MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: A fiery history at the Gaelic Grounds

Limerick has hosted some of the all-time classic Munster hurling encounters

Let’s put our cards on the table. As a hurling venue, there is Thurles, and there’s everywhere else, and for a Munster final, for most of us, there’s nowhere else.

But Limerick has hosted some of the great clashes. When Cork and Tipperary set down the template for blood and iron hurling rivalries at the hinge of the last century, many of their magnificent seven Munster championship clashes between 1949 and 1954 were held in Limerick. The venue near the Shannon saw some of the most fabled events in hurling history.

Some of the warmest, too. Does this sound familiar? “It was a fierce weekend of heat and lightning storms. On Friday a wynd of hay was destroyed by lightning and a bullock was killed in a field outside the town,” said a Fermoy merchant quoted in Tim Horgan’s Christy Ring: Hurling’s Greatest ahead of the 1949 game between Cork and Tipperary at the Gaelic Grounds.

The game ended in a draw and Tipperary star Pat Stakelum and team boss — the term manager was some way off its present currency — Johnny Leahy consulted with their Cork counterparts, Jim ‘Tough’ Barry and Jack Lynch. When Lynch seemed unenthusiastic about the prospect of extra-time, Leahy nudged Stakelum and said they’d press for the game to be resolved there and then.

In the punishing heat, Tipperary went into their dressing room out of the sun, where the Blake family of Coolquill had cold water in milk churns.

“They doused us behind the neck, behind the knees, down the back and it helped to revitalise us,” said Stakelum. “While all that was going on, the Cork players stayed out on the field in the scorching heat.”

Tipp won by two points in a bad-tempered game. One newspaper report began, “The sun which blistered the Gaelic Grounds was not as hot as the tempers of the players...”

Those tempers didn’t cool in the next couple of years. Cork were clearly reluctant to hand home advantage to Tipperary and after the teams played in Fitzgerald Stadium in 1950, the 1951 to 1954 Munster finals were all played in the big house on the Ennis Road, red and white taking on blue and gold every time.

In 1951 Ring gave a display so dazzling that Val Dorgan said in his biography of the Cloyneman that if film of the game existed, he would simply have said: “Judge him on this one.”

Tipperary won, though. The following year Cork stopped their bid for four in a row and Ring, his head bandaged, was carried from the field exultant as Cork embarked on their own three-in-a-row voyage.

Oddly enough, though, the seeds of a later defeat were being sown in the early years of the 50s. Cork got into a habit in their pre-game preparation which came back to haunt them in 1961. After a superb Munster final in 1960, when Cork narrowly lost to Tipperary by two points in Thurles, hopes were high for a Cork revival, and over 60,000 people went to Limerick for the ‘61 decider.

And those faulty preparations were partly to blame for Cork’s flat display, as Terry Kelly told Tim Horgan.

“It was the tradition of the Cork team to tog off at the Railway Hotel and travel by car along the Ennis Road to the ground. On this occasion, however, we were told there were new dressing rooms at Limerick and most of us wanted to use them.

“Unfortunately, some of the old-timers in the party were reluctant to break with tradition and so we did the foolish thing and changed at the Railway Hotel.”

Chaos resulted. The Ennis Road was choked with the 60,000-plus crowd and the players’ cars were held up in the traffic. Eventually most of them got out and walked and trickled into the Gaelic Grounds one by one. The final score was 3-6 to 0-7 in favour of a Tipperary team which togged off at the Gaelic Grounds, but the game isn’t remembered for that.

Towards the end Christy Ring and John Doyle got embroiled with each other and a melee developed: Tipp’s Tom Moloughney was struck and Ring named as the culprit in media reports.

Ring strongly denied the allegation and matters soon deteriorated, with the Cork County Board issuing proceedings against RTÉ and the Irish Independent with journalists barred from the Cork Athletic Grounds’ press box.

Eventually the matter was resolved. It was an open secret in Cork that one of Ring’s teammates was prepared to take responsibility for striking; it wasn’t as widely known Doyle had sustained a cracked chin in his entanglement with Ring. Years later Doyle told Val Dorgan, Ring’s other biographer, pointing at a small mark on his chin: “Ring gave me that one.”

Our final visit to the archive of Limerick classics is another hot one. “My abiding memory of the game is that it was an extremely hot day,” Ciarán Carey told Henry Martin for Unlimited Heartbreak: The Inside Story of Limerick Hurling.

“I have this thing about having steel studs on my boots. I had it in my head that I was able to turn quickly without slipping if I had steel studs on, but I went over the top that day, because the ground like tarmac. I will never forget it, my feet were reefed with blisters afterwards.”

Generally agreed to have been the hottest day of 1996 (“the heat was unbelievable,” recalled Clare’s Anthony Daly of the day), this Munster championship clash between Limerick and Clare ended in the most dramatic way possible.

With the game ticking into injury time and level, Carey fielded a puck-out and charged 70 yards up the field for one of the most dramatic winning points ever seen on a GAA field. His teammate Frankie Carroll told Martin that he was shattered after half the game, “so for Ciarán to make the run that he made after playing a full game was phenomenal.”

Phenomenal is a good description of much of the action in the Gaelic Grounds when a Munster championship is on the line. Anthony Daly recalled the manager’s words to his Clare team that day: “Ger Loughnane stood up at the front of the bus and took the microphone that day and said, ‘This is the stuff our fathers and grandfathers told us about. This is the Munster championship’.”

Think of that when you start walking down the Ennis Road.

Legendary ‘Tough’ a Treaty hero

John Allen isn’t the first Cork man to prepare a Limerick senior hurling team. Neither is Donal O’Grady, his predecessor at the helm on Shannonside.

The 1934 All-Ireland hurling final between Limerick and Dublin ended all square, Limerick 2-7 to Dublin’s 3-4.

The replay was fixed for September 30 in Croke Park and before that game Limerick brought in Jim ‘Tough’ Barry (inset, pictured in 1936), the legendary Cork trainer, who urged the team to concentrate on first-time ground hurling. The men in green and white duly won, 3-4 to 2-6.

Barry was the kind of character that doesn’t exist in the GAA anymore.

Born around 1890, he joined the Volunteers in Cork and knew the likes of Tomas McCurtain and Terence McSwiney. In 1921 he joined the Republican side in the Civil War and afterwards settled in Cork city as a tailor, and was always nattily turned out on the sideline, unsurprisingly. A boxer, the nickname ‘Tough’ came from his exploits in the ring, while he was also a well-known swimmer and a fine singer: he featured as a soloist with opera companies for decades.

Barry trained Cork teams to 13 All-Ireland titles between the 20s and the 60s, passing away in 1967.

The year before that he had one of his great triumphs when Cork emerged from the hurling wilderness to win the All-Ireland after a 12-year famine.


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