If Éire Óg win on Sunday they will bridge a 32-year gap to their last senior hurling success, a famine that far outlasts the previous drought that stretched from 1966 all the way to 1980 — a landmark success for the Éire Óg Dalcassians team now recalled by Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
“I always remember Paddy Kelly turning up in the Éire Óg Grounds on the morning of final day. He did some warming up exercises, pucked about and when walking off the field remarked to me with great enthusiasm, ‘Today has got to be our day’. With that injection of confidence, he lit his first cigarette of the day.” Tony Kelly, 1980
HURLING hindsight is 20/20 vision, or in this case it was 1980 vision, but Éire Óg couldn’t have played it better in their quest for a first county title in 14 years.
You can never be under the radar in a county final because you had to show form to get there, but if dousing the flames of expectation was part of the masterplan cooked up by the Townies’ management, they did it well when they emerged out of the doldrums 42 years ago.
Cut to Tulla for the semi-final doubleheader when Éire Óg Dalcassians v St Brendan’s was very much the undercard to the Sixmilebridge v Newmarket-on-Fergus clash.
The Townies won, but The Clare Champion noted “there will have to be a major improvement” for the final, while Newmarket impressed in beating the champions and “would not have been flattered had their winning margin been greater”.
It meant Éire Óg Dalcassians were underdogs for the final against a Newmarket team that had won 12 out of the previous 17 finals, but still the management wanted to bring them down more and keep them even more grounded.
That happened when they went to Cork to play three-time All-Ireland champions Blackrock the week before the final — a Rockies team littered with Cork All-Ireland stars like Tom Cashman, John Horgan, Diarmuid McCurtain and Ray Cummins, even Kilkenny’s Frank Cummins.
“They hammered us,” recalled captain Declan Coote. “That’s what Paddy Duggan wanted. He did the same to us before the under 21 final in ’74. Afterwards he came into the dressing room and roared ‘and ye thought ye were f**kin good’.”
The wake-up call had arrived.
Minds were concentrated, but in truth they were concentrated all year as the Townies put a terrible 1979 behind them in which some players had chosen playing soccer for St Michael’s over playing hurling with the club in the first round of the championship.
This sparked a fall-out that saw two senior panels briefly operate under rival trainers, with the end result being the club crashed out of the championship after defeats to Tubber and Kilkishen.
It was different in 1980 — with peace restored, a Town League resumed after many years, while a new publication called the Éire Óg Bulletin raised the club’s profile further and was another spring tide to lift all boats.
“Everyone in the club came together again,” recalled chairman Michael Brennan. “From our point of view on the committee we had no axe to grind with anyone and just wanted to get on with things and it took off,” he added.
“There was a new management,” recalled Seán Heaslip. “Brother Cahill’s coaching was very basic, the old style coaching, but we enjoyed it. He was a great man for team spirit.
“We trained down in the Jet Club and afterwards Christy Glynn would have soup made for us. Colm Mahon would have bulls balls put in Rochie’s soup. We were having a laugh, but the spirit was growing all the time. That was very important as the year went on,” he added.
By the time county final week came along, the spirit was never as good, and not even the subdued semi-final display and the trimming from the Rockies could contain the excitement and expectation.
“All preparations are complete and now it is up to the players to show the people of Ennis and Clare that hurling is not dead in our capital town,” said the Bulletin.
“For too long we have been classed as the soft touch in the county, now is the time to finally ride ourselves of that tag. Let all those years of waiting and frustration be wiped away on Sunday, 28 September, 1980,” the preview added.
Former great and three-time championship winner from 1956, ’57 and ’66 Johnny McCarthy was equally confident: “I believe that only the Éire Óg senior hurlers can still bring to the surface that consciousness of being a native son that lies at the heart of every Ennisman,” he said.
“A great game of hurling is a nice bonus for the spectators on county final day, but winning, and that only, is the players’ only concern.
“Above all else stands one truth. Nothing can stop a team that wants badly enough to win. It’s as simple and difficult as that,” he added.
Éire Óg really wanted it, and wanted it badly. So it proved on a day to remember when mighty Newmarket were slain in the county final for the first time since 1961.
“That was the day Nugget (Martin Nugent) saluted the crowd after scoring his goals,” recalled Barry Smythe. “I never saw that before in hurling – it was a soccer thing.”
It was no wonder Martin Nugent was giving high fives all over the place – he scored 3-3, much of which came off two-time Carrolls All-Star Johnny McMahon. His goal before half-time was the most important of them all – it put the Townies 2-4 to 1-5 ahead.
“Nugget’s goal came three or four minutes before the break and afterwards Newmarket threw everything at us. They sensed that if they got anything at all from that onslaught that they’d take us in the second half.
“We stood up to them – they got nothing and I knew coming off at half time they were broken. Those few minutes made that team — we had them beaten,” recalled Smythe.
At centre-back, Barry was one of those who kept the Blues at bay — along with the late Seanie ‘Taoiseach’ Lynch, he was one of the two Banner players that made up the Éire Óg Dacassians amalgamation.
The county star had able lieutenants all over the field. Coote played a captain’s part in midfield alongside Tony Nugent, while Heaslip cut a swagger at centre forward in hitting 0-2 in the 3-10 to 1-9 win.
But most heroic of all was the full-back line. It’s one thing that Coote, Smythe and Heaslip always agreed on – they all pointed to the Tony Roche, Paddy ‘Bull’ Kelly and Joe Barry.
“I have some reservations about the Éire Óg full-back line and I feel that they are about to experience problems from the vastly experienced Michael Kilmartin, Gus Lohan and Paddy McNamara,” said the Champion preview beforehand.
Wounded wasn’t the word – Rochie, the Bull and Joe had a cause straight away, a cause they were determined to make a winning one.
“Make no mistake about it — they were the winning line,” said Coote. “It would have suited the Newmarket full-forward line of Jimmy Mac, Gus Lohan and Gilla to be on younger fellas. They hit scelps out of them all day.”
The best of them all was Paddy Kelly. After all, he foretold everything with his “Today has got to be our day” comment before lighting that first cigarette.
By the time Declan Coote lifted the Canon Hamilton, he was probably onto his next cigarette.
Éire Óg: Seamus Durack; Tony Roche, Paddy Kelly, Joe Barry; Tony Kelly, Barry Smythe, Colm Mahon; Tony Nugent, Declan Coote (0-2); Michael Skelly, Sean Heaslip (0-2), Pete Barry (0-1); Martin Nugent (3-3), Noelie Ryan (0-1), Seanie Lynch (0-1). Sub Pa Lynch for Skelly