Heart shows as Na Piarsaigh seize the day at Croke Park

St Patrick’s Day in this country is a special occasion but the All-Ireland club finals in Croke Park adds extra layers of magic to that feeling, especially for real GAA people who love the club game.
Heart shows as Na Piarsaigh seize the day at Croke Park

For those lucky enough to have their clubs represented on the day, it must be a kind of utopian experience, a feeling of limitless pride in your own community, your own people.

I love the day. There is a real sense that this is different. Earthier. Purer. No matter what you say, county hurling and football can be elitist. The person who is involved with the finance committee, who is over the U12s, who takes the junior ladies football team, the guy who sweeps out the dressing room — they are all part of that club jersey. That is the real difference between the club and county.

The people who go to club finals are those whose heart, whose sense of loyalty, is with the club game, to their own people, before anyone or anything. They’ll give out to you after a match if you played poor but still sit down and debate it with you over a pint.

March 17 in Croke Park is a magical experience but there is always an asterisk beside the day too for me. It will always be a day tinged with regret. Other than not managing a team yet to win an All-Ireland, I have few regrets in hurling. I can live without a league medal as a player because I managed the Dubs to the title in 2011 but the one void that will always be there in my hurling life is a club All-Ireland.

We had a team good enough to win one and we nearly managed it with Clarecastle in 1998. Birr beat us after extra-time in a replay. We could’ve won both games but we didn’t. My standout memory afterwards was watching Birr take an ageing Sarsfields (Galway) team apart in the final. I went for a pint with Stephen Sheedy and Ken Ralph that evening and we were in the horrors. “There is our Tommy Moore Cup gone down the drain.”

We were so close but then you start at the bottom again the top of the mountain looks further away than ever. At the time, the Clare club championship was animal to try and win. Clare clubs (ourselves, St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield, Sixmilebridge and Wolfe Tones) won six successive Munster titles between 1995-2000. You could have to beat two, maybe the three, of those teams to win a county championship before you could even contemplate a Munster campaign.

The nearest any of us got was afterwards was when my club-mate and great friend, Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin managed Kilmallock to last year’s final. I drove up on my own to support him and sample the experience. I had coffee in the Croke Park hotel beforehand. The match was a major disappointment but all I could think of was: ‘Can you imagine if Clarecastle were here’. What would we give now to have those glory days of the 1990s back again?

Na Piarsaigh know all about that All-Ireland semi-final heartbreak too because they experienced it twice, in 2012 and 2014. When Oulart-the-Ballagh took them to extra-time in last month’s semi-final, those demons were surely lurking in their heads again but they used all that hurt to drive themselves past that threshold. And once they got to Croke Park, a team with their quality and class was always going to make it count.

Na Piarsaigh are a paragon of all that is good about the GAA, a young city club which has written their own unique history, and which has the potential to script many more chapters. Their achievement is all the more noteworthy given that they were looked down upon for so long by the more traditional Limerick clubs. They said they lacked something, that they were soft, that they were a townie club who could never do it when it was put up to them. Na Piarsaigh’s response has been remarkable. Three county titles, three Munster titles, and now an All-Ireland. Their unbeaten record in Munster (nine wins from nine games) is unparalleled and a sign of how ultra-confident this team has become. It’s a club full of quality people. I marked Shane O’Neill on his championship debut with Limerick in 1996. I played challenge games against Kevin Ryan. Alan Cunningham, my former coach with Clare, is a great friend. As Limerick minor coach, it was a pleasure to work with Peter Casey last year. After Limerick minor training on Tuesday night, Conor Boylan’s father was waiting to bring him straight to Na Piarsaigh training.

Yesterday was also poignant for other reasons than creating history, because history was everywhere. After the match, I went to Portmarnock for the funeral of my great friend John Drumgoole. John’s brother Noel, was one of the founders of Na Piarsaigh six decades ago. He even brought the blue colours with him from Dublin. Yesterday’s performance was a fitting way to honour those two men.

For everyone else from Na Piarsaigh, it was a day of days. Their people lived the dream. And their players have that precious chunk of metal that so many more of us would give anything to have.

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