It’s 25 years ago tomorrow, their day of days during the time of their lives.
When Ger Loughnane came to recall the aftermath of the 1995 Munster hurling final in his autobiography, he’d claim that “overjoyed” was “too tame a word” to describe the reaction of the Clare people to their first Munster title in 63 years. “It was such a feeling of surprise mixed with elation that there isn’t a word invented for it yet.”
It’s also hard to describe now just how much Clare’s breakthrough and that summer of ’95 transformed hurling and everything around it – but we’ll try.
It’s a cliché now that whenever commentators try to describe just how much Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed and popularised the NBA, they invariably mention that when each of them played in their first NBA finals in the early ‘80s, the games weren’t even televised live: they were shown on “tape delay”.
Well, as hard as it might be for our younger readers to imagine, that 1995 Munster hurling final was also on tape delay. That summer the GAA had finally allowed RTÉ to start showing provincial championship matches in their entirety but any of them played on a Sunday could only be broadcast after they had actually been played. I attended Clare’s dramatic one-point win over Cork in the Munster semi-final in the Gaelic Grounds and when myself and my father retreated to a nearby hotel for something to eat, a television screen in the corner was showing the game for the first time.
I didn’t even see a puck of the subsequent Munster final until a few days later. I had started work that summer in this paper, or the Cork Examiner as it was then, though that would soon change for reasons not entirely unrelated to the Clare hurlers. I was working the night shift, doing some subbing as well as ghosting the column of the late Joe McGrath, who had coached multiple county teams in both football and hurling in the 1970s and 80s. I had to go only on the radio commentary I had heard at home and heading into work, along with McGrath’s own take. I hadn’t seen Davy Fitzgerald’s penalty. I didn’t know who this Liam Doyle fella that Joe was raving about was or what he looked like. In the Gaelic Grounds a month earlier I only knew who they had beaten, not who they themselves were.
I wasn’t alone. Outside of maybe the eye-catching play of Jamesie O’Connor and the eye-catching gait and hair of PJ O’Connell and Anthony Daly from the All Star he had won a few years earlier, this team were unknowns to even people who followed their GAA. By that September they were household names and recognisable faces everywhere. Davy. Lohan. McMahon. Sparrow.
But it all started with that Munster final.
When Loughnane talks about how the outpouring stemmed from a sense of surprise as well as elation, it’s because most Clare followers who headed to Thurles for that game against reigning holders Limerick didn’t so much travel in hope more than confidence but in dread and fear more than hope.
It was worse than the trepidation that a Mayo person might approach an All Ireland final. At least Mayo have performed in their last five All Ireland appearances.
They’ve looked like they’ve belonged on that stage, if not quite on the podium. Clare in 1993 and 1994 in the Munster final had been so overwhelmed by the occasion and the opposition they hadn’t been worthy of either.
Even some people on the team bus had been fearful. The aforementioned swashbuckling PJ O’Connell confided to Anthony Daly one night after training, “If we lose this one again, I am walking away. I won’t be coming back for this torture again next year.” Daly admitted in his own autobiography that “the gremlins were rattling my skull like a flock of woodpeckers” at the prospect of having to keep the head down again at another Willie Clancy festival.
The team physio Colum Flynn, who had been the trainer to the marvellous team of the late ‘70s that had been so near and so far from making the breakthrough, was sitting alongside Loughnane on the team bus. As they were nearing the Limerick border he pointed out the window to the Cratloe hills. “You see those bubbles for hills and that bloody mountain? Every time we come back from Thurles and Cork after losing a big game, I see them and they haunt me, the loneliness of them. Every time I think of defeat, I think of that bloody mountain.”
Loughnane assured him: This day would be different.
He assured all of them. Daly had doubts over whether he was being played out of position but when they met one-to-one a week out from the game. “I know you might feel more comfortable in the corner but we have no doubts about you [at wing back]. Look at the shape you’re in. You’re some athlete now. You’re ready. We all are.”
He had got his players to start thinking differently to the supporters. Clare had also lost the league final a couple of months earlier to Kilkenny and Clare supporters who had traipsed out of Thurles that day couldn’t bear doing so again so soon. But Loughnane turned those three previous final defeats into a positive. “We have learned from the experiences of the past and that is why everything is so relaxed.” Two years earlier Clare had met just up the road from the Gaelic Grounds, in the Greenhills Hotel and waded through the throng of supporters before having their pre-match meal – a cup of tea, brown bread and jam.
With Loughnane the logistics were more professional. But it was still time for a bit of old school blood and thunder. “Before the team went out onto the pitch, I did something I never did before,” he’d recall in Raising The Banner. “I held up the Clare jersey before the players. I reminded them of all the disappointments of those who had worn the Clare jersey down through the years and all the heartbreak the Clare fans had experienced. Then looking each one of them in the eye I told them all of these would be cast aside away by five o’clock.”
And they were as Limerick were cast and blown away too, by nine points.
That night changed everything, including for this paper. It was the start of a real push to extend our readership outside of Cork and so we had a special bumper edition that day and it’d be fair to say that there are people who bought their first Examiner that Monday who are still reading it now. Two years later when Clare were back in the Munster final, I was sent down to Ennis for the week to capture the build-up in the Banner in all its glorious and innocent wonder. Clare hurling sold papers for us, everywhere. By that year’s All-Ireland final we had five reporters at the Clare press conference. Like everyone else, we couldn’t get enough of Clare.
Every subsequent Munster hurling final has been shown live. Anthony Daly now writes columns and hosts podcasts for the Irish Examiner when 25 years ago almost every columnist had to have a connection with Cork – McGrath, who had coached the footballers to a Munster title in ’83, Justin who coached the hurlers to an All Ireland in ’84. And I now live in Clare, having developed a grá for the place from those times I was sent down there as a young reporter.
But the real change was for it what it did for the psyche and esteem of Clare people. That night on the bus back as Tony Considine and even Davy Fitz were all giving a song, Loughnane came down to Flynn as it approached the Limerick border. “Look! Look over there,” he said, pointing out the window. It was his lonely mountain, only this time a bonfire was blazing on it.
“That’s it. You’ll never see that hill without a flame again.”
And he’s right. That flame of ’95 will never die out.