The definitive A to Z of the Munster hurling final

BLOOD AND BANDAGE: An injured Christy Ring is surrounded by fans after Cork beat Tipperary in the 1952 Munster final in Limerick.

Before you can read the game, you have to know the alphabet. Ahead of the Tipp-Waterford Munster final, Larry Ryan studies the curriculum of this fixture’s glorious history.


There is only one hard and fast rule; it must be described as “unique”. The unique atmosphere of a Munster hurling final, to use the correct format. After that you have options; you can go with “red-hot”, if you’re trying to play things down. But ‘white-hot’ is preferred. The unique, white-hot atmosphere of a Munster hurling final.

We can forget now that just 26,000 showed in the Pairc to watch tomorrow’s counties play the 2012 final, and only 22,000 made it to Thurles for the 2010 replay. Indeed, after the renaissance of recent years, it is a wonder no political party has yet claimed credit for the recovery of the unique, white-hot atmosphere of a Munster hurling final.


The best final? Preferences are partizan and claims will be made for Cork’s centenary heist, or the riotous 1991 replay, or Tipp defying Ring in ‘51. The 2004 decider might need a generation to slip by to lend it mystique, but not many finals will score higher on the CCC test: Class, Controversy, Climax. And perhaps no match better encapsulated the essence and appeal of that flamboyant Waterford era; the insouciant improvisation of Paul Flynn’s dipper and the heart-on-sleeve I-love-me-county regret of John Mullane.


The day personified. We have the raw audit, nine medals. We have the stats, all the goals and points you can eat, We have the fact and fiction and fable from our fathers and their fathers. We have the lines and rejoiners; Donal Broderick’s “Christy, you’re having a quiet day” to ‘’Tisn’t so quiet now, boy!’ in four minutes and three goals. We have the claims and counter-claims, of who lamped who and who lamped who first. And thankfully we have the photo. Hurling’s Terry Butcher v Sweden. Ring in 1952, swathed in bandage, anointed in blood, after a display for the ages ended Tipp’s hegemony. In the picture, the matinee idol gets the girl, or leans exhausted on her anyway.


John dialled up the heat in Hell’s Kitchen and shares the record medal haul with JBM. Tommy climbed out of his sickbed to hold Ring and claimed six medals in three separate decades. Nine medals was Jimmy’s humble reward for decorating this fixture for a generation.


It was 26 years ago, featuring this year’s pairing, when they first screened a final live on television. It was clear, at the time, that nobody would ever go to a match again and the prospect of any more unique, white-hot atmospheres was now gone. As it happened, the Waterford lads hurled as if it was the last match that would ever be played, taking the field in a great fury that made itself felt everywhere except on the scoreboard.


Perhaps the one true guarantee of that most prized asset, The Savage Hunger, is the Munster final famine. We have seen many of these come to a glorious end on this great day. Clare, as Ger Loughnane had it, “scaling Everest” in ’95. Waterford’s joyous release of four decades’ frustration in 2002. Donie O’Connell throwing in that last goal to write Richie Stakelum’s script in ’87. Limerick’s dressing room emotion two years ago, proving heartbreak does have its limits. Maybe the only truly modest thing about Cork is the scale of their famines. Last year’s win ended a gruelling eight-year wait, the worst since the lost decade after ‘56.


The London Underground warning has often been applied to this fixture in recent times, in the need to explain why hurling’s greatest day hasn’t provided a winner capable of lifting the All-Ireland for 10 years. But before we spend too long minding the long gap to an All-Ireland semi-final, it’s worth remembering that there are many hurling theories that can otherwise be explained by the existence of Kilkenny.


Here’s another in a long list of claims for the fixture; is it the most mythologised sporting occasion on earth? For every folk hero the day has produced; Mackey, Cheasty, JBM, Dalo, Reddin; there is a dozen handsome additions to folklore. From the milk churns of water that cooled Tipp in ‘49 as Cork baked, to the strappings on Seanie McMahon’s wrong shoulder or Mick Mackey’s good knee. From the three priests to the orange from the terrace Tony Reddin peeled and ate. A story of every shape, size and height.


Whether incurred in suspicious or heroic circumstances, casualties invariably play critical parts in the narrative. The flying Cork hurley that felled Tom Moloughney; the belt that scuppered Jim Cashman; the skelp that knocked Chris O’Brien. For horror, nothing topped the blow in 1935 that left Cork’s Tommy Kelly stretched amid fears so great he received the Last Rites on the field and the crowd joined in a decade of the Rosary. Thankfully, he made a full recovery.


The poster boy for Munster final joy will always be the man in the wheelchair in Semple Stadium in 1991, speeding out beyond the forty as Tipp euphoria spilled over from the Killinan End terrace.


When the hyperbole and mythology crank up, John of Mount Sion can go hip to hip with any of them. The driving force, in 1938, behind the cessation of the first great half-century-long Deise famine. His own legend was already fully formed the year before when his county hit the canvas but his hand was held aloft in that summer’s enduring metaphorical prizefight; a titanic battle with Mick Mackey.


In 18 back-door tries, only Cork in 2004 have recovered from Munster final defeat to win the All-Ireland.

Maybe for once that old saw had an edge; there truly were no losers that day in Thurles. Not the first time either that Cork combined provincial silver with national gold; Tipp prevailed in the ‘foot and mouth final’ of ‘41, delayed until after Cork had won the All-Ireland.


Traditionally, an easy read of the fervour of any hurling stronghold on Munster final Sunday; take your measure inversely from the duration of second Mass and the size of the attendance


For those who grow weary of the humanising of trophies and all that guff about Liam and Sam as fondly-regarded family members, it is one of the great blessings that the Munster Cup was never christened. Dan Fraher, from Dungarvan, has a field, but plans to name if after him were never followed through.


Amid a strong competing cast, the Killenaule stylist might just have slipped past Seamus Callanan as Tipp’s marquee attraction in this one. Shaping up as the Kelly to Callanan’s Corbett, Bubbles is Cyril Farrell’s ‘lovely wristy hurler’ ideal made flesh. As such.


Hard to put a price on any of them. But back to 2004 again and more evidence there really was no loser. Big Dan, confused amid the maelstrom, turning to his marker Sean Og at the whistle and enquiring who won. Sean Og, obliging as you’d expect: “You can imagine the pleasure I had telling Dan they had won by a point. I’ll picture his face to my dying day. Priceless.”


The NBA might have Jay-Z courtside, the boxing will have de Niro ringside, Wimbledon can lure Becks to the Royal Box, but the Munster hurling final will have big Quinny on the terrace in his Tipp shirt.


Amid all the talk about where the match might be played, it’s easy to forget the careful planning that must go into making your way home. During the Banner’s nineties salad days, all post-match roads somehow wound their way, noisily, through Nenagh and would have done, one suspects, if Ger Loughnane’s boys had been hurling in Killarney. Or Mars. The county has only just recovered from the building of the Nenagh bypass, a symbolic monument to its Noughties decline.


As goal gluts go, Waterford’s 9-3 to 3-4 dismantling of Tipp stands tall. Jeff Stelling’s vidiprinter would have written out the ‘nine’ to assure there was no mistake. On the wireless, Michael O’Hehir, commentating from the Connacht football final, warned there must be some mistake. But then, that wasn’t a final, so maybe Tipp’s seven-goal drubbing in 2011 fully settles that account.


Let John Considine explain it, recalling 1990: “We travelled in cars then. We’d go to the Anner Hotel first and then I remember driving up through the crowds. You can imagine in a bus, the cheering all around, but in a car, they’re next to you. I’d never experienced anything like it. I can still see the crowd. I can still remember the hair standing on the back of my neck as I came out the tunnel and turned to the Cork crowd at the Town End. It’s probably the most spine-tingling moment. Running onto the field on Munster final day, Playing Tipp in Thurles in a Munster final, that’s what you want.”


No help yet, from Hawkeye, but never far from centre-stage. The man in 1973, who gave Richie Bennis the go-ahead to embark on his celebration dash, sparked debate that’s ongoing in some houses around Newport. And that man Mackey, who looked askance at a wounded Christy Ring departing the scene in 1957, framed the photograph that demanded a thousand captions.


Lowering the blade on Whatsapp. Whether you’re on Vodafone, 3, Meteor or whatever, Munster final tradition demands that you should be unable to gain any kind of mobile phone signal just at the delicate stage of proceedings when you’re trying to make contact with the lad who has your ticket for the Old Stand.


Dalo’s heartfelt speech from 1997 will linger long in the folklore. But never mind Clare, the attraction of the province now is that there are no whipping boys at all. For now at least, nobody needs to fall back on their traditional music.


Things have spilled over alright, the odd time. In 1933, a pitch battle and pitch invasion called a halt early. Limerick had victory over Waterford confirmed in the corridors of power since they led by 11 when the dust rose. Anarchy took hold altogether in Killarney in 1950 when Jack Lynch had to plead with the Cork crowd to refrain from taking on Tipp themselves. As the sportswriter Val Dorgan put it; the Cork supporters “seemed afflicted with some strange madness, possibly induced by overnighting in Killarney.” As mentioned, some of the ‘89 live broadcast was more suitable for post-watershed. And the high-jinks behind the goal in ‘91 were probably no great craic for Ger Cunningham either.


As accolades go, it’s close enough to the ultimate, and that’s what they’re calling Austin Gleeson. If Flynn’s cheek and Mullane’s unbendable obduracy (see front cover) once helped define Waterford on these days , Ken’s elegant versatility lent them impossible glamour. If he had been gifted the power of bilocation, Waterford would surely have won a few All-Irelands in his time. They might be saying that yet about Austin too.


The Munster hurling zealot knows every story, worships every hero, lives and breathes the unique, white-hot atmosphere of the Munster hurling final. He knows whose hurley hit Moloughney and knew that evening what Mackey said to RIng. In some parts, they might call him a hurling snob. Others will accept he’s just been blessed with a charmed life.


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