When Clare and Limerick face off in the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow it’s another instalment in a long rivalry. The fact it’s been a little off-Broadway for many years doesn’t dilute the rivalry, says Clare icon Johnny Callinan.
“You have to remember 1955, because a lot of people in Clare would still refer to that, though they’re getting fewer and fewer. Unusually, Clare beat Cork and Tipperary to make a Munster final that year — but Limerick beat them.
“It’s almost lost on people outside the two counties, for years you had Cork and Tipperary almost seeded in the Munster hurling championship, and notwithstanding Ger Loughnane trying to build up a big Tipp-Clare thing when he was manager, I don’t know if that rivalry really existed — maybe Ger had an issue with his fellow boarders from Tipp in Flannan’s!
“On the other hand a place like Shannon was a great intersection for hurlers from Clare and Limerick — Bernie Hartigan,
Eamon Cregan, a good few of them mixed there. That probably built up the rivalry.
“And Limerick would be a county town, really, for a lot of the south Clare hurling people. But if people think this is a one-way street, it’s my recollection that when Pat Hartigan retired he was asked who he liked playing most, and he said Clare — and when asked who he liked beating most, he said Clare as well.
“I commended him, because I’d feel the same, and that reflects the rivalry between us.”
When Callinan started his long career in the Clare jersey in the early seventies Limerick were contesting All-Ireland finals.
They would have felt they were at the top table, but that wasn’t entirely discouraging from our point of view, because they beat us in 1973 with a poxy goal and won the All-Ireland afterwards.
“They gave us a good beating in the ’74 Munster final in fairness, but we would have beaten them a couple of times in the seventies, though I’d have a job now convincing Joe McKenna we ever beat them.
“We were probably a little bit below them in that time, but they were never out of sight. At the time Tipperary weren’t an issue, because everybody was beating them, but the step was Limerick, then Cork, or sometimes the other way around.
“Maybe it’s personal to me but I don’t think so. It’s loosened up a bit, and I’d have plenty of Limerick connections, my wife included. I didn’t resent them winning the All-Ireland last year apart from the fact that I thought Clare should have won it.
“It’s a real rivalry, I think. In my own time I was working in Limerick from 1978 to 1992 so I was right in the middle of it.”
The nineties saw the rivalry lifted by some classic games, but the encounters were never really toxic.
“In the nineties they were tough games, two rutting rams if you like, but I don’t think they were over the top. In my own time I played against a lot of so-called Limerick hard men but I don’t remember them or the games as particularly dirty.
“That said, there was a league game in the nineties in the Gaelic Grounds and Fergie Tuohy, of all people, got put off . . . the fact that Clare won in 1995, the big game in 1996, that brought on the rivalry, but as I say, Loughnane seemed to want Tipperary as the big rival.”
Nowadays teams can meet three or four times a season: does that dilute or sharpen the rivalry?
“After one league game there I saw the Clare and Limerick lads afterwards chatting together, that familiarity is there, they probably know each other from college and so on. As it stands we probably don’t have a sufficient sample size to work out what effect that many games has on teams, but it doesn’t seem to have a toxic edge to it.
“I think the game has become pretty antiseptic generally, without wanting to sound derogatory. I think if you take the element of danger out of a game you start to lose something — for the players, I mean.
“You’re challenging young fellas to be daring but if you make the game antiseptic they might as well take up golf and challenge themselves in a different way, psychologically maybe.”
Callinan isn’t a fan of Limerick’s style. “No, and I said the same last year — I just wondered if it was right to have free-takers getting ten or 12 points, to have a score a minute, teams getting 30 scores in a game.
“I think there should be a standing committee looking at the rules, a bit like rugby, but the last people I’d put on it would be county managers and coaches.
They’re not interested in the game so much as success, so you must have a counterbalance.
“(Limerick coach) Paul Kinnerk is one of the most important hurling people this decade, and he’s not just introduced a style of play with the ball, but without the ball, the loose hand and so on.
“The Limerick style is so different compared to even 20 years ago, and that’s down to him. It requires massively fit, big, strong men to break tackles.
“I thought the only real tackle in GAA was hooking or blocking, or catching a fella with a shoulder. Throwing your arm out to stop a player— you could penalise a player for running into that arm, but that’s a different matter.
People say it’s ferocious, and it probably is, but it can be a hard watch at times, intercounty hurling, unless you’re absolutely partisan and your team is going well.
“I heard an inter-county manager saying after one game they didn’t commit resources to one of these rucks, which wouldn’t be encouraging.”
Unlike other observers, however, Callinan has a solution.
“I’d ban the roll-lift. You jab-lift and it’s dynamic, you’re moving with the ball — with the roll-lift you’re causing a ruck because someone sticks a hurley in, the ball rolls loose, and then the crowds gather around.”
He’s looking forward to tomorrow.
And after last year’s All-Ireland he joined his wife and all her cousins and relatives from Limerick in the Gresham after last year’s All- Ireland final, by the way.
“It was nice, because a good few of them were of an age that they were at the final in 1973 as well, so I took a picture of the lot of them together. They looked relieved more than anything.
“A young lad in the hotel saw us and asked if I wanted to join them, that he’d take a picture of us. They all roared ‘No!’, and I roared ‘No!’ myself.”