John Callinan on the 1977 Munster final: The GAA officials held at gunpoint were not the only ones feeling cheated

Still only 22 years of age, but five years into his senior county career, John Callinan suffered the heartbreak of finding the great Cork team of the 70s an unbreachable wall in Munster. Here, in his best-selling memoir just published, 'To Play, To Live' he remembers those Sundays when Clare reached out for greatness
John Callinan on the 1977 Munster final: The GAA officials held at gunpoint were not the only ones feeling cheated

John Callinan pictured in Ennis. Picture: Eamon Ward

We had every reason to be confident. Since the start of the 1975-76 season, we’d played 24 games between league and championship and lost only four of them.

We felt we were the most consistent team in Ireland and would win that Munster championship.

Cork were reigning Munster and All-Ireland champions, but we were National League champions and were the form team in the country.

Forget the fact that we were taking on the red jersey.

My attitude to people who said we couldn’t manage the red jersey is that I had no sense of that.

There was no sense of it, individually or collectively. I’m not saying it didn’t exist, but it wasn’t in any way conscious.

Was it part of the subconscious? Justin McCarthy would later argue that it was and he argued it right up to 2018, when last I met him, but I still disagreed.

We did alright against Cork teams. You can only go by your own experience, while what I think happens is that people aggregate 30 years or more into a couple of games as the reason why we didn’t beat Cork.

We were worried about Cork because they were a good team and had good players. What we were hoping was that we weren’t going to give them anything soft. And the way we started that Munster final showed that we weren’t afraid of them.

We were relaxed. The build-up to the big day was there and had to be contended with, but with the games coming one after another and one rolling into the next, it wasn’t as intense as it might have been.

It was nothing like it was in 1978.

There were two weeks between the semi-final and the final; we had everyone fit, with Sean Hehir’s first outing since the league semi-final against Offaly coming in the Limerick game. We thought it was set up for us.

My routine was to go for a run on the Saturday morning before the game, setting out from home and heading out towards Doora. I felt I couldn’t play if I didn’t have that run. Then I would relax at home before the following day. Laze around, watch television. Being a rugby fan, I was aware that The Lions were playing the All Blacks that morning, and it was on RTÉ. I watched that and saw them cause a surprise and win that test match – maybe we could do the same and beat the favourites. The famous British Open duel between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus was also on the television that day, when the underdog also came out on top and Watson won.

If I was feeling superstitious, everything pointed to us doing the same the following day. We certainly believed we could. Then again, if we were superstitious the game was also on July 10 – the same date as the 1955 final, the last time there’d been such hype and expectation about Clare in a Munster final.

They got a goal from a Timmy Crowley penalty in the first minute. But we were soon hurling away and playing with a real freedom.

Enda O’Connor got a great goal after five minutes. Noel Casey got another, and we were five points up midway through the first-half. Casey was doing really well against Martin O’Doherty and the match was ebbing and flowing. But Cummins and Jimmy Barry Murphy got goals to put them 3-4 to 2-6 up two minutes before half-time.

Then, whatever happened... happened.

I was a good bit away from it, but I saw something inside and the next thing Jim Power was being put off by Noel Dalton. As to the rights and the wrongs of it, I had no clue in real time what had actually occurred.

My complaint always with Jim Power was that he wasn’t tough enough, or dirty enough, or mean enough. He wasn’t that type of player. For Jim to be put off... what happened? What could have happened? That was my immediate reaction to the whole thing.

Something had gone on over in the corner where Jackie O’Gorman was marking Charlie McCarthy, with Power getting a flaking around the knees in an incident that went unpunished. Cummins stuck his head into the argument and Jim just hit him. Cummins collapsed on the ground.

At half-time the whole thing was about trying to get organised. We battled away in the second-half, but were never going to win it, even though we kept plugging away and played well.

We had gone toe-to-toe with Cork up to a certain point. They went on to win the All-Ireland again. They were a top team and we knew there was no one better than them. We could manage the Leinster teams as we proved in the National League. We could manage Tipperary always, Waterford too, while we always fancied our chances of beating Limerick. Galway weren’t really a factor.

We knew it was Cork!

It was all about Cork, and most people considered us the two best teams in the country for those few years. The thing was to be the number one, to beat them... and 1977 was our first chance. The sending off ruined it.

Was I devastatingly disappointed afterwards? Probably not, if you can have a pecking order when it comes to disappointments. But then the furore began in the dressing-room straight after the game. It all kicked off from there.

The rumour mill and the whispering about what Ray Cummins said or what Charlie McCarthy said, and what had happened began. I’m sure the drink that night helped it gain legs as the narrative moved forward, going from a situation where it was a surprise that Jim was put off – even though he wouldn’t have been the first to get marched – to the man being absolutely wronged.

The same day, half the Munster final takings from an attendance of 44,586 were stolen, with the theft fitting with a storyline latched onto by some in the media that something had been stolen from Clare as well.

Clare can cry we wuz robbed, said an Evening Herald headline the following day, adding beneath it... The £25,000 raid at Semple Stadium yesterday may to a large extent have overshadowed equally sensational proceedings on the field of play there, but the GAA officials, who were held at gunpoint, were not the only ones feeling cheated.

We did feel cheated.

The whole thing built up into a real head of steam, and we were feeling more and more resentful as the days went by. So much so, that the storyline was that we were cheated out of the Munster title.

I resisted this as far as I could, fought against the victimhood of it – Clarecastle used to fall into this trap or this sanctuary in some of the games they were beaten in, too. I was against it at the time, and will disagree with Fr Harry and Durack to this day.

Fr Harry felt that an injustice was done to the lesser county in terms of hurling tradition.

‘I was so sickened by it. I know for certain it was a massive mistake. It cost us a Munster final and I know for certain that we would have won the All-Ireland,’ he said at the time.

‘The general quality of refereeing has been dropping for some years. I have never before spoken out but this game was the culmination of so many bad refereeing performances that the time has come for the matter to be brought out into the open. It has become so bad that everybody connected with the game, including the public, will grow disenchanted and lose interest,’ he added.

There were calls for an inquiry; we were in effect trying to get something overturned. The words that were used over those few weeks – outrage, injustice, human rights. Intense and all as I was about my hurling, my gut reaction was... Wrong words lads.

I never said things like... ‘It’s only a game’.

And I never thought like that but in my subconscious, I was saying... Are we going to get it over-turned?

We’re not!

Fr Harry was so articulate about it, so principled about it. It was as if the decades of frustration poured out. Everything was directed at the referee Noel Dalton. I didn’t know the man at all, but I think we went over the top.

I wasn’t that comfortable with it. Did I talk up against it? I didn’t.

To this day, if you got Duke going on what happened in that incident, he’d work himself up into a lather about it – the injustice still burns after 40 years.

I know he was much closer to it and he saw what happened. I concede that.

But I always said, ‘Let it go, we have to move on from this’. It was not healthy. In saying that I’m almost feeling disloyal, because there’s no denying where these men’s hearts were. I know where they were — it started and stopped with Clare hurling. For me though, I think I was a bad loser and it’s important that you’re a bad loser. However, we should have let things be. But, because of what happened and the furore after it, it’s still there...

John Callinan’s memoir, To Play, To Live is published by Hero Books and is available in all good bookshops, and also on Amazon as print or ebook.

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