John Callinan: ‘We were bould! The word ‘demand’ was on the first page six times — mostly in capital letters’

John Callinan — not Johnny, as Michael O’Hehir christened him — was a rock star on the great Clare hurling teams that just came up short in the late ‘70s. He’s not as boisterous as some of his colleagues from that and other Clare eras, but in his quiet way, Callinan has always been a rebel too
John Callinan: ‘We were bould! The word ‘demand’ was on the first page six times — mostly in capital letters’

John Callinan in Ennis this week. ‘You look at the team of the late 1990s and, nearly to a man, all of them at some stage have been willing to get involved somewhere in the Clare system but almost none of them are involved now.’ Picture: Eamon Ward

"When we were being shouldered up through the village, I spotted John and Eamon Callinan alongside O’Meara’s shop, opposite his mother’s pub where Johnny grew up himself. You could see how emotional Callinan was. I got emotional too."

- Anthony Daly, 1995 

The pitch to John Callinan was that he could do a “quieter Clare book” but it’d be a mistake to categorise him as a quiet Clare man. He may not be as bould as a Loughnane or as chippy as Davy or as gregarious as a Daly but in spite, or possibly because, of his reasoned manner and sense of what’s just and fair, he hasn’t been afraid to take on City Hall either.

Long before Dónal Óg Cusack and friends stood up to their county board over the preparation and management of a county team, or sat on the executive of the Gaelic Players Association, John Callinan was an exemplar of player power, demanding — successfully — the reinstatement of Fr Harry Bohan as Clare manager and helping found the original GPA, serving as its first chairperson.

He remains assertive enough at this stage in his life to even correct and educate us all that the name we’ve known him by for over 45 years is wrong. As the cover of his book spells out, the name is John. John Callinan. ‘Johnny’ was just something that Michael O’Hehir called him by, probably because it rolled off the tongue easier, so to the nation he became Johnny. But that wasn’t the constituency that mattered. In Clarecastle he was always either Cal or John. In his own house he was always John.

“My mother would get very cross whenever someone in the pub or a shop would call me Johnny,” he smiles. “She’d tell them, ‘It’s John! I paid dearly for his name!’”

Mary Callinan certainly earned that right for all she’d to contend with. Her husband Eamon died when he was just 42, leaving her with six children to raise, including nine-year-old John.

It’s where the book starts. With a funeral cortege, the head of which began up in Dublin where Eamon died, pausing silently for a few moments before crossing the same bridge in Clarecastle where in 1995 Anthony Daly and the rest of this clubmates would be airlifted from hand to hand into the heart of the village.

But then, before the cortege makes its way to the graveyard, John is quietly ushered away and left to play and occupy himself on the other side of the railway tracks.

It’s an experience that Anthony Daly can relate to. When he was eight his father died in his sleep. Daly wasn’t even allowed attend the funeral. When he was left with some neighbours and saw the coffin pass their window, someone ran past him to close the curtains. Even then he sensed that wasn’t right. “I was too young to realise it but I needed to say goodbye to my dad. It is still a regret that I have in my life.”

Callinan similarly wishes he could have helped fill his father’s grave — something that prompted him, at Anthony Foley’s graveside, to ask a man he personally didn’t know, Doug Howlett, if he wanted to take a shovel. So before either of them committed those memories and feelings to print, had Callinan and Daly as friends and not just members of the Clarecastle cognoscenti opened up to each other about them?

Callinan nods. “We’ve discussed it all right the odd time having the proverbial quiet pint or with 40 other fellas around us. I think Anthony was profoundly more affected than me. And there’ve been times it’s left me thinking, ‘What’s wrong here? Am I particularly cold or something?’

But I just think at that age I didn’t understand what death was. I know my older sister who was 14 at the time was deeply affected. But I do remember being in the dressing room after the league final in ’77 [Clare’s first major title in 45 years] and seeing the other lads’ fathers coming in, and it was the first time I really missed him: God, I could do with my father here.

“And when Joe [Ó Muircheartaigh, Callinan’s ghostwriter] sent me the first draft of the book on May 14 last year and that [funeral] passage was in the opening pages, I cracked. I called Joe. ‘Did you realise sending this what date it is?’ But he hadn’t copped, that it was my father’s anniversary.”

Two years on from Eamon’s passing, Mary was served with a notice to quit a property she and her family had owned for over 50 years. But before she and her children could be thrown out onto the street, a neighbour, Donal Carey, put her in touch with an old college friend of his, a solicitor named Kevin Smith.

The manner in which Smith successfully challenged and threw out the eviction left a lasting legacy on young John. Up to his early teens, he’d envisaged himself being a priest, but then, at about 15, he railed against the idea of being another battery hen in the priest factory that was St Flannan’s at the time. Instead he saw his vocation in something else: The law. “Growing up, we had almost no television so it wasn’t like we were watching Perry Mason,” he says. “But I had seen what Kevin Smith did for our family.”

REBEL REBEL

Before they truly became the new rock ‘n’ roll, they’d to rebel.

In the autumn of 1976, a group of Clare players, including Callinan and led by Seamus Durack, walked into a meeting of the Clare County Board and read out a statement they’d prepared. In the previous months the board had introduced a series of procedures and structures that had effectively removed Fr Harry Bohan as Clare senior manager even though the previous spring he’d guided the county to a rare national league final appearance.

For the players, a Clare setup without Bohan was incomprehensible. They’d seen how he’d transformed the Clare team and what it meant to hurl with Clare. Before Bohan had got involved three years earlier, Clare were merely “a collection of different groups, not a team”, as Callinan puts it. He only knew to talk to the Clarecastle lads, just as the Newmarket lads only really talked to and togged out with their own.

Only once did Callinan ever see that distrust and disconnect bubble to the surface within that dressing room. It was his first day in it, when he came on as a late sub at just 17 years of age in the 1972 Munster final annihilation to Cork. When a selector went around, commiserating everyone individually, Niall McInerney, an unused sub from Sixmilebridge, pinned him against the wall. “You fecker — if I played with Newmarket I’d be playing on the team!”

Callinan will point out that, at the time, no one was to know that McInerney would blossom into the All-Star he’d become just two years later with Galway and that you couldn’t say with certainty he should have been starting ahead of any of the other six backs that began that Munster final for Clare. But McInerney’s outrage and subsequent defection encapsulated just how dysfunctional and divided Clare was.

Bohan though changed all that with his first address to the panel. “WE’RE ALL CLAREMEN HERE!” And three years on they were all united to a man in signing the statement read out by Seamus Durack championing Bohan’s reinstatement as manager.

Like in disputes that would occur quite frequently in the noughties, there were cries from officialdom “against anyone laying conditions before the board” and that “the day we accept such is a bad day”. About the only difference was the term ‘player power’ wasn’t en vogue at the time but Callinan accepts there’s no doubt that’s what it was.

We were bould now! I was looking at the letter again recently and the word ‘demand’ was on the first page six times — mostly in capital letters! Like, we weren’t requesting. We were demanding!”

It’s a bit of an in-joke between Durack and Callinan, who wrote parts of that statement. Callinan says some of it had to be Durack because there was the odd typo. “At least I can spell!” But parts of it do indeed have Callinan’s fingerprints on it, with the word ‘unjust’ also featuring in caps.

Either way, it worked. No board delegate uttered a word of protest against the players. Bohan was reinstated. And then when he brought Justin McCarthy from Cork in as a coach, they were on their way to, if not quite becoming the best team in the country, en route to being its most loved.

That was probably what tipped an otherwise reluctant writer to pen his story: That it would be in large parts a story about that Clare team. “It hadn’t really been told by any of us yet. Loughnane didn’t say much about it in his [2001 book]. But I’m still encountering people 40 years on [as a solicitor], transferring farms onto their children, and when we’ve the business done, they’ll say, ‘God, ye gave us some great days in Tulla and Thurles.’ You see their faces light up.

“People are still attracted to the ’70s and that team. We kind of reflected how society was moving. We weren’t quite the Celtic Tiger era but things were improving. Shannon had been such a marvellous economic driver. There was practically no emigration in the ’70s whereas before that [Anthony] Daly’s father had his ticket bought for London until his brother got him a job in the health board. I often say it to Daly, ‘You’d be a mouthy Cockney if that didn’t happen.’ And it’s true. He has tens of cousins in London.”

Instead he was able to stay in Ireland and follow the fortunes of his heroes. Even now they just trip off the tongue. Stack. Loughnane. Hehir. Durack. Jackie O’Gorman. Noel Casey. Colm Honan. And of course Cal. When in 1995 Daly would proclaim from the Hogan Stand that many people were due thanks so that day became a reality, he was “thinking first and foremost” of that Clare team. So it’s only right their story has been captured in book form.

“Harry Bohan rang me last week to thank and congratulate me. ‘It needed to be written!’

“Of course 21 minutes in then, he mentions the injustice of Jim Power [being sent off in the 1977 Munster final]!”

‘HE WAS ALWAYS LOUGHNANE’

“John [Callinan] had lighting pace and was a great man to score a point. He played a lot of great matches for Clare but he had the same hang-ups as your normal Clare hurler at the time. He didn’t have the inner arrogance you need. [But] He’s a brilliant person, with the highest ability and he is an exceptional administrator.”

— Ger Loughnane, Raising The Banner, 2001

“We were comfortable together. We regarded ourselves as close friends. Loughnane and Honan weren’t big drinkers so they wouldn’t have been out and about as much as some of us. Loughnane was a bit of a loner but we were all tolerant of that.”

— John Callinan, To Play, To Live, 2021

Before the 2013 drawn All-Ireland hurling final, Croke Park, instead of wheeling out the team had won the All-Ireland 25 years earlier, honoured 15 outstanding players from the 1980s that never won an All-Ireland. Three Clare players featured, and afterwards local photographer Seamus O’Reilly took a picture of them standing together: On one side Ger Loughnane, on the other, Seán Stack, and in the middle, John Callinan.

Callinan didn’t position himself there by chance. Stack and Loughnane have been estranged since Loughnane’s comments in his 2001 book about why he scrapped his original plan to have Stack as his successor as Clare coach. “It was a bit uncomfortable all right,” says Callinan. “You could see Seán was hanging back. But Loughnane typically didn’t give a crap!”

There had been a time they were close, figuratively, not just literally, but over the years some relationships became fractured. And in a way some defeats damaged them, at least in some way, at least for some time.

“I felt at the end of our time playing, we’d become this bit of a go-to three for the media: Loughnane, Stack, and Callinan and all the Munster finals they’ve lost.

Did it weigh on me? Well, I had a dread of every match. But it never went past winning the first ball. I think defeats weigh much heavier on supporters than players. Because they aggregate all the other defeats: 1955 and 1967 and 1972 and… Like, the 1967 defeat had no relevance to me.

“But have you seen that interview Loughnane gave after the 1978 Munster final? I mean, he’s as defiant as ever, with his shirt off on national television, saying Clare will be back and there won’t be any falling off a cliff. But we did fall off a cliff. I can’t even remember who beat us in 1979 [Limerick did].”

Callinan senses that even Loughnane started to accept defeat more easily than before. “That might seem a bit harsh on him but Loughnane had been such a feckin‘ bastard when he was playing! Training on Loughnane was murder. He was defiant, loud, doggish — exactly what he showed in the ’90s! But I just think something changed in Loughnane [after ‘78]. He became more cynical, sceptical. Like, Cregan’s arrival [as Clare coach in 1985] was always crazy from Cregan but Loughnane just kind of pissed on him — just as he would on television afterwards [following the 1997 All Ireland final]!”

Loughnane and Callinan spent a lot of time with each other, especially during their student days when they were both up in Dublin, yet for all their time for and with one another, there was always a remove there compared to others.

“With a lot of that team I’d think of them by their first or nickname. It’ll always be Enda [O’Connor]. Jackie [O’Gorman]. Colm [Honan]. It’s Duke [Durack]. Sometimes it’s Seán and sometimes it’s Stack. But it was never Ger. It was always Loughnane! It’s a bit like Lohan. There’s Frank and then there’s Lohan, it’s never Brian.”

But you’d still have a fondness for him? Callinan hesitates. “That’s not the word. Like I’d have a fondness for Enda. An affection for Jackie. If they were walking to me, I’d feel myself starting to smile immediately. With Ger, I’m not sure what I’d feel — though he mustn’t be too scary if I’ve just called him Ger there!”

But there’d been a regard, a respect?

“Oh, stop. Massive. Massive. I’d say about every senior match Loughnane played in for Clare, I played in. We played together in Flannan’s and with underage Clare teams. And I will always have massive respect for Loughnane. Especially his ability to play well on the big day and later to get his teams to play well on the big day, teams that reflected his defiance, bouldness, belligerence.

“There were even big games that we won, like the league finals in ’77 and ’78, where I didn’t play that well. I endured the big days. Ger grew in them.”

CURRENT SITUATION ‘DISTRESSING’

That time Niall McInerney grabbed a selector after the 1972 Munster final is the only row Callinan ever saw in a Clare dressing room, but all his years surveying the scene, like the elder of an African village, he’s regularly sensed a disquiet and it’s particularly apparent now. While he continues to be a committee member of Club Clare, he’s concerned about the disconnect Clare GAA supporters and club members feel with their county board.

“It’s distressing. I think a few issues have conflated and they need to be resolved. Pat Fitzgerald has done fantastic work for Clare over the years but I’m not sure that people staying in the same position for that length of time is healthy. And when there’s no pathway — or apparent pathway — for people to come through, it can lead to a sense of disgruntlement on one side, and then the perceived establishment being on the other.

“You look at the team of the late 1990s and, nearly to a man, all of them at some stage have been willing to get involved somewhere in the Clare system but almost none of them are involved now. And you’ve to ask the question, where have they gone? [Brian] Lohan is in as manager now but only someone as bould and as thick as Lohan could do what he’s doing.

Daly had one go as manager but hasn’t been involved since. The likes of Seánie [McMahon] and Jamesie [O’Connor] and Brian Quinn were involved in organising or coaching development squads but they haven’t stayed. You can go nearly through them all. And again I ask the question, why? 

“Our team were always willing to help out Clare teams. We spawned Loughnane who did his bit for the ’90s and I know his ’90s team would be more than prepared to do their bit. But you won’t, or don’t, see them being able to find a niche other than in their clubs with any great regularity or for any great length of time.”

Even in his playing days, he’d have his issues with the Clare County Board, and when he’d discover it was the same in some other counties, he’d help found the original GPA in the early ’80s, becoming its first chairperson while still in his ’20s. It only lasted two years.

“We had no trouble getting membership but it was difficult to fully engage the people we needed, like the Kerry footballers or the Kilkenny hurlers. But they seemed to be taken well care of by their own boards. Like it was really heavy-duty stuff we were looking for! If there was a league game, the two teams could meet in the same hotel. I remember saying it to one of our board officers and he said, ‘Are you serious? Would they not fight?’ It was almost as if there was an attempt to keep players away from one another.”

But it planted the seed of something, with its successors even adopting the same name.

Callinan turned 66 last week, enough to be declared a pensioner, he laughs, but he doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. “I still like the feeling of going from the car to the [office] door. I can’t say I’m doing cart-wheels but I’m still glad to be able to do it.”

Did he ever do for a family what Kevin Smith did for his? God, he says, it’d be a bit presumptuous or vain to say he did. Nor, as he self-depreciatingly admits, did he ever establish any ground-breaking precedents in any constitutional case.

“Once all right a guy on the other side I’d be friends with said to me, ‘Do you want to know what reputation you have?’ And I said, ‘God, do I really want to know?!’ And he said, “Well, it’d be for standing up for your clients.”

And for others too, as Harry Bohan can testify.

- To Play, To Live by John Callinan, with Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, is published by Hero Books. Read an exclusive extract in Monday’s Irish Examiner

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