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Clare fans in the terrace cheer on their team as they march behind the band before the Munster Senior Championship Final. Photograph by John Kelly

When two tribes go to war

When Clare bring war to Cusack Park it creates a championship atmosphere to rival any other venue in the country, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh ahead of Sunday’s game when the Banner County hope to put a marker down and take the All-Ireland champions’ scalp.

“Clare, wearing the old saffron jerseys with blue hoops for the first time in years, crashed into the exchanges from the word go in a manner reminiscent of their ancestors’ assault on the English ranks in Fontenoy.”
Gerry McCarthy, The Irish Press, 1972

It’s a war to the power of hurling. Same as it ever was. Febrile, hostile, primal and all topped and tailed by all-consuming bursts of noise to the ebb, and flow and giving it that concertina effect – all somehow self-contained within the airspace of the ground.
It’s home to what Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin calls organised ‘chaos’ and ‘markers down’, while Podge Collins cuts to that almost spiritual and awe-inspiring feeling of having the hair standing on the back of your neck.
As for Limerick’s Tom Condon, he remembers the long walk and lonely walk from the old scoreboard end goal, across the end line and up the tram line after being sent off in 2018, only to have the final say that hurling year by catching the ball in Croke Park as the final whistle in the All-Ireland sounded.
Welcome to Cusack Park – the most intimidating of all Munster Hurling Championship venues. The place where Limerick don’t win, bar the lone exception of 1990 when a Clare team in the grip of a five-year winless streak in Munster only managed to score 1-5 as the Shannonsiders cruised to a 14-point success.
“I am based in Limerick with work,” mused O’Loughlin, “and you can sense from them that they’re not looking forward to coming out to Ennis. They don’t like it – they’d prefer not to be coming.”
“It’s an awful hard place to go,” admitted Limerick manager John Kiely before ever bringing a team there for the championship. “I don’t think there’s any reason why we can’t go to Ennis and feed off the atmosphere
“Ennis presents a formidable challenge and it’s going to take a formidable performance to put ourselves in a position to contest,” he added.
Within living memory, you can go back to the 1970s for that sense of what Cusack Park brings on big days – in championship, or even on some of the league games when that air of championship hostility wrapped itself around the ground dedicated to Clare’s greatest hurling man.
July 1972 when that ‘organised chaos’ and derring-do of Clare led The Limerick Leader to pull no punches with its ‘Clare deservedly trounced and had no answer’; 15 months later when they were less complimentary in the Treaty City when Leader scribe Seán Murphy, in response to Jackie Power’s assertion that his newly crowned All-Ireland champions endured “a right baptism for a league campaign”, said memorably that “the baptismal ceremony was performed with blood rather than with the usual holy water”.
There was more, with Murphy noting that spectators that day “could be forgiven for asking if Limerick had switched from their traditional jerseys to the green and red of Mayo, so bloodstained was their strip”.
That’s what Clare and Limerick can bring to Cusack Park – neighbourly enmity and animosity; helter-skelter hurling far removed from tactics’ boards, with the combatants feeding off the energy of the crowd as much as the quality of the stick craft or any direction from the sideline.
“Just as Danny McAlinden had done days previously in his big battle with Jack Bodell so too did Clare,” reflected the Leader’s Cormac Liddy after Clare’s 3-11 to 2-10 win in 1972.
“They hit hard, early, and let me hasten to add that they struck very hard, but equally fairly and there was nothing suspect about the ferocity and speed with which they began their carving-up process,” he added.
That’s just what they did, with the standout performer on the day being Gus Lohan, who set the tone from the opening minutes, just like his son Brian hopes to through his players on Sunday.
“The superhuman that was Gus Lohan,” gushed Cormac Liddy. “I doubt if there was a hurler in the land who could have upset the inspired Lohan during that half-hour of magic for Clare. His display was one of ruthless efficiency as he belted Limerick into subjection any time they got into that area of operation.”
“The Clare captain gave a display of proportions that had to be seen to be appreciated,” said John D Hickey in The Irish Independent. “It was a truly heroic endeavour. No human could have played for an hour as Lohan did in he first 30 minutes,” he added.

THERE were 13,040 in Cusack Park to witness Gus Lohan’s tour de fore 52 years ago – the old county grounds with the sideline seats and grass bans being the goals, with the crowd spilling onto the field afterwards to chair Clare players off the field.
They’d done the same in ‘53 when Jimmy Smyth hit Limerick for 6-4 while it was Limerick’s turn in ‘45 when Mick Mackey was carried off in triumph on what would be his last day in a green jersey in Ennis.
Twenty-one years on from that rousing win in ‘72 Gus Lohan was in the 19,000 attendance at a different Cusack Park as his son Brian Lohan made his championship debut, while it could be said another ‘debutant’ that day was Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin.
“I was a borderline case whether I’d be part of the set-up,” recalled O’Loughlin. “I went back to the club and there was a question mark about my days with the club. I wasn’t playing well; we weren’t going well.
“When I went back my form came up in the Clare Cup and I caught their attention. Enda O’Connor called to the house a couple of weeks before the championship. I thought it out for a few days and then decided if I had something to offer I might as well. I was very lucky to be part of it after that and delighted.”
He hit 1-5 in a man-of-the-match display when being sprung from the bench after just a couple of minutes for his stricken club mate Alan Neville; Cyril Lyons hit 2-6 and Clare had their first championship victory in five years.
“Everything on the day went right for us. Whatever we did, we seemed to be able to create havoc and chaos. We took them by surprise and it was the launching pad for that group.
“We had plenty of downs rather than ups, but it built a bit of confidence for the group because it showed we could take on the likes of pretenders to Munster title,” he added.
And, the importance of Cusack Park at the beginning of Clare’s revival could not be underscored. “It’s an unusual set-up because the crowd are close to you and it’s the atmosphere which it creates,” said O’Loughlin. “I think a lot of counties don’t like it.
“Even though the dimensions of the field are as big as any other in the country, it doesn’t play that way with the crowd. They find that it’s to Clare’s benefit.”
Another day that O’Loughlin name-checks is the National League game against Tipperary in 1995, when it was a championship in everything but name and when Cusack Park was central to the story.
“I’d never forget that one,” he said. “Loughnane wanted us to lay down a marker that day and going forward. Nothing was spared that day, from the supporters’ point of view and the players as Tipperary came up that day.
“We went at each other and created a fantastic atmosphere. You sensed something was in the group that day. The belief was back. It felt special and Cusack Park really lent itself to that.”
Games against Tipperary also inform Podge Collins’ big day Cusack Park experience – his first as a spectator in 2008 for the Munster Under 21 against Tipperary, then as a minor when a new generation got lift-off.”
“The sit-down protest after the way that Munster final ended,” he recalled. “I was watching all of this and developing a resentment for Tipperary.
“The Tipperary minor game in 2010. They were hot favourites and I remember a few of my friends who would go to all Clare games said they weren’t going to bother, good luck.
“That day when we started taking the lead. The noise. The sheds. I know people talk about the sheds, but they were getting belted that night.
“That was the earliest playing memory of the atmosphere. It was probably my first memory and it definitely got us over the line that night.”
Two years later another big night saw Clare win the Munster Under 21 title, with the venue playing a huge part in the victory that helped kickstart a three-in-a-row run at provincial and All-Ireland level.
“I heard Bubbles talking about how that was one of his lowest days in a Tipp jersey,” he recalled. “It was a very special day for us thanks to Niall Arthur’s late goal.
“It was nearly the last strike of the game – broke around the square, flocked it up into his hand and he struck it under the goalie. His two arms up celebrating running off to the sideline,” he added.
Collins has enjoyed more big championship days there than most, between hurling and football, county and club. “There is something very special about it,” he said.
“Sometimes you feel tingles on the back of your neck – the hair standing, when there’s a break in play after something’s just happened in Clare’s favour.
“In a match, you’re locked into the game, but it definitely has a hugely positive impact. It’s always a massive plus to have home advantage and when you score or when a decision goes your way, the crowd reacts and when it doesn’t go your way the crowd reacts as well. It’s incredible to be part of it.”
With Cusack Park’s capacity raised to over 20,000 for Sunday, the stage is set.

About Joe O'Muircheartaigh

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