The Taoiseach of the day was in attendance on a sultry Thurles afternoon 35 years ago, cheering for his county. So too was the President, cheering for his. An hour before the throw-in the gates were locked, leaving up to 4,000 people fuming outside. Already inside along with Jack Lynch and Paddy Hillery were 54,180 paying spectators, “You could hardly move your finger in Semple Stadium that day,” recalls Seamus Hayes, who covered the match for the Clare Champion.
Two thirds of the crowd had travelled in the hope of seeing Clare win their first Munster title for 46 years. What they got was not just defeat, not just disappointment, but a disaster it would take the county a generation to recover from. And a disaster that ensured Ger Loughnane would have a career in hurling after his playing days ended.
Managed by Fr Harry Bohan, a visionary priest, and coached by Justin McCarthy, a visionary hurling man, this was the finest Clare team since Jimmy Smyth’s side of the mid-1950s. In 1976 they’d burst on the scene by reaching the national league final and taking Kilkenny, the All-Ireland champions, to a replay watched by 35,000 people. In ‘77 and ‘78 they won it, seeing off Kilkenny in both finals.
They were unbeatable at home in the league in Tulla. They began winning a couple of All Stars each year, which was a new departure. “People ran onto the pitch to acclaim them after matches because they’d raised expectations in the county,” Seamus Hayes says. The Clare Champion even took to putting hurling stories and photos — the bonfires that greeted the 1977 league triumph, for instance — on the front page. Another novelty.
Losing the 1977 Munster final to Cork, 4-15 to 4-10, had been no catastrophe, especially in view of the dismissal of their full-back Jim Power. Atonement would, the supporters were confident, arrive in 1978. Such a view, Loughnane can now see, was presumptuous. Particularly against a Cork team going for their fourth provincial title in a row and two steps away from a third successive All-Ireland.
“It’s always a big mistake to believe you’re beaten by a referee, which we did after 1977. That was really our undoing. What we should have done instead was to ask a few hard questions. Was our hurling good enough? Was it fast enough? Why did we concede 4-15?”
The 1978 rematch was an absolute dog of a game, only the second goalless Munster final ever. “An awful match,” groans Johnny Callinan, who lined out at midfield for Clare. “The most awful match.” Fourteen of the 24 scores came from placed balls, Cork’s second-highest scorer was their left-corner back John Horgan and not one of their forwards found the range in the first half. The period ended with Clare trailing 0-5 to 0-3 with the wind to come and their supporters, in Paddy Downey’s phrase, “humming happily”.
Legend relays two half-time stories from the respective dressing rooms. The first has the Clare players singing in anticipation of victory. The second has Christy Ring, who was a Cork selector, taking the floor and telling the troops that he ‘beat that crowd on my own and beat them for 40 years and ye’re not going to lie down to them’. One of these stories is reasonably accurate. The other is, of course, grossly untrue.
The wind didn’t win it for Clare on the turnaround. They didn’t win it for themselves either and never threatened to. “Straight after half-time Cork got a couple of points, a couple of cheap frees, and stretched it out,” remembers Sean Hehir, the challengers’ left-half back. “Unlike the previous year, we weren’t scoring.”
Three points separated the sides when Loughnane, who’d been outstanding, hit the final point of the afternoon, hoisting one from distance that was intended for the edge of the square but was carried over the bar by the wind. Cork 0-13 Clare 0-11. Then Bansha’s John Molony blew the long whistle and Loughnane was left to smite the turf in his frustration and grief.
To some counties, defeat in a provincial decider is just that, a reverse to be atoned for the following year. To other counties it is nothing less than a psychic hammer blow. Downey was more perceptive than perhaps even he realised when musing about the implications of the 1978 Munster final for the losers.
Loughnane, though only 24, took it harder than anyone. While he spent another nine years in the saffron and blue, he never hurled as well as he did in 1978, he insists. He “never really believed” they could win a Munster title. He compares 1978 to 1955, when Jimmy Smyth and his colleagues, roaring hot favourites after seeing off Cork and Tipperary, were floored by Mackey’s Greyhounds in the final. Another fine Clare team and another defeat that poisoned the well for a generation.
“Look at the two big psychological blows Clare hurling suffered: 1955 and 1978. Over 20 years between them. And another 20 years, nearly, to 1995. That’s how long it takes a county like Clare to recover.” For years afterwards Johnny Callinan heard guff about how it was supposedly the sight of the Cork jersey that beat Clare. Nonsense, he argues. “I actually resented that. Remember, that Cork jersey beat everyone else for those three years too. It wasn’t a case of a mediocre Cork team beating a good Clare team, in which case you might be able to claim it was down to the jersey.
“It was a very good Cork team beating a maybe not quite as good Clare team. That’s all.”
But suppose, for the sake of argument, Clare won the 1978 Munster final. What changes? Everything changes. The famine has ended. Biddy Early’s curse is lifted. Clare go on to beat a transitional Kilkenny — no Eddie Keher, no Pat Delaney — in the All-Ireland final (“Croke Park was smaller and slower than Semple Stadium in those days and we’d have had no fear of Kilkenny,” Loughnane declares). Because a trail was blazed in 1978 they win a couple of further Munster titles in the 1980s.
As a result, the glorious liberation of 1995 does not happen; it has happened already. Instead the Clare team of the mid-90s do three in a row. Naturally they’re captained by Anthony Daly. But here’s the thing: they are not managed by Ger Loughnane, who once his playing days ended went no further than coaching the Wolfe Tones na Sionna under-14s. There was no raging volcano within that spurred him to take Clare hurling to a better place; that volcano had been quenched by the provincial success he enjoyed during his playing days.
So let’s leave him there on Tom Semple’s field on July 30 1978, savage indignation tearing his heart. The road to paradise as a player is over. The road to the 1995 All-Ireland, little though he knows it in his moment of utter desolation, has begun.