Clare and Limerick? The only differences between us are those little idiosyncrasies, those unique emblems, which distinguish us all as our own separate little tribe in the wider hurling family.
I entered St Flannan’s College as a student for the first time in September 1982. On one of my first mornings traipsing around the corridors, trying to negotiate my way around the labyrinth of a big, new world, a couple of 5th year students stopped me up.
“Are you Martin Daly’s brother?” one of them with blond shocks of hair asked.
“I am, yeah,” half proud in the delivery of my answer. I was only a small little fella up from Clarecastle on his bike but Martin had been a definite character around the place when he was in Flannan’s. He had status. In my own mind, as part of his clan, I had status too.
I was wrong. I had just been tagged.
After 11am break, I was called into a cloakroom by the guy with the blond hair. He and another fella wrapped a couple of scarves around my wrists and tied me up on two-coat racks. In Flannan’s, they called it a crucifixion, a rite of passage a lot of 1st years often had to go through. I was suspended in mid-air, my toes about half a foot off the ground. I was just waiting for someone to come along and have enough compassion and mercy to free me. Eventually Gay Cooke, the late great English teacher, spotted me and released me from my penance.
“I assume you are not going to name the culprits?” he asked.
“I don’t think so, sir,” I replied.
“You might be as well off,” said Gay. “Go away back to class.”
The main perpetrator was Ray Sampson. Untouchable. He was the Harty Cup captain and a Limerick minor. He was now the main man around the place but he was only exacting retribution for some of clippings Martin had dished out to Sampson as he climbed the ladder to assuming that status.
The next time I came across Sampson, I was going to U14 training when he came over and picked up my hurley. “That’s a lovely stick, Who makes them? I had taken my punishment and said nothing. I hadn’t broken the code. I had passed the first test.
It was my first run-in in a long line of them with Limerick fellas. It was also the beginning of many friendships with Limerick people. When we won Harty and All-Ireland titles in 1987, there were five Limerick minors on the team. Tom Hennessy, Pat Conlon, Pat ‘Beefy’ Heffernan, Turlough Herbert and Darragh O’Neill.
‘Beefy’ was the main character on that team. He was a boarder and they were always complaining about the grub. Some days when we had Harty training I’d go home for my dinner before cycling back for study, ‘Hi Dalo, bring back a sandwich will ya. Tell your mother a sausage sandwich would be lovely.”
When we played Limerick in 1991, I was marking ‘Beefy’. Normally, I felt I’d have the upper hand in a verbal match but I wasn’t getting involved with the Beef. At one stage, he asked me to call Fr Willie Walsh, who had trained us in Flannan’s for a sip of water.
“Shut up now Beef,” I replied. There was no way I was going to win if I got involved in a conversation with him. He’d be chatting away about Flannan’s, trying to put you off your game. “Ah Dalo, what’s it all about?” Then he could have a ball stuck in the roof of the net a minute later.
Limerick beat us again that season for the second year in a row. It had become a habit until we met them again in 1993 and we decided to make a stand. Jim McInerney had returned from six years in New York that season and I was captain. We made our statement before a ball was even pucked. Right after the parade, I met Mike Reale with a shoulder into the chest. John ‘Rooskey’ Russell then pinned him to the ground.
‘Rooskey’ actually worked with Mike in De Beers in Shannon, along with a raft of other fellas from both teams. Shannon was always full of Limerick fellas. I got my first proper summer job in the Shannon Airport kitchens in 1986. Coming from Clarecastle, we had no real understanding of the attitude someone from Clonlara or Cratloe or Parteen had towards Limerick in comparison to us, but I got a right education that summer on just how intense the rivalry really was. The Limerick crowd weren’t slow in dishing it out. We weren’t long in giving it back.
The two counties are still so intrinsically linked by Shannon, Limerick city and Kilkee (their spiritual holiday home in Clare) that the Banner and Treaty people will always be in each other’s company. When I started working in the bank, my assistant manager was from Pallasgreen. Three of the girls were also from Limerick. Long before motorways and mobile phones, most of the challenge games Clarecastle played were against Limerick teams.
The biggest battle we had with Clarecastle was against Ballybrown in the 1991 Munster club championship. ‘Kenny’ John, as he was known, tried to leather anything that moved on the field. He even tried to jump the wire and take on what was inside in the stand. The whole fracas is still a YouTube hit.
When Clare-Limerick dominated Munster hurling between 1994-’98, sharing five titles, the rivalry went to another level. There were some right wars but there were also some incredible matches. Although we lost our Munster and All-Ireland titles in the Gaelic Grounds in 1996, that is still my most memorable day as a hurler. It was a day I was very proud to be involved in. It still occupies a very sorry place in my mind, but equally, a very safe place too.
It was the Munster championship at its apex. Loughnane had us wound up into a frenzy. Tom Ryan (Limerick’s most successful manager in years) had stirred the Limerick lads into a frenzy. The atmosphere was so charged, the heat so intense, the crowd so hyped up that it really felt like going to war for your county. What I remember most about playing against Limerick was this surge they could come with. They’d charge at you like a whirlwind, reeling off six points in a row before you’d know what was going on. They often got their energy from the crowd. The players fed off it. That day in 1996, they just levelled us late on like a tornado.
We never met Limerick again in the Championship but there were always plenty of opportunities for both counties to vent their spleen. I remember sitting beside Niall Gilligan on the bus before one of his first games for Clare in 1997. It was only a challenge match but I left Gilly in no doubt about what to expect. “Hi, if you don’t stand up to that McDonagh (Steve) fella, he’ll give it to you’. The match was only on a couple of minutes when Gilly and Stevie were rolling around the ground, dragging the heads off one another.
I remember another league game where Liam Doyle slapped Mike Houlihan across the face. It was nearly a shock, and the ultimate insult, that Doyler didn’t hit ‘Houla’ a shot of a fist. The belt he drew on Ollie Baker in that 1996 match, which cracked his cheekbone, left a bad taste with us for a while but there were so many slaps given by both sides that any lingering bad blood eventually just washed away.
When the GPA was first being formed in 1999, myself, Jamesie O’Connor and Brian Lohan went to one of their first Munster meetings in the Hibernian Hotel in Mallow on a Friday night. We were chatting away with ‘Houla’, Clem Smith and James Moran when ‘Houla’ said, “Will ye stop for an auld pint on the way home?”
Jamesie was driving but I said we would. We met in ‘The Top of the Town’ in Charleville and spent the night nearly falling off stools laughing at old stories when we thought we were like some sort of prize-fighters. It was some craic. The only one who was anxious to get out of there was Jamesie because Doora-Barefield were playing Munster club that Sunday.
My last big game against Limerick was in February 2000, a league game above in Miltown-Malbay, which Limerick won. I was playing corner-back. At one stage of the second-half, Davy Fitz made a great save, but Barry Foley lamped him with a shoulder landing him in the west Clare netting. I had to defend my keeper so I followed suit with Barry - unfortunately when I turned around, 6’ ft 5” Brian Begley was coming at me at pace. I decided I wasn’t getting killed in Miltown in February so I quickly turned from aggressor to peacemaker.
Eamonn Cregan made a big clear-out in Limerick that year. Most of their great characters had departed the stage without the one medal they craved. Limerick’s plight of losing two All-Ireland finals was exacerbated by Clare winning their two All-Irelands. At the time, I wasn’t really too sorry for Limerick. Neither was anyone else from Clare. But as the years pass, the waistline grows and the hairline recedes, the appreciation for those Limerick players grows even stronger.
Life lessons. Life’s circle. After all the battles we had, all the wars we fought, I’m now working in Limerick with their underage hurling academy. Joe McKenna, who I watched crush mine and Clare’s dreams in the 1981 Munster final with three goals, is now my boss. Leo O’Connor, who I marked on my debut in 1990, is manager of the minor team I train.
The rivalry between the counties will always ensure there is an edge when they meet. It is only natural to think your own are unique, and the other crowd are different for the wrong reasons. When you move between the lines and cross borders as I have you soon realise that there are very little differences between hurling people.
When I watch the Limerick young fellas in the academy, and the coaches and people involved, they are no different to any of us in Clare.
They are passionate, they love the game. They’re great people to work with. In the five months I’ve been down there, I’ve already made some great friends.
They’re so starved of success that they’re doing everything possible to try and go where we’ve been lucky enough in Clare to reach in recent years.
The only differences between any of us are those little idiosyncrasies, those unique emblems, which distinguish us all as our own separate little tribe in the wider hurling family.
There is always some link, some connection, some historical lineage to that family. On the Flannan’s team of 1987, Tom Hennessy from Kilmallock was our goalkeeper. His son Barry could be Limerick’s number one this Sunday. At the other end of the field is David McInerney, son of Jim, who I soldiered with for so long in Clare.
After we beat Waterford in the Munster minor play-off two weeks ago, one of the first texts I got afterwards was from ‘Beefy’ Heffernan.
“Well done old bean, great win.”
Great days. Great people. Hurling people and no doubt they’ll go at it like warriors again Sunday. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved