KIERAN SHANNON: For love of limerick

If the world was all nice and fair, he’d be remembered more as a man who won two Munster championships and two All Stars, but in a town as cruel as Limerick can be, Joe Quaid is often known as the man who lost two All-Irelands and a testicle as well.

He won’t lie to you. At times it hurt: literally. But he learned a long time ago from his cousin Tommy, dealing with knocks and the knockers is an occupational hazard when you’re a goalie, as you tend to be in this county if your name is Quaid.

Tommy was possibly the best netminder of his generation, yet even he had to change his home phone number after one championship exit.

You coped by distancing yourself from it, rising above it. Joe often found the best thing to do was laugh about it.

“You might have a fella abusing you, saying ‘Christ’s sake, I paid good money to get in and all!’ And I’d say back to him, ‘Jesus, that’s great! I hadn’t to pay at all!’

“I’ve stood in pubs and been abused and had people wondering why didn’t I knock their block off, but if I reacted all I’d be doing would be bringing myself down to their level. I’d just nod away — ‘Yeah, you’re right, that’s your opinion.’ Sometimes you might say ‘Yeah, you’ve a load done yourself in the game.’ But I found a bit of humour was the best way.

“One day, a Tipp fella up in Thurles nearly ate the wire coming in, abusing me. ‘Quaid, your mother’s only a hoor!’

“I said, ‘I know, sure she told me she took £50 off you last night. Does the wife know?’”

If you think that no one could deliver a line that quick, you’re underestimating the wit of Joe Quaid.

In the course of our conversation, he shakes his head at the multitude of jobs he’s had before his current work with Ulster Bank.

He explains that he started off as a qualified instrumentation technician, then sold insurance, then sold animal health products…

“Where did I go off then? That’s right, I went off tiling…”

For awhile though you misinterpret him. You think he said Thailand, not tiling.

“Thailand,” he smiles. “Yeah, I wish! I’d never have been back! Over with some ladyboys over there. Actually, I’d nearly qualify as one of them, wouldn’t I?”

You can’t but laugh. That he can come up with a line as quick as that, that he can laugh about himself and especially such a painful episode like that.

He’ll never forget the date: Apr 27, 1997; a meaningless challenge game against Laois, it’s not every day you lose a testicle.

Two months later he was playing championship against Tipperary.

“My first night back training, TJ Ryan came through and unleashed a bloody rocket. Lucky enough I was wearing a jockstrap with a guard and the ball flew about 30 yards back out the field. Tom Ryan was on the line, wincing, ‘Jesus, Quaid, are you alright?’ Sure I just got up, put the hand down and started counting. ‘One… Yeah, fine.’ Says Ryan, ‘You’re some mad bastard!’ Says I, ‘Sure look where that ball ended up. Jaysus, this implant is some yoke.’ Looking back though, it was nuts to play in that game against Tipp. Or that should be singular, shouldn’t it? I was a complete nut to play that day. I dived across for a ball and stopped it but when I landed the pain was still there. Albert Shanahan had been man of the match the first round against Waterford and should have been left in goals.”

Limerick would lose to Tipp that day, bringing to an end their summer and as that reality was closing in, Quaid put on a brave, even happy face. In the second half, a group of Tipp supporters behind him had sang to the air of the Village People’s Go West, ‘Joe Quaid, only has one ball!’ In the closing minutes, with the game gone from Limerick, Quaid’s response was to decline the role of victim and assume the role of conductor, turning around to the terrace, jumping up and grabbing his crotch on the way down. Cue end of taunting and the start of clapping and cheering.

These days his surviving testicle is no longer the most famous in Ireland but as he puts it himself, “It’s still a great conversation topic.”

In recent years, he’s befriended the rugby analyst Brent Pope, having met him on holidays in Bulgaria. Pope had never heard of Quaid before but when they met up again the following evening, Pope was gleefully able to tell him what he had discovered from a Google search.

Last year when Quaid and his wife went up to Dublin for Pope’s 50th birthday, Pope couldn’t resist introducing him to people as ‘Joe Quaid, played hurling, has only one ball.’ The odd person hasn’t been quite as good-natured about it, but Quaid would have the last laugh.

“A row started in a club game and when I went to break it up this fella came in and gave me a knee up into the bollocks. He knew what he was doing. But when he met the cup you could see he got a surprise. Then I kneed him myself. He had no guard on.”

For years it looked as if Majella and himself wouldn’t be able to have children. One specialist told them they had only one in a million chance of having a child. They had IVF treatment, the lot, and were on the verge of giving up when suddenly Majella got pregnant.

Within 30 months they’d have four children.

The accident did have one significant long-term negative effect. He was never the same goalkeeper. In the three seasons prior to that injury, he was the best shot-stopper in hurling.

“I thought after the accident I was fine, that it didn’t faze me. Then in ‘99 we were playing Waterford below in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Paul Flynn came in along the endline, I ran out to him, Flynn threw up the ball and I turned my arse. I’d never turned an arse to a ball before that. I had enough marks on my forehead and face — and my bollocks — to show that. The moment I landed I thought, ‘Jesus, you’re gone.’”

He would actually stay for another while, but this weekend 10 years ago against Tipp he’d play his last ever Munster championship game. He was 30 and fed up and burned out.

A lot of that could be attributed to the injury, playing too much hurling too young (‘I must have played eight years U21 with the club’), and playing too little championship hurling in his mid-20s, with every championship after his All Star in ‘96 confined to just the one game each summer.

At the same time there was something magical about the old do-or-die, glory or death, championship. The games he played in, the men he played with, the battles they went into together. Often ‘94 and ‘96 can be shorthand for more unlimited Limerick heartbreak but the truth is they were the best of years before they would end as the cruellest.

Take a summer like ‘96. It began down against Cork, in Cork, where the home team had never been beaten in championship hurling, but there was no way a team with Mike Houlihan was going to be beaten either.

“Houlihan went into that game with a broken jaw, whether it was from the kick of a cow or the belt of a shovel, we still don’t know. The Thursday before the game, he was inside sucking food through wires. His food had to be liquidised. We were told that he was going to be wearing a full-faced helmet, back when no one wore them. He never did. He was there at centre field beside Sean McCarthy, frothing at the mouth, snorting and looking like the fucking Minotaur. Now, McCarthy was a hard man, but he told me later, ‘Joe, when I heard and saw Houlihan, I shit myself!’”

Houlihan used to convene to Quaid’s side of the dressing room, along with Ciaran Carey, the three of them always good for a post-match cigarette. Carey was always beside Quaid, knowing the other was even worse when it came to the nerves. Quaid would have to go into the jacks for both a smoke and a crap before a big game. Carey wouldn’t bother with the jacks but perhaps he should have. While Quaid would often find himself yawning before heading out, Carey beside him would be ready to heave.

“The amount of times I went out onto the field with puke on my boots and socks…”

But what a man. Midway through the second half of the 1996 Munster semi-final Quaid found himself thinking of where he’d go on holidays, now that Limerick’s summer seemed over, only for a late surge of points, the last and most wondrous of all coming from Carey.

The next day out in the Munster final against Tipperary, their predicament at half-time seemed even worse, only for another inspired Carey intervention.

“We were down by 10 points and when we went into the dressing room, no one sat down, Carey just gave this speech. ‘We can either put on our clothes and fuck off home or we go straight back out and sort out what’s after happening.’ So we just turned right back around and were out again. Some of the Tipp boys told me afterwards they knew that something was up. It was like Béal na mBláth, because we were out on the field waiting for them!”

They would draw that game and win the rep lay and win the hearts of the whole country until their final meeting against Wexford tore those hearts and broke Limerick’s. History is written by or about the winners so it’s downplayed now, but in real time over those summers, Limerick did as much to stir up the excitement and romance of the revolution years as Clare, Wexford or Offaly did.

Before those ‘96 Munster finals against Tipp, RTÉ and the GAA wouldn’t broadcast provincial finals live. Such was the public’s demand to see Limerick, those institutions had to ensure that craving was met.

“We had some hard nuts on that team. They talk about the intensity in Kilkenny training. We’d have a couple of thousand people watching Houlihan and O’Neill flaking each other. I mean, the ball was a totally incidental piece of equipment for those two boys. Tom Ryan would run up to me. “Puck it down on top of them!’ “’Tom, they’re killing each other.’ “’Puck the fucking thing down on top of them!’”

“Looking back, Tom was an unsung hero too. He mightn’t have won the big one and he might have gone against every modern coaching principle with his D’Unbelievables manner but there was method in his madness which is why he won a lot too.

“I’ll always give Tom credit. Now, we were twice on holidays and he wouldn’t talk to us; if you were out after a match with the wife or girlfriend he’d salute them but not us. He’d abuse us. I had a very good game against Cork in ‘94 and the next night in training he comes in and goes [Quaid does a marvellous Tom/Timmy Ryan impersonation], ‘Well, Joe Quaid, the bloody big shot, eh? Blocking balls out is all you want to do and they still end up in the bloody net!’ But I loved Tom Ryan because I hated him so much. Every day I went out to prove him wrong.

“Before we played Cork in ‘96 he goes in the dressing room in front of everyone, ‘Quaid, we don’t want any of this bloody gymnastics on Sunday and you fucking diving on the ground!’ Same game, Mark Mullins pulls on a ball about 14 yards out and I dive and tip it around the post. Ryan comes in the following night, big grin on his face, ‘Ah Quaid, we were glad of some of the old gymnastics, weren’t we?!’”

The jibes of the hurlers on the ditch though did wound, especially after the 1994 All-Ireland.

“I got the blame because some gobshite rang into The Sunday Game that night and blamed the so-called quick puckout for Offaly’s next goal. If you time it, it’s exactly the same as any other puckout. It landed straight into Ger Hegarty’s hand, who then got a belt and the ball squirted out. You had fellas saying I should have pucked the ball out over the stand, as if there was only one sliotar in Croke Park.

“In ‘96 I had a great old game, and though it was a killer to lose, I remember getting the paper the following Sunday saying, ‘Well at least they can’t blame this one on me.’ Opened the paper. ‘Reason number six Limerick lost — goalkeeper panic.’ Mark Foley had called for a ball standing on the sideline 40 yards out, but two years earlier I got lambasted for hitting a puckout to a free man. If I hadn’t hit that puckout in ‘94 people would have been saying, ‘Why didn’t he puck the ball out and Hegarty standing on his own?’ You can’t win unless you do win, and while you can’t let things like that get to you, it can hurt for awhile.”

He could live with himself after ‘96. He’d played very well and though his confidence took a bit of a knock when he conceded a Tom Dempsey goal midway through the first half, the right words at the right time from an unlikely source lifted him. Damien Martin, the former Offaly keeper, was an umpire that day.

“I turned around to Damien and went ‘Christ, not again’, but he said to me, ‘Remember you’re the best at what you do.’ Straight away I went from down there to up here. I thought it was a fantastic, generous thing to do.”

What tormented him was the error he had made two years earlier against Martin’s native county.

“After the ‘94 final I knew the goalline for that Johnny Dooley free was my fault. I’d always line my goals two on either side but for some reason I let Mike Nash in, took a half a step to the left and it went in. It wasn’t well hit. If I was in goals on my own I would have saved it. But you know, I got so much abuse about the quick puckout, it deflected from what I know I did wrong.”

He did a lot right though in those years, and today he’s still trying to do right by Limerick hurling in his capacity as a juvenile county coaching officer. He stresses the real heroes are Noel Hartigan and the other games development officers, he’s just there to give guidance and encouragement, but between them he feels they’ve created a vibrant underage system and culture in Limerick.

It has involved some fresh thinking. Up to 48 kids will make an under-16 development squad. Some people would say that’s far too much but he points to his rather chubby, baby-faced full back he saw last week that drove the ball 100 yards down the field. Right now he’s not in the top 25 hurlers in the county, he’s not an athlete but with the right guidance, he could be; why discard him instead of honing him? Quaid follows the senior team keenly. They’re a good, conscientious bunch, he feels, but fears that the turnover of coaches might hurt their development.

“I’m not convinced Donal O’Grady helped our cause at all. Okay, he brought things together and some of his coaching was superb but coming in for one year didn’t really facilitate continuity. I was happy enough with the year last year as it was going on, but I’ll be only happy with last year if there’s a progression this year, and I don’t mean results-wise; only one team wins the All-Ireland. John Allen seems like a good man but we’ll see how good a coach he now is. A lot of eating will be in the pudding on Sunday.”

Overall he’s feeling good about Limerick hurling and life in general. He cut out the fags at the turn of the year and the sugar and the crap the month before last. He still looks well older than 40 but he’s lost 16lbs in the last six weeks alone.

Tomorrow he’ll go to Thurles and see the great Quaid goalkeeping tradition continue. Tommy’s son Nicky is between the posts and while Joe maintains he’d be even better out the field like he is with the club, that’s just the way it seems to be in Limerick.

“My daughter’s soccer team were stuck for a goalkeeper the other week and they put her in. My young fella who is seven got a call from the U10 manager ringing to know if he’d play in goals. If his name wasn’t Quaid, he wouldn’t have got that call. I think I’ll nearly have to change their surname to stop them being put there, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe 40 goals went past him over a weekend blitz there and it didn’t bother him; he said he liked it but he likes playing out the field as well.

“The twins had their communion the other week. There was a crowd inside the house so one of them started hurling outside and was diving all around the place.

“A friend of mine was there and he said ‘Ah, the crowd pleaser; look at it, he’s just like his father!’

“I says, ‘There’s an art to that, you know. Block first, then dive! Sure that’s what wins you All Stars! Look at James McGarry; he stood up for 10 years and never got one!’”

And again he laughs, and so do you. Limerick hurling isn’t all misery. It has its sunny side and it looks a lot like Joe Quaid.


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