Treaty legend Éamonn Cregan on current crop: ‘I have great time for this team’

Éamonn Cregan is looking through a window in the Hunt Museum Café, out at the Shannon running away with itself, a dull August afternoon rising merely to scurries, writes PM O’Sullivan

Treaty legend Éamonn Cregan on current crop: ‘I have great time for this team’

Éamonn Cregan is looking through a window in the Hunt Museum Café, out at the Shannon running away with itself, a dull August afternoon rising merely to scurries, writes PM O’Sullivan

I am surprised when he begins talking with fervour about this area of Limerick. Cregan gestures with his right hand: “Out there, it was all tenement buildings, all the way up Patrick Street. I am talking about the late 1950s, maybe the early 1960s. Arthur’s Quay as well. And eventually the houses fell out onto the street.”

He gestures with his left hand, back towards where we came in: “This is Rutland Street. There was a shop here, McMahon’s, and the front of it fell out onto the street. And the Town Hall was across the road…”

Then right hand, another gesture towards the Shannon: “So eventually they developed round here in the 1970s, that shopping centre. Now it’s going to be knocked down again, and the whole place redeveloped, in this great 2030 Plan for Limerick. Across the road there, the old Georgian houses, they’re going to be the front for a new shopping and business area, a façade for it.”

He is happy when I mention one place as remarkable architecture. “Pery Square, Pery Street, Rutland Street, even down O’Connell Street,” he nods. “They’re all still beautiful Georgian areas. When you go up O’Connell Street, the houses on the left, their cellars go halfway across under the road.”

For him, this part of Limerick is forever intimate: “We lived in Glenworth Street, not far away, where my mother had a hotel. My father worked with the Limerick County Council, where he was a Staff Officer. My older brother, Michael, and myself went to the Model School. Noreen, our sister, is the eldest.”

He elaborates on social dynamics in the 1950s and ’60s: “At the time, you had three secondary schools: Sexton Street CBS, the Crescent, and St Munchin’s. Anybody who wanted to become a priest went to St Munchin’s. The Crescent was what would be supposed as the upper class. Then you had Sexton Street, which was us. We’d be the ones looked down on.

“You take the Model School, which was a crossover. Some would have gone on to Crescent and some to Sexton Street. You had that. But in the 1960s it would have been pretty class based.”

Yet his memories ease from such matters. His tone brightens: “I grew up here when you had a regatta on the river, down there by the Shannon Bridge. There’d be five or six or seven thousand people on the quays, just watching.

“The tide came in, and the Irish Elm, the Irish Oak and the Irish Pine came in. They were all state-owned ships, then.

“It was huge. Everybody came. There was no distinction. The whole Dock Road would be closed off. You see, you had St Michael’s Boat Club. You had Shannon Boat Club. You had a number of other boat clubs.”

Children must love images of strangeness because they are images of release: “It was a national event and they’d go down to the pier, out there in the North Circular Road. The tide was in, and from there on it’s just a beautiful swathe of water, all the way, ideal for the job.”

Where was hurling?

Close, because Ned Cregan, his father, had won an All-Ireland with Limerick in 1934. He hurled for Newcastle West.

Distant, because Limerick GAA got tarnished for a long time by an incident in 1949. For striking Ahane’s Mick Herbert, Joe Cregan (no relation) of Croom/Young Irelands received a prison sentence.

Éamonn Cregan recounted: “We were born in the city and you never saw a young fella walking with a hurley in the city in the 1950s, because we had an inferiority complex.

“I’ll give you an example. Growing up, we didn’t know there were hurling clubs in Limerick. The early 1950s, now. The only reason we played with Claughaun was because one evening we heard there was a match up in the Bombin Field. We heard: ‘If anyone wants to play hurling, come up to the Bombin Field.’ There were 30 guys about. Dermot Kelly was there, who had played with Limerick in the Munster Final of 1955. And a man called Tom Neylon. That’s how I got to know Claughaun existed. So I joined.”

Cregan sketches that decade: “We were more into the Limerick hurling team than anything else. I remember in the 1950s a man by the name of Jobber McGrath playing with Westmeath. He was my hero. He played all the time with Leinster in the Railway Cup, at midfield..”

His father’s immersion in the game remained a pole star during those years: “I can remember going down to Ennis, in 1953, and Clare beating the socks off us. Then Limerick came along in 1955 and got to the All-Ireland semi-final.

But we were totally ignorant of clubs. You had three city clubs in the 1950s. You had St Patrick’s, Treaty Sarsfields and Claughaun.

He goes again with the right hand, gesturing over the Shannon: “Treaty Sarsfields would have been that side of the river, which Na Piarsaigh have now taken over. The lads playing with them, back then, would also have played rugby, played soccer, played anything. And when it suited them to play GAA, they played GAA.

“If you see a photograph from a newspaper in the 1950s or ’60s, most of the lads in it will have their chins tucked in, looking down. They don’t want their faces to be seen, in case of a ban.”

Cregan smiles at mention of old names: “I think Treaty Sarsfields were a great club. They won both senior football and senior hurling championships. Three in a row in hurling, back in the early 1950s. Like Claughaun, they were a dual club.

“They were a tough crowd. If you didn’t stand up to them, they’d walk on you. But we got on. Now I know them because I play golf with a lot of these guys.

“I don’t know what Pat Spillane was at in his autobiography. Spillane said when he was doing PE in Thomond College they wouldn’t play Treaty Sarsfields because they’d go out to break legs. I played against Sarsfields for years and years and never had much problem.”

Every life is a dot and a mosaic. These influences made the boy born on May 21, 1945 a dual Limerick minor in 1961. He was captain of the team beaten by Wexford in the 1963 All-Ireland minor final. If three dual seasons at U21 offered scant pickings, Éamonn Cregan nevertheless got launched as a senior in 1964. He finally retired, following a 20-year stint, in 1983.

Early seasons were difficult because of disorganisation. Cregan once remarked: “When I trained for the 1965 championship match against Waterford, we had only four players training.”

Enter ambush potential. Tipperary were two in a row All-Ireland champions before meeting Limerick in a Munster first round on June 5, 1966. One of the decade’s biggest upsets transpired, 4-12 to 2-9 reversal for scorching favourites. Cregan scored 3-6 of Limerick’s tally and acquired a national reputation.

Kevin Cashman, the finest hurling writer after PD ‘Carbery’ Meighan, once deemed him as the game’s most brilliant “natural predator”. I spoke recently to Séamus Durack and Jackie O’Gorman, two figures among Clare’s finest hurlers during the 1960s and ’70s. Without consulting, they immediately agreed on Cregan as the most lethal forward encountered.

Search ‘Eamonn Cregan Limerick Hurling Scores’ on YouTube. The upload runs for nearly 15 minutes. There is a laconic virtuosity to his play, a severe elegance.

The blond prodigy of the mid-1960s amassed every gong. 1973 bestowed the key one, a Celtic Cross after Limerick, trained by Michael Cregan, saw off Kilkenny in a downpour. A canny switch made Éamonn Cregan centre back since Jim O’Donnell had not fully recovered from a broken leg. Like Ken McGrath in the 2000s, another lambent talent, Cregan operated with aplomb in any position. On the day, he dominated centre-forward Pat Delaney, Kilkenny’s main threat, and Limerick won by seven points.

Decades later, Eddie Keher ruefully summarised the opposition perspective: “It was a very big surprise and it was a brave move from the selectors because they were removing the most lethal forward in the game at the time from their attack. It raised a lot of eyebrows and we weren’t sure if it was a decoy or not. It was very much a reality on the day and very effective.”

Fullness of time granted Éamonn Cregan four Munster titles (1973, 1974, 1980, 1981), one NHL title (1971), three All-Star awards (1971, 1972, 1980) and three Railway Cups (1968, 1969, 1980). 2013 saw him inducted into the GAA’s Hall of Fame. With his beloved Claughaun, he won three senior hurling titles and eight senior football titles, medals that meant all the more because most of them involved his brother as a teammate.

Most people under 50 or so know his name best in the context of management. Having been a selector with Limerick in the early 1980s, coming out of retirement for that final appearance in 1983, he took on Clare in 1985. A first stint as Limerick manager happened between 1986 and 1988.

Then a move to Offaly between 1993 and 1996. Cregan oversaw probably the most tumultuous All-Ireland victory ever. 2-5 without reply saw Offaly, down five points with five minutes to go, sweep 1994’s senior final.

The most traumatic victory, into the bargain. Limerick were their opponents. Cregan was visibly distraught. Fifteen years later, he said: “The 1994 final killed me.”

There was another stint on the sideline with Limerick, when dual players proved a difficulty, between 1997 and 2002. All the while, he held a role in Mary Immaculate College from the early 1990s, managing their hurlers to win an inaugural Fitzgibbon Cup in 2016. The youngster of 11 who witnessed Christy Ring at his ferocious best in 1956’s Munster final is perfectly comfortable with 21st-century hurling.

Ring was mad,” Cregan says, caught between amazement and admiration. “He was every bit as good as the books say he was. But mad, pure mad.

This man never suffered fools or spoofers. This quality won him admirers but fended off acolytes. He remains someone for logic and commonsense. “I have always been a man for the basics,” Cregan says. Off the record, he is a terrific man to puncture the balloons attached to certain reputations.

The county’s hurlers, managed by John Kiely, face their biggest moment in over a decade. The general public, including past players, pitched in behind Kiely’s strictures against hype. Hardly anyone is willing to offer an opinion. By his body language, I can see Éamonn Cregan would give anything to see Limerick victorious once more.

He is generous in assessing the current situation: “I have great time for this Limerick team. I think there is more to them than other Limerick teams. Maybe a lot more. I know quite a few of them personally, from college and so on, and they are excellent committed guys.

Last January, I was predicting to friends that Galway would be back in the All-Ireland final. I was fairly sure of that outcome, but didn’t necessarily expect Limerick to be there with them. But Limerick hurled exceptionally well this year. Their target was to get out of Division IB in the league, and they achieved it.

Cregan is upbeat but level: “Limerick just blossomed as the year progressed. They have been much better in the championship than last season. It’s nearly three weeks since we beat Cork. Euphoria quickly died down and the focus is on the job at hand: one more game.

“If you go through the line-ups, man by man, you would probably say Galway. They are a big strong team, an experienced team. But wonderful things can happen on a given day. Limerick are travelling up with enough talent to get the job done, if they rise to the occasion.”

For him, the days of a million miles up or a million miles down should be gone: “If we beat Galway, the heavens open for us. But these players, whatever happens on the day, have been brilliant in 2018. They have special qualities and I just hope it comes out on Sunday.”

What lives on, beyond winning or losing? We have spooled through weeks of legacy talk, courtesy of The Game, courtesy of speculation about the effects of Galway or Limerick taking this contest. Éamonn Cregan was a distinguished contributor to the documentary series, a thoughtful, highly intelligent man as well as one of the code’s finest exponents.

What does persist?

I am thinking of Cregan looking out that window, a well-schooled man of 73, a grandfather but still a son. His mind is running to the Williamite Wars of the late 17th century, to Limerick as a Jacobite haven.

“The Curragower Falls is just over there,” he says, almost to himself. “My father was a bit of a historian. So he did research on Patrick Sarsfield and the famous blowing up of the siege train in Ballyneety.

“Sarsfield left John’s Castle, with 600 Rapparees, and he crossed at the Curragower. He took off around in a circle, keeping the hills to his right all the time, for cover. They came down into Silvermines, down across the river in Killaloe.”

There is undecipherable emotion in his voice: “He did the research. The siege train would have been about 15 or 16 miles from Limerick. You can do it yourself. There are signposts up for a ‘Sarsfield Ride’.

“There are lots of stories, but anyhow he blew up the siege train. Kept coming back around in that circle. The Dutch army couldn’t see, with the hills as a backdrop.

“The river would have been low. And they would have circled back into the town. It delayed the Siege of Limerick for a while. Eventually it fell, but not as badly.”

He continues: “See, you had Englishtown and Irishtown. You’ve the walls and the women throwing rocks at the Orangemen. Sarsfield eventually left. He became one of the Wild Geese. His famous saying, when he was dying, was meant to have been: ‘If only this were for Ireland…’

“I suppose you’d like to think he did say it.”

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