By Killian McCarthy
When the Championship rolls round and the quality of your summer is reliant on the Limerick hurlers, you’re faced with a stark choice: optimism or suicide.
The fact that the former prevails could be mistaken for a triumph of the human spirit. Really, it’s just belligerence. It’s the stubborn pursuit not of silverware nor of history but of those days when form, skill and quality of touch count for less than heart, commitment and the same belligerence that filters down from the terraces. Those isolated, fleeting days that stand as vindication for annual heartbreak.
And though the ledger is blotted with chances lost, hopes dashed and more calamitous defeats than the French military and although stories of dry balls, crooked refs and wails of “if only…” abound like in no other county, there are days that make it all worthwhile. Memories, goosebumps, glory days treasured so that hope springs eternal.
“It looks closed to me, Dad”.
He smiled because he knew better. Half a century of championship Sundays stood against my dozen. He knew they were serving, and long before their licence allowed it; this pub by Kent Station was packed to the rafters with Limerick men (and their sons), filling up for what lay ahead. Our sea of green would meet their red tide by the banks of the Lee and the omens, as usual, were bad.
Not bleak (never bleak) but a caning from Clare isn’t easily forgotten, not least after barely a month. Rumours of ferocious training were merely whispers of what might subsequently bear fruit (but usually didn’t). There had been clamours for the manager’s head and demands for so-and-so to be dropped so whatshisname could deliver us to a sporting Promised Land that the barren years had made into myth.
But all that was lost on me as we as we set out for the Páirc. May ’01. A summer’s day, an Irish summer’s day: overcast. But it promised to clear (the sun always shines in Cork, boy) and so it did, slowly, as we turned onto the long straight road that leads to the Ground. Monotonous though it is for the hordes of supporters, the colour, the banter and inveterate slagging somehow shorten the trip.
That unique chip van smell, nauseating and intoxicating in equal measure wafted along on the gentle breeze that blew towards the Blackrock End. Touts did their best to turn a few pounds while “3 card monte” relieved some revellers of what change they had in their rapidly-lightening pockets. The senses were bombarded and one summer shy of my teenage years I wished every Sunday was like this.
But all this stood as the starter. The main course was yet to play out in front of 40,000 fans in the cauldron cois Laoi. The terraces rumbled and shook through the Soldier’s Song, apt for the warfare that was about to unfold. Timber flew and the crowd roared in solidarity. Limerick wanted this and the sliotar was an afterthought, at least until it was thrown in.
Once that formality had been dispensed with, the visitors set about erasing the memory of every defeat, cruel or otherwise, back to ’97. First to the ball or first to the shoulder, success was measured as much in broken hurleys as it was on the scoreboard, reading 0-4 to 0-2. Limerick leading. Limerick on top. Limerick surely going to blow it.
But no. With 11 minutes gone James Butler gets away from John Browne, solos, bears down on goal and rifles one across Dónal Óg. I’m told he never saw it until it hit the net.
Neither did I.
Frank Hogan (better known as John 3:7) had taken up residence in front of me and raised his ubiquitous sign just as Butler pulled the trigger and even now, 9 years on, I’ve never thanked him for the gesture. Granted he didn’t mean it but in robbing me of my view he lent me a vision (granted, an imagined vision) of a goal the power, accuracy and majesty of which I have yet to see matched. It stands as the greatest goal I never saw, its greatness measured in goosebumps.
My Father (a less magnanimous soul) reacted to the obstruction by seizing it, throwing it to the ground, making some very graphic threats about where he’d be inclined to insert it should there be a repeat of Mr. Hogan’s antics, and for that reason it’s hardly surprising that our view of the remaining hour’s action went unobstructed.
We saw points and wides exchanged in equal measure. We saw the inevitable Rebel comeback. We saw character tested beyond conventional limits. We saw everything that makes the Munster Championship stand unrivalled in sport and in the end we saw the titanic struggle resolved in masterful terms by a man who decreed that this was to be his finest hour.
Step forward Barry Foley. A sideline cut from under the stand on any other day would have been aimed infield. On any other day. That day history beckoned. That day was special. That day Foley rifled it over when nobody thought that he would.
Cue green-clad raptures on the terraces, cue the final whistle and cue joy and confusion distilled into the realisation that we’d come to Cork and won. 1-16 to 1-15 in their backyard and as Seán South rang out on the long walk into town I could feel the goosebumps crawling up my spine like never before or since.
Halfway home, satisfaction etched on his face, I asked the seasoned campaigner what made us stand through the dark days for moments like that. Half a century of championship Sundays smiled again and said as though reciting a mantra: “Optimism”.