Mike O’Neill from Kilkee may have been involved with Na Piarsaigh in Limerick for many years but he’s a Clare hurling man to his very core – he told Joe Ó Muircheartaigh that the Banner boys will feel at home in the Gaelic Grounds because the dividing line between the two counties is the River Shannon.
“Ye’re getting cocky, coming to Limerick.”
“We’re the only crowd that beat ye and we beat ye in the Gaelic Grounds.”
It was Wednesday of last week and this was the main business of the telephone conversation between Shane O’Neill and Mike O’Neill – a hurling son and his hurling father.
And, hurling soulmates for sure – they’re even club mates as well, with both fiercely loyal to the sky blue of Na Piarsaigh in Caherdavin. But that’s where the hurling kinship ends.
After that battle lines are drawn and they keep either side of the county boundaries between Clare and Limerick.
Shane is Limerick to his core and a Munster champion with the Shannonsiders from 1996; Mike couldn’t be more Clare and the Munster championship title he looks back on with most fondness was the one he was involved with himself when the Clare minors made the breakthrough in 1981.
Indeed, just as Shane couldn’t be more Limerick, Mike couldn’t be more Clare and during over 35 years living in the Treaty City he encapsulated the notion of ‘the savage loves his native shore’.
“I have great loyalty to Na Piarsaigh,” says Mike, “but I’m a Clareman. The only time I supported them was in ’73 against Kilkenny in All-Ireland. It was the only time I shouted for them. I have never done it since, and never will.
“Even when Shane was playing for Limerick, I never supported them. In 1996 he was playing in the famous game in the Gaelic Grounds, being marked by Dalo, so he got a baptism of fire. I was supporting Clare that day, as always,” he adds.
Mike is 77 now, so he’s a long time supporting the Clare cause – going to games since the mid-60s, while he can even remember all the way back to when Clare and Limerick last clashed in a Munster final in the Gaelic Grounds.
1955 – one of those days when the music died for Clare and when the only people celebrating in the county were the Limerick people who had decamped to Kilkee on the hottest weekend of the year.
It’s well he remembers, because Mike is from Kilkee and it’s where his hurling journey began before going full circle in taking in his time in Kilkishen and Limerick before he returned west to live in Querrin over a decade ago and set about reviving hurling in the greater Kilkee area.
“I just love the hurling,” he says. “It is an addiction with me, pure and simple. There was always hurling in Kilkee and we used to always have street leagues on the strand even though I was very young.
“I don’t know if there were organised teams, but we played. There was always hurling there at some degree – it came and went. That’s where my interest came from.
“I remember ’55. We used to go to pictures on a Sunday and that time they’d have the sports programme on the radio and I turned it on. I remember we beat Cork and we beat Tipperary and then Limerick beat us and hearing the result on the radio.
“As young fella you wouldn’t be disappointed, but afterwards you would when I was a bit older, when you’d read about it and really hear about it and how big a disappointment it was.
“We fell on hard times after ’55. The first big championship match I remember being at was in 1966 against Cork in the Gaelic Grounds. Justin McCarthy got a late goal that went in off Vinny Loftus’ hurley for a draw and they beat us well in the replay and went on to win the All-Ireland.
“The only championship match I’ve missed since was last year’s Munster final last year as I had shingles. It’s been great supporting them and we had some great teams in the ’70s when I was working in Limerick.
“Then I got a job in a textile plant in Sixmilebridge across from where the Greyhound Bar is. I was there for eight or nine years and moved to Kilkishen in ’74, it was day after the Munster Final when Limerick gave us a hiding. It wasn’t a great day for moving,” he recalls.
However, the move home to Clare eventually paved the way for success, because it wasn’t until Mike himself was involved that Clare tasted some championship success.
“Sean Hehir got me coaching and I became secretary of the club after a few years and then became secretary of Bord na nÓg,” he recalls. “At that time Bord na nÓg could pick the selectors. I approached Hehir to take over Clare in ’81 and he said he’d do it if he got Paddy Duggan and John Hanly with him.
“I put things in motion and I ruffled a few feathers but they got in there and we started training in October. We were actually training on St Stephen’s Day and and people were saying ‘What the feck are ye training for’. We were mad for it and it paid off.”
Clare became Munster minor champions for the first time – a link with Sunday’s final is playing that day in the 3-13 to 3-11 win in Thurles over Tipperary was current Limerick selector Alan Cunningham.
Mike was a county Under 21 selector for three years from 1983, enduring heartbreak in the finals of 83 to ’85 along the way, by which time he had moved back to Limerick and become immersed in Na Piarsaigh.
“I moved there in ’82 and looked at various clubs,” he recalls. “I had been involved with Old Christians before, but I picked Na Piarsaigh. Shane had been playing with the Mills. The wife thought I picked that side of the city because there were lovely houses there but it was because of the hurling.
“Na Piarsaigh had won the Féile below in Wexford. We were only junior hurling and junior football, but we were beginning to show a bit at underage,” he adds.
It may have taken Na Piarsaigh until 2011 to win a first county senior title, but they’ve now won seven, with four Munster clubs and an All-Ireland title in 2016 also banked.
‘It is going to be huge. I am glad it is on in Limerick, because it’s great for supporters, but it’s a bold move by Clare. I think it is putting pressure back on Limerick as they are at home.People will be expecting them to win and telling them they have to win, because they are at home. But I am very confident in Clare.’
And that they were the first Limerick side to scale these heights was in its own way a crucial staging post for the county team on their own journey to All-Ireland glory in 2018.
“Na Piarsaigh have been huge for me,” admits Mike, “and I will always have that loyalty to them. We have three or four of them from the club on the Limerick panel now and it’s great, but as I said I’m a Clareman, always.
“It is going to be huge. I am glad it is on in Limerick, because it’s great for supporters, but it’s a bold move by Clare. I think it is putting pressure back on Limerick as they are at home.
“People will be expecting them to win and telling them they have to win, because they are at home. But I am very confident in Clare.”
Mike was equally confident ten years ago when the sides clashed in the All-Ireland semi-final and when Limerick were the newly crowned Munster champions and favourites to end their All-Ireland drought of 40 years. “They can do it,” he said matter of factly, “and they will”.
And in squaring the circle of being a blue blooded Na Piarsaigh man, while at the same time telling everyone that he “bleeds saffron and blue” he quipped by saying “what I’ve been telling them for years in Na Piarsaigh is that the River Shannon is the natural border, so they’re actually in Clare”.
Maybe therein lies another reason why Clare are going to the Gaelic Grounds – it’s actually in Clare and it’s a home game for them as much as it is for Limerick.
Mike O’Neill will certainly feel at home.