Pulses are racing ahead of the Sunday’s Munster final, particularly in the high pressure zone along the borderline where families are divided, yet united, between Clare and Limerick as hurling ties run very deep, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
IF you were a hurling man and wanted away from the banter on the borderline separating Clare and Limerick, you’d think that Tipperary would be a good place to go — a refuge where they’d be loath to talk hurling because the blue and gold’s travails this year.
Scion of Clonlara Jim Gully, who in 2008 brought the first senior title to the club in 89 years, goes to Newport, where he owns a shop in the village square. But, there’s no getting away from the ties that bind Clare and Limerick, whenever big championship clashes come around.
Not that Gully really wants to escape the hoopla — he’s too much in hurling’s thrall for that and automatically defaults to a nugget of GAA history that landed on his countertop a while back and gave another layer and context to this Clare v Limerick thing, not so much about the rivalry, but instead the kinship and friendship that’s there. And always has been.
It was an heirloom that showed the cross-pollination of the GAA, particularly in Clonlara that’s only 50 or so metres from Castleconnell via a pedestrian bridge that might as well be a metaphor for the relationship between the Clonlara and Ahane clubs.
“John Mackey’s daughter came into the shop,” he recalls, “and she’s married to Dr Pat Moroney from Feakle, who is a GP in Newport. She had a medal with her — a medal won by her father playing minor for Clonlara in 1928.
“His brother Mick Mackey was on the same team. They crossed the footbridge from Castleconnell to play and there were plenty from Clonlara who went in the other direction to play,” he adds.
Indeed, they’re still crossing — Colm and Ian Galvin’s mother Geraldine Cahill is from Castleconnell, while her father managed both Clonlara and Ahane in his day.
“The amount of links, marriages back and forth, hurling back and forth is phenomenal,” says Gully, “and it adds to banter when big games between the two counties come around.
“In Clonlara we used to look over the footbridge in awe at Ahane and all they won, and they gave us an awful time. They’d say ‘come across the bridge and we’ll show you what a county title is like’. All that kind of crap, but it’s what drives us all, if you hadn’t got that where would you be.”
“When we won the intermediate title in 1999, Ahane won the senior and the two captains met on the bridge with the cups — Ahane’s Kevin Herbert turned to Anthony Fennessy and said ‘ye’ve a long way to go to win a senior’. He said it in a bantery way, but he was right and you can be sure it helped drive us on to finally win one,” he adds.
Gully and his Clonlara clubmate John O’Brien meet on the footbridge and there’s more banter. Gully is in saffron and blue, while O’Brien sports the green geansaí as the two men straddle two counties and two hurling enclaves.
“It’s appropriate enough,” says Gully, “because of the traffic between the two counties. Where the two meet is the critical point. There are Clonlara people living in Castleconnell and Corbally, likewise, there are Corbally and Castleconnell people who moved out to Clare, same with Caherdavin, Parteen and Meelick — the over and back is there and as long as I’ve been in Clonlara, that’s 55 years, there’s always been that rivalry.
“They integrate; we integrate. Lads came out to Clonlara, they held their Limerick identity but in fairness they allowed their kids become Clare people. They embraced what Clonlara was about and embraced County Clare,” he adds.
John O’Brien is the perfect case in point — he came to Clonlara from Corbally, but while his son Gearóid is a fanatic and currently making his hurling way with the Clare Under 16 development squad, he’s isn’t for moving.
“I’m still very much Limerick and you can never change that,” he laughs, “because I’ve been following them all my life, going to Thurles with my father to the Munster finals of ’80 and ’81 (against Clare), then walking in with friends from Corbally to the Gaelic Grounds.
“One particular match I remember is the first time I was there on my own with my buddies when the great Joe McKenna ran into the post in front of us. I think it was against Cork and the shock of it is what I remember — the St John’s Ambulance guys all around him, lifting his jersey and seeing the bruise straight away. They were tougher times back then,” he adds.
This was back when Limerick and Clare both contended in Munster, but only the former managed to break through that provincial glass ceiling as Clare’s championship drought that stretched from 1932 seemed like never-ending.
“Colm Honan and Tom Crowe were on the great team of the 1970s,” says Gully, “but when we finally made the breakthrough in ’95 there wasn’t a Clonlara man in sight of it. The slag from the Limerick lads to us was always, ‘where’s Clonlara on the team, with all ye’re talk about hurling’. We couldn’t say anything.
“That’s why when we started producing players it was fantastic and I always go back to the 2009 Under 21 team — there were five Clonlara lads in Darach Honan, the two O’Donovans, Nicky O’Connell and John Conlon and they played all four games and none of them were taken off.
“And in three out of the four matches there was a Clonlara man-of-the-match — John Conlon was the man in the All-Ireland final and Cormac O’Donovan hit the winning point. It was dreamland for us.
“And then in the senior All-Ireland win in 2013 there were four of them on the team — Domhnall O’Donovan getting that equalising point in the drawn game; Darach getting the final goal in the replay, it was dreamland again but there was something more important than that.”
“In 1995 and ’97 when Clare won the All-Ireland the cup coming to the village was great, but when your own lads were carrying the cup in ’13, it was better — it meant more to us and was something else. We could say to the Limerick lads, ‘where are ye, with all ye’re talk about hurling’.”
John O’Brien was there when the Liam McCarthy last came to Clonlara — so too were his young sons Conor and Gearóid, who had their hurling imagination fired.
“Conor was just three when we moved out in 2006,” he recalls, “and a few years ago was an out and out Clare supporter, but the older he got he turned to Limerick because it coincided with them turning the corner.
“Gearóid is all Clare though. For the match in Ennis, I was in my Limerick colours and so was Conor, but Gearóid had his Clare top and we were walking down the road to Cusack Park together,” he adds.
“Loads of families down here are like that,” says Gully, “and you know outside the houses this week with the two flags flying. It’s the same at the matches, because the supporters are all together, husbands and wives that are mixed marriages when it comes to hurling,” he adds.
This hurling mix gets even more complicated with the children, most of whom go to secondary school in Limerick, whether it’s in Ardscoil Rís or St Munchin’s, where the lines or borderlines between Limerick and Clare become more blurred and disappear altogether.
“I remember in ’13 after we beat Limerick in the semi-final,” recalls Gully, “that before the final Munchin’s had the good luck sign up for the O’Donovans and Colm Galvin who were past-pupils, while this year I was roaring for Ardscoil Rís in the Harty final against St Joseph’s Tulla.
“My son Séimí was in goal and there I was roaring against a Clare team,” he laughs, “but that’s what you have to do. Tulla won fair and square, but Séimí went on to win his All-Ireland, so I was happy out. My ‘Limerick’ team won,” he adds.
Indeed, Ardscoil Rís’ success story over the last 12 years is perhaps the greatest example of how sometimes hurling in these parts doesn’t really have any frontier or dividing line.
The Limerick school’s five Harty Cup wins, and his year’s Croke Cup success wouldn’t have been possible without Clare.
Players like Cathal McInerney and Jamie Shanahan blazed a trail in the early years when Declan Hannon and Shane Dowling were their team-mates.
Clonlara’s two O’Loughlin brothers and Ian Galvin were winners alongside Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane, while it goes all the way through to Séimí Gully, Niall O’Farrell, David Kennedy and Colm Flynn, who flew the Clare flag on this year’s Croke Cup winning team.
Then there are those involved in management over the years like Clonlara’s Jimmy Browne and Niall Crowe from Ennistymon, all the way through this year’s backroom team that included Clonlara’s Cormac O’Donovan and Ballyea’s Paul Flanagan, who will line out on Sunday.
Carry those links further and Limerick’s Paul Kinnerk, Joe O’Connor and Seoirse Bulfin were pivotal parts of Clare’s backroom team in the All-Ireland winning year of 2013.
Alan Cunningham and Aonghus O’Brien are key components of Limerick’s success story since 2018, just as James Moran is a vital member of Brian Lohan’s management.
“It kind of sums up Clare and Limerick,” says Gully, “because if they’re great rivals and won’t take a step back on Sunday there’s something deeper there too.
“I tell the story of when my own fella started in Ardscoil and Cian Lynch spoke to them — it was before he’d won his All-Irelands and he said ‘we really wanted to hate the Clare lads in school, but they were our best friends’. That’s the way it is and Séimí is best friends with some of the Limerick Under 20s, but he’s still Clare.”
So it will be Sunday, as families and friends with divided loyalties march together down to Semple Stadium from Liberty Square or the racetrack, slagging and pucking ball, before doing it all over again when the players get to do the real thing.
“The day in Ennis was fantastic, a massive day,” says O’Brien, “but this will be better. With these two counties there is a fantastic and honest rivalry, and it’s the same with us supporters too,” he adds.
“That game in Cusack Park,” says Gully “was incredible, and without doubt the best atmosphere since that day in 1995 when Ger Loughnane’s side beat Tipp. That was a league game, but it was championship hurling, the game a few weeks ago was real championship,” he adds.
“This game will be very close,” says O’Brien, “and could be like the ’96 game when Ciaran Carey got that winning point. To this day I’ll never understand how Clare didn’t take out Carey. Even when you look back at it again, you think, ‘surely to God someone is going to hit him with a shoulder’. It’s one of those great sporting moments that every decade or so throws up. It was a great moment.”
“1995 was the year,” says Gully, “and this is the first Munster final between the sides since then. Back then Munster was the Holy Grail for us, it was all we wanted after 63 years, and now it’s all we want.”
“And Clare are the form team,” concedes O’Brien, “because Brian Lohan has done a massive job and has them really believing in themselves. Clare seem to have it in them, while Limerick haven’t hit full stride, if they ever will again. It’s up to us to see if we can rise to it. Maybe this is the year when we see a changing of the guard.”
“If it happens for us it would match ’95,” says Gully, “or maybe it will be better, because Limerick are the real deal. They weren’t All-Ireland champions in 95, but now they have won three out of four. They’re the benchmark. It would be huge.”
It will be huge either way.