I won’t lie, the first time my wife took me to Ballybunion, I wasn’t blown away, writes Tommy Martin

Actually, I was blown away: It was late September and an Atlantic storm front was giving the north Kerry seaside town the Alex Ferguson hairdryer treatment.

“What’s wrong with Ballybunion? I love Ballybunion!” she said between gusts, wistfully recalling bygone childhood holidays.

No offence like, it’s not exactly San Tropez, is it?

But, as on most things, she was right and I was wrong.

Ballybunion, it turned out, has this weird magical quality that sucks you in. It’s completely unpretentious; it’s not trying to be a groovy surf scene, or a snazzy resort, or some sort of seaside vegan yoga ashram. It’s sort of just there, as if it too is saying: What’s wrong with Ballybunion? I love Ballybunion!

Anyway, the star of the show is the beach (the Ladies’ Beach, to be specific), which lies at the feet of the town. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides, it is at once enclosed and spacious. You can let a small child run for several hundred yards before wearily conceding: “I’ll go and get him then I suppose.”

And at this time of year, with the kids off school and the town ticking over nicely with holiday business, the beach also transforms into a massive, impromptu hurling drill.

Back and forth they puck the ball across the golden sands — boys and girls, lanky teenagers showing off, dads dragging their bellies into the air to make a catch, five-year-olds gamely trying to rise the ball then whacking it with all their might. Last summer two members of the Limerick U21 panel were even spotted sharpening their touch on the Ladies’ Beach ahead of their Munster final.

Seamus Flanagan celebrates after Limerick won the All-Ireland u-21 title in 2017
Seamus Flanagan celebrates after Limerick won the All-Ireland u-21 title in 2017

Oh, did I mention? My wife is from near Newcastlewest, and at this time of year Ballybunion becomes West Limerick-on-Sea.

They all love Ballybunion.

Even if they aren’t staying in one of the mobile homes or rental cottages, even if they are back home going about their normal business, as soon as a square inch of blue sky appears on the western horizon, they’re off, jumping into cars crammed with deckchairs and windbreakers, heading out past Abbeyfeale, across the Kerry border, through Listowel and plonking themselves on the beach to breathe that Atlantic air.

Needless to say, the exploits of the Limerick senior team mean the clatter of ash on sliotar has reached a cacophony this summer. You negotiate the beach like an extra from Saving Private Ryan, dodging the missiles fizzing past your ears.

But it was the same back when I was first introduced to Ballybunion’s charms. This was around the mid-noughties, and things were at a lower ebb for Limerick hurling, but still they pucked, back and forth, lost in a meditative rhythm; being from the hurling wastelands of the north, I was struck by the hypnotic quality of it.

Not that a spiritual attachment to the sport of hurling means you deserve to win an All-Ireland or anything. That’s not where I’m going with this.

Ask the people of Mayo about deserving to win something just because you crave it with every fibre of your being. And I’m sure whenever people from Kilkenny or Cork or Wexford go to beaches they pop a sliotar about with gusto as well.

But the point is to establish that these were proper hurling people and yet, when you talked to them back then there was a sadness in their eyes.

Limerick supporters celebrate in Croke Park as the Shannonsiders beat Cork to reach a first All-Ireland fina in 11 years
Limerick supporters celebrate in Croke Park as the Shannonsiders beat Cork to reach a first All-Ireland fina in 11 years

They had missed out on the 1990s party when Liam MacCarthy was handed around to all and sundry. The horror of their final losses, Offaly’s late smash-and-grab in 1994 in particular, seemed to have left them scarred.

Then the promise of three All-Ireland under-21 titles in a row from 2000 to 2002 had been blown, amid talk of boozy excesses and appetites sated. There was a fatalism about it all, as the decades ticked over since their last title in 1973.

They reminded me of the nickname Atletico Madrid fans used to call themselves: ‘El Pupas’ — the jinxed one.

To check that I wasn’t imagining the prevailing mood at that time, a Google search revealed some quotes from Tom Ryan, manager of the 1990s team, speaking to the Irish Independent before Limerick met Tipperary in the 2007 Munster championship.

Former Limerick manager Tom Ryan, pictured as Westmeath manager in 2004
Former Limerick manager Tom Ryan, pictured as Westmeath manager in 2004

Ryan, never shy of giving both barrels said: “That’s where we have fallen down completely, in the psychological aspect of developing winners. There’s lads on the Limerick team who will probably be on the piss Monday and even Tuesday, win lose or draw against Tipp…Trust me, there’s a different ethic at work in Kilkenny and Cork.

The vision is what we haven’t got in Limerick,” Ryan went on, warming to his task. “Rugby appears to have it, that plan, that business acumen. We’re under siege from Munster here.

Even accounting for Ryan’s firebrand nature, the sense of disillusionment and hopelessness is clear.

As it happened, that year Richie Bennis managed to cajole Limerick into an All-Ireland senior final, in which they were mown down by Kilkenny in their pomp. Despite the excitement of that summer, few saw it as a portent of greater things — as for most counties, Kilkenny’s superiority at that time made the ultimate glory feel very far away indeed.

But therein lay the seeds of their rebirth. “Limerick considering following Kilkenny’s example,” read a headline in this paper on October 7, 2008, as the ‘Lifting the Treaty’ blueprint went before county delegates for approval.

The strategic plan plucked the best bits from how Kilkenny organised their underage structures and, crucially, would lead to the setting up of the Limerick academy system, the engine room of the current success, which includes All-Ireland U21 titles in 2015 and 2017.

It turned out they did have a vision. The academies gave kids from U14 up a taste of what elite preparation was like, in terms of skills, nutrition, psychology, strength and conditioning, and tactical acumen.

The cliché of the Limerick hurler as the big-hearted warrior has been replaced by the super-fit, super-skilled, super-cool likes of Gearóid Hegarty, Tom Morrissey, Cian Lynch, and Kyle Hayes, and the run to this final characterised by a winning mentality that saw them calmly play their way out of tight spots against Kilkenny and Cork in the previous rounds.

Kyle Hayes in action agianst Carlow in the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final
Kyle Hayes in action agianst Carlow in the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final

It’s amazing to see how far it has come, but neither is that a reason they deserve to win on Sunday. Plenty other counties pulled themselves up by the bootstraps when laid low by Kilkenny’s reign of terror, hence the current democratic lay of the land in hurling.

Limerick have just given themselves a chance.

But maybe Limerick need to win because this greatest of all hurling seasons deserves a mighty crescendo, a deliverance, an emotional release. The healing of those scars.

One of those U21s pucking about in Ballybunion last summer was Seamus Flanagan, from the Feoghanagh-Castlemahon club in, needless to say, west Limerick. After not making the U21 team last year he came from nowhere to become a starter on the senior team this summer.

“He’s a great kid,” one of the dads on the beach told me between pucks last week. “John Kiely gave him a chance last winter and he just took it with both hands. He just went for it.”

Time for Limerick to take their chance.

 

All-Ireland Final preview: Wildcards, huge gambles and dropping the hurley

 

 

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