When I was a youngster, Limerick always seemed that bit stronger and in fact I often found myself supporting our neighbours in the Munster championship — only after Clare had been beaten mind you!
I’d make my way to the Gaelic Grounds and saw many a great match there involving Limerick.
This isn’t to say the bitterness wasn’t there and in later years I learned of a woman from Meelick, also just across the border, who wouldn’t even do her shopping in Limerick, though it was only a couple of miles down the road; instead she preferred to go to Ennis, more than 20 miles away.
She hated Limerick like the devil hates holy water but that was common enough around Meelick and Parteen, where the rivalry was at its most intense. In fact a few years ago, when there was talk of Limerick City extending its boundary north into Clare, I think it was only when the people of Meelick and Parteen realised they’d be drawn against teams like Croom and Bruree in the championship that they really rose up.
The growth of Shannon Airport did a lot to ease the rivalry, with a huge number of Limerick people coming out to work in the new factories that began to spring up. There would be a bit of slagging when the teams met but nothing too serious; what really happened though, was that people became good friends and when one county was gone from the championship they’d mostly support the other, especially against Cork and — most especially — Tipperary.
When Shannon town itself was founded this became even more of a factor because you now had a huge influx of Limerick people living in Clare. As their kids grew up, began to play for Clare clubs and even for Clare itself, their parents naturally began to support them. The famous Lohan brothers, Frank and Brian, are a perfect example — their father Gus is from Galway but played for Clare while their mother is a Limerick native.
It’s not all one-way traffic of course, and I have a lot of nieces and nephews who were born and lived all their lives in Limerick. They’ll be going to Croke Park Sunday but some will be wearing green-and-white, some will wear saffron-and-blue. I’d say they won’t be the only families divided in this way.
The rivalry took off in the ’90s when Clare and Limerick began to share Munster titles and I remember league games when you’d get 20,000 and more, times when Clare and Limerick weren’t just the two top teams in Munster but nearly the two top teams in Ireland.
But even then it wasn’t bitter. When we beat Limerick in the Munster final in 1995 I’ll never forget the reception we got afterwards from the Limerick supporters in Thurles. They were the reigning Munster champions, had lost out in the All-Ireland final of 1994 in the worst way and really wanted to get back to Croke Park. They outnumbered Clare that day I’d say three-to-one, and yet almost to a man and woman they applauded the Clare team.
No matter what people say, I think Limerick people and Limerick hurlers would always class themselves as being superior to Clare. Limerick are very aware of where they stand in the Munster order of merit, are equally aware of where Clare stand, and would never have been slow about letting us know.
Then, of course, they had Mick Mackey and that great era in the ’30s. Those few years in the ’90s hurt them badly. In that spell they won two Munsters but lost the two All-Irelands, while we won three Munster titles and two All-Irelands. Not that we took any pleasure from that, and I say that sincerely. I’ve said this already, but once Clare are beaten, certainly Limerick would be my next team and I followed them in 1973 when they won the All-Ireland.
Of late, while the rivalry is good I don’t think it’s anywhere near as intense as it was then. A lot of the players on both sides know each other very well, went to college with each other and maybe even shared digs.
You’re also starting to have a lot of interaction on the club management side, a lot of Clare men managing teams in Limerick and vice versa. Indeed, Clare natives managed the clubs that won seven of the last eight Limerick senior hurling titles. It’s even happening at county level, Paul Kinnerk is a Limerick man, training the Clare team, and Eamonn Cregan managed the team for a while. Tim Crowe from Sixmilebridge trained Limerick for a while — on and on it goes.
To sum up, there are different kinds of rivalry — Celtic v Rangers it’s not. I think it’s what a rivalry should be, strong when we meet but laced with mutual respect.
No matter who wins on Sunday, we’ll all shake hands and wish each other the best for the All-Ireland final against Cork.
The way it should be.
* Brendan O’Brien is away. His column resumes next Friday.