It started with a sale. In 2009, Claire Grogan walked into the showroom of Al Hayes Motors looking for a car and into Damien Hayes’ life. Each knew the other by reputation.
Claire had cursed Damien four years previous when his goal was the beginning of the end for her Tipperary in their All-Ireland quarter-final. Claire was only 23 when they met but Damien knew she had already enjoyed a glittering camogie career.
The slagging was fierce as was the flirting.
“It was a lucky sale, as the man says,” laughs Hayes. “I knew Claire and Claire knew me but we had never met. Claire came all the way up to Portumna to buy a car and the rest is history. As I often say, Claire bought a car and ended up getting a lifetime guarantee. I’ll never forget the reg — 09-TS-1015. Would you believe, it was traded back into the garage there a couple of months ago and sold on again. It’s just a great story for us.”
Three years later and they were walking down the aisle. Two three-time All-Stars. Claire, a four-time All-Ireland winner and a 2001 All-Ireland club medallist. Hayes, a four-time All-Ireland club medallist. When Claire was winning her first senior title at the tender age of 14 in 2000, Damien was claiming a minor All-Ireland. It was love, obviously, but it was also a partnership. In each other, they saw something of themselves.
“As Claire’s dad said on our wedding day, we just had so much in common. We both supported Manchester United, we were both sports enthusiasts who sit down to watch rugby, tennis, golf, even though I wouldn’t be as much into golf. We’d be great outdoor people as well. When we met in 2009, I won a club All- Ireland and Claire won a club All-Ireland with Cashel.”
A month rarely goes by that the pair don’t spend a weekend in Claire’s native Cashel. They were there this week before heading for a few days’ break in Kerry. Needless to say, Damien heard all about Sunday’s game from the in-laws. Croke Park may be too much for their second child Barry, who turns two in September, but three-year-old Éanna will likely join them.
“And he’ll be wearing a Galway jersey,” insists Damien. “Sometimes he has Tipperary tracksuit bottoms given to him by his granny but I haven’t seen a Tipperary jersey.”
And, no, although it would be fitting, Éanna’s name wasn’t inspired by a certain corner-forward who, like Damien, terrorised Tipperary defences. “Believe it or not, we didn’t know when we had Éanna whether it was going to be a boy or a girl. When he arrived, we decided on Éanna and somebody looked it up and Éanna was a saint from the Aran Islands but originated in Cashel. You’d swear it was something that we had researched. It was just a coincidence.”
Of the couple, it will be Damien who will watch on as if he were pucking every ball. “I would always have the real calm approach,” smiles Claire. “Damien would get excited watching American football. And the elbows — oh, I’ll be black and blue from him constantly elbowing me during the match.”
Damien doesn’t argue — “I’m the worst spectator of a hurling match ever. I think I am hurling the match and I’d be shoving and pushing into Claire the whole way through.”
Five points down and just over 12 minutes to go, it was Hayes’ goal that set Galway on their way to the All-Ireland final 12 years ago.
He hadn’t scored at the time but Conor Hayes wasn’t going to forsake a forward who by the end of his inter-county had bulged the net 25 times, an average of almost one every two matches.
It’s the score that he knows he’s remembered for most. How he wrestled away Maloney, a marker to whom he was giving several inches and pounds. And that strike past Cummins, the closest thing to a drop-shot without being one.
“It’s something people remind me about every day. If I’m selling a car or with people from Tipperary they often bring up the goal I scored against Hugh Maloney. I remember very well. A friend of mine might send me a YouTube clip of it to me. I got a ball from Ger Farragher and the next thing I slipped. The slip ended up being an advantage. I remember swinging and the ball being so low to the ground that it was like a golf stroke. It was a goal we badly needed. Ger Farragher then put a ball over the bar from a free in his own half-back line and we were on our way.”
Of the five times Hayes faced Tipperary in championship it was the only time he came away victorious. Of course, it meant more to him than others. In Portumna, they are the Night’s Watch, the bridge over the Shannon The Wall. Not that he wasn’t adverse to crossing it from time to time. His good buddy John Muldoon, future Connacht captain, and himself studied and played rugby in Nenagh where Hayes was a nifty scrum-half.
“We were friendly with a family in Nenagh, the Burkes. They originated from Portumna and I was playing rugby in the school with John and Ivan Muldoon and Ivan is now doing the coaching over in Nenagh. I went over there and won an U18 All-Ireland medal in ’99 and I scored two tries in the final. I’d say that was nearly my last game of rugby because I was hurling and John started to concentrate on rugby.”
There was little rivalry with Lorrha, eight kilometres down the N65. “We didn’t have much of one with them. Growing up, all we knew was Ken Hogan. Now it’s ‘the Bonner’ (Patrick Maher). Bonner is only living a couple of miles from us and I never see him. Even though I’d be a big fan of his, and his brother has a business beside Portumna, we have no dealings.”
But Portumna’s proximity with Tipperary was a dig the likes of their bitter rivals Loughrea liked to throw at them.
“Tipperary men” was the insult.
“Sometimes it was said. It was never said to me directly but one lad seemingly said to one of ours one time, ‘Ye are only a shower of Tipperary lads!’ My friend said back to him, ‘We’re from Portumna, like’. It was said during a match but it wasn’t said often.”
Nobody could appreciate the rivalry with Tipperary more than Portumna folk like Hayes. Defeats to them obviously lingered longer than others, even those in the league. “We also played them in a (2008) league final in the Gaelic Grounds. That was a game we should have won. The one thing I always remember is that they allowed you to hurl. Now, they would be hurling too but you could do it against them.
“I love the way Tipp hurl when they hurl at full-pelt. I love the way their forwards move and I love the intelligence of the McGraths, Pádraic Maher at the back, Bubbles and Seamie Callanan. But that’s only when they’re hurling at full-flight. Like all teams, they can be terrible. But it’s like watching Dublin and Kerry footballers, when they’re at their best anybody would sit down and watch them.”
His last appearance in a Galway jersey came as a substitute in the 2014 qualifier when Tipperary outscored them 2-10 to 0-1 in the final 20 minutes. Brought on in the closing stages, he knew it was the end for him, telling his marker Michael Cahill as much as they swapped jerseys at the final whistle, his as dry as it came out of the packing.
A Celtic Cross never adorned his mantelpiece but he can live with that knowing what he gave in his attempt to win one. Still, his memory has a way of toying with him. “I played in four finals and we definitely should have won two of them. It’s disappointing because I trained so hard and put in so much effort. I’m honoured to have won three All-Stars but it would have finished everything to have won an All-Ireland medal and put it up there with my All-Ireland clubs.
“I gave everything for Galway, put my life on hold. I used to train on Christmas morning, swim inside in the Shannon Oaks Hotel and if I could do it all over again I would do exactly the same. I had great times and great memories. I gave Galway as much as I gave Portumna. Nobody can ever say I only hurled well for Portumna or Galway or that I was only a club or a county man. I gave it absolutely everything. If Galway do it, I’ll be delighted. I would love to have won one but it doesn’t define you as a man or anything. I went on three All-Stars trips, Claire and I went over to San Fran one year and had a brilliant time. We had the All-Stars event. The Friday night, I won my award and on the Saturday Claire won hers, literally a free weekend in CityWest. We have great memories.
“Would I change any of that? Not one iota.”
Claire predicts a Tipperary win tomorrow. “Being honest, I can see them doing it. It’s bound to be close as it has been and everybody is tipping Galway but I have a feeling about Tipp that they have something to prove as they’re the underdogs. They can do nothing but throw everything they have at it. I reckon Tipp will sneak it.”
Her husband obviously thinks otherwise. He isn’t blinded by loyalty — he’s making a name as a straight-talker on the SportsJoe hurling podcast — but then he’s also an optimist. Two years ago, he was certain Galway would win the All-Ireland. Now he’s utterly convinced.
Of the Galway team named to start, only Colm Callanan and Aidan Harte were alive when Conor Hayes lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1988 but history doesn’t hurt this team, he claims.
“It’s incredible to say we haven’t won an All-Ireland in 29 years. It is hard to believe that with all the talent that has gone through the mill Galway haven’t crossed the line but I think it’s Galway’s All-Ireland to lose.
“I think it’s a very settled group. There aren’t that many changes — it’s effectively the same group of players the last three years and they’ve a very good management team. You always want to look back on a season and say you won something and Galway have won two cups. I see it as a major success compared to last year. Everybody was saying they nearly beat Tipp in the semi-final but they won nothing.”
What concerns him? Hype a little. That Galway are fancied to beat the reigning champions is, on the surface, an unusual situation.
“It’s up to the management and the players not to read anything into that. It’s not easy but that’s what has to be done.”
Then there is the team’s path to the final. “It’s going to see how much Tipp have improved with this momentum. Effectively, Galway have played three weaker opponents than Tipperary since the league final. It’s going to be very interesting that way.”
Is a return of two goals in three games a worry even if Galway are averaging a stunning 30 points a game?
“Every game is different. They didn’t score goals against Wexford but to be fair Davy Fitz set up his team not to concede goals but it completely backfired on Wexford. Galway are happy playing their own sweeper with Aidan Harte. His thing is to drive out with the ball and delivering it route one.
“The main thing is it’s going to be a good game. There won’t be any sweepers. It’ll be tactical. I’d say Micheál Donoghue has the edge in the tactical battle because they nearly won last year and this year they annihilated Tipp in the league final.”
After that spring day in Limerick, the great Hayes smile was on full show. Mrs Hayes’ not so much. Unless there’s a draw, it could be a quiet drive back from Dublin to Portumna but it’s something they’re used to at this stage.
“One of us won’t be happy,” says Damien, “but we’ll overcome it. We both want a great game and if we get that then there won’t be too many complaints.”