversial connotations around the chants used by some of the crowd.
Conlan has regularly used ‘Grace’, which is sang from the perspective of Joseph Mary Plunkett, a signatory of the Proclamation, to his bride Grace Gifford, but he clearly puts a lot of thought into his pre-fight mood music. Before he fought on the undercard of Vasyl Lomachenko-Guillermo Rigondeaux in Madison Square Garden in December, Conlan was looking to recreate the same atmosphere from his professional debut at the same venue on St Patrick’s Day 2017, when he overcame Tim Ibarra.
Conlan took to Twitter to give his followers the opportunity to vote, or to suggest an entrance song for that fight in December. ‘Fairytale of New York’ was leading the poll until James McClean’s suggestion of ‘Streets of New York’ won Conlan over. McClean even tweeted some of the lyrics: “He wept as he told me, go ahead with the plan and not to forget...be a proud Irish man.”
Conlan is a passionate Irish man but his ritual got me thinking. I had been at the All-Ireland club finals in Croke Park earlier that day.
Yet on the most Irish day of the year, there was no national anthem played before the final of the country’s most unique Irish sport. There wasn’t even a parade. The anthem was played before the football final but I was already on the M50 by that stage.
It’s the same every year for the club hurling final. It was different last year because, for the first time since 2007, the hurling final was the second match. So, by my calculations, the national anthem has been played just twice before the All-Ireland club hurling final in the last 24 years (when Dunloy and Birr played out a draw in a hurricane in the 1995 final, it was the second match).
I think that’s desperate. Maybe there is some by-law to do with only being able to play the national anthem once at a GAA event. If that’s protocol, fine. The anthem is played before the football final afterwards, but a lot of hurling supporters don’t wait around to watch football.
You don’t expect John Kiely and Padraic Fanning to go on Twitter today to suggest a compensatory walk-on ballad. But it will seem strange to me if the Limerick and Waterford boys rock up tomorrow for an Allianz League final, do their warm-up, exchange handshakes, and just go at it.
No national anthem. No parade. Off ye go lads, sure it’s only a national final. Sure, the club hurling finalists are well used to it by this stage.
Maybe it’s my opposition to double-headers that has got me going on this. The passion has probably been stirred even more when the doubleheader is with a football game. Maybe the GAA have planned to change protocol tomorrow, but if they haven’t, they should. Do hurlers not deserve to stand and sing their national anthem before a national final? If the Artane Band are around, surely they can belt it out twice?
Waterford will probably want it more but John Kiely is a momentum-man and he’ll want to maintain what they’ve created since last August.
Winning a first league title in 22 years would reaffirm that Limerick are the best team in the country but Kiely certainly hasn’t hung around this spring in trying to cement that status. You can see that in his appointment of Tony Óg Regan as a performance consultant. Tony Óg, who has replaced Caroline Currid, is a top-class guy.
The bar is constantly being raised but the beauty for Kiely and his management is that they have managed to keep climbing up the mountain even though they have kept heavily experimenting. A raft of fringe players like Tom Condon, Paddy O’Loughlin, Peter Casey, Conor Boylan, and Barry Murphy played most of the league. Other guys like Robbie Hanley have been given their chance. An impressive mix has fused together a beautiful blend because Limerick certainly have the strongest panel in the country now.
Going back into Division 1A was always going to be a challenge, even as All-Ireland champions, but Limerick have cruised through most of the spring. They lost to Cork but Limerick put down markers against Tipperary and Kilkenny while they refused to lose to Clare in Ennis.
Dublin showed that there is a way of frustrating them by packing the middle third but Limerick still kept their heads and got the result. It will be interesting to see what Waterford might do tomorrow because all of those players were used to playing that style of mass-engagement in the middle third under Derek McGrath.
Waterford are playing more expansive now but a lot of that narrative is idealistic too. They are pushing more bodies forward but they still have a stable structure at the back. I think the desire and hunger they’ve shown too this year has powered the machine on but a lot of that momentum has stemmed from the regret and hurt of last year’s lost year of league relegation and an early championship exit.
They had a cruel run of luck with injuries. Those guys are back keen and eager now but, as well as having a new management — which will always add impetus and energy — the pain of 2018 has been like rocket fuel for Waterford this spring.
Other guys too have been out to prove a point. Derek’s system was never going to see both Bennetts line out in the full-forward line but they’re playing in a formation now that suits them better. Having the luxury of 1B also enabled Fanning to hand more responsibility over to Stephen Bennett, especially in the absence of Pauric Mahony, and he has embraced it.
There is a solid resolve in this group. Waterford were lucky last week. Galway effectively blew it but you still have to give credit to Waterford for how they found a way to get the job done against the breeze with 14 men for the last 20 minutes. Forget about tactics and systems and a more expansive style, that was purely down to desire and want.
The meeting between these two teams in Walsh Park in June will be much more physical, tactical and strategic but the Croke Park factor could see a real open, fast match tomorrow. There will be a touch of freedom from both sides and the ball will be zipping off that surface. Both teams will have a right cut.
Waterford may already be looking down the line at ways to stop Limerick but, even if they are, they won’t want to blow their cover here. Limerick will just do what they’ve been doing all season — stick their chests out, cut loose.
It’s amazing what confidence can do to a team. Diarmuid Byrnes never lacked confidence but the swagger in his play now is different gravy. He isn’t the only one. They’re all bursting with that belief and energy that stems from an All-Ireland win.
Going by the semi-finals last weekend, Limerick’s form is that bit more reliant. Dublin tried to knock them off their stride, but they couldn’t. I couldn’t see Galway being beaten until the last few minutes but their late collapse reflected as much on Galway as Waterford’s late charge.
I fancy Limerick to win but I also hope the boys get the chance to sing the national anthem beforehand. Those moments are important to players because they take emotion and inspiration from everywhere around them on big days. When I was captain of Clare and was marching behind the Moycarkey Pipe Band in Thurles or the Artane in Croker, I’m sure whoever was playing the drums at the back used to be saying: ‘That lad behind us is mad.’ I used to be singing and roaring from the music. I was nowhere near Mick Conlan’s level but it was still our walk-on entrance, our chance to connect with our supporters. And, like Conlan, I used to love it.