Ireland Correspondent: Tipp top Greens on blue day for Limerick fans

By Peter Lenaghan

The gags start flowing from the Limerick fans’ mouths after 20 minutes and three conceded goals. “Oh, congratulations,” one yells at the players wearing green, as another attempted score sails off target. “We’re now in front by four wides.” When Gavin O’Mahony finally puts the ball over the bar for Limerick, another fan yells to the manager, Justin McCarthy: “No Justin, you’ll have to take him off – he’s started scoring!”

Gallows humour soon gives way to grumbling frustration. The refrain, “Oh, dear Jesus,” can be heard all around. As a Tipperary defender again whisks the ball away from a Limerick attacker, the calls grow louder. “Pick up the fooking thing!” is one Limerick woman’s advice. “They’re not even hardly trying,” is another supporter’s verdict. Just before half-time, O’Mahony strikes a free towards the goal at the Davin Stand end, but the ball hits the upright and deflects wide. It sums up Limerick’s performance. The boys in green are already trailing Tipperary by 13 points in the All-Ireland semi-final.

It is hardly the sort of contest to take in when you and your girlfriend’s old man are trying to discover why hurling is so beloved in Ireland. In a new book to mark the Gaelic Athletic Association’s 125th birthday, Eoin Kinsella writes that while it is hard to pin down just when an early version hurling was first being played on the Emerald Ilse, records indicate various stick and ball games were taking place here from at least the seventh century AD. The modern game of hurling, according to Kinsella, is most closely related to a summer sport that developed in southern and eastern Ireland in the seventeenth century. Since the formation of the GAA at Thurles, in County Tipperary, in 1884, teams from the southern half of the island have dominated hurling. So it is that two southern neighbours, Limerick and Tipperary, are through to an All-Ireland semi final today.

Emily’s dad, Tony, and I catch the bus from south Dublin, up O’Connell Street and on to Drumcondra, where Croke Park sits under grey skies, among the brick terrace houses, beside the canal. Tony is a Melbourne fan who celebrated this morning’s victory over Fremantle by saying, “That’s enough wins now – we don’t want to lose the priority pick.” As we walk down the North Circular Road a Tipperary fan is telling Limerick supporters to go home. A tout wearing a blue and gold jersey gives away a free ticket to a man wearing neutral colours and professing unconvincingly to be a fellow Tipp supporter. Something has the touts in a generous mood. Tony and I look even less like Tipp fans and we fork out the €45 each for a seat in the Hogan stand, close to the Hill 16 end.

Limerick’s supporters are knocking back pints and singing, despite their team being very much the underdog today. While the Treaty County reached the All-Ireland hurling final in 2007, it has not won the title since 1973. Tipperary is hurling’s sleeping giant. The Premier County was a force in years gone by, but its last All-Ireland title came in 2001. Over the past couple of years, under the direction of Liam Sheedy, Tipp has been building a formidable side that features talented youngsters alongside gnarled veterans.

We take our seats just in time to see the players march around the pitch behind a brass band. Like a Mexican wave in slow motion, the crowd rises and cheers as the parade passes by. We stand for the national anthem. The vast stadium is about half-full.

I apologise. I have been seduced by Gaelic football and neglected hurling’s advances. Football combines two of my own great sporting loves – soccer and Aussie Rules – and its ebb and flow is enthralling. Hurling is alien to my Victorian eye. There are elements of football, hockey, cricket, baseball and rugby, but the Irish game resembles none of these foreign sports closely. The play is intermittently skilful and scrappy. The players are fearless. They constantly put themselves in the path of flailing hurleys and the small, hard, white ball called a sliotar. The competitors shrug off vicious whacks to the hands and body, yet I find it a difficult game to watch, particularly on the telly. Perhaps this is a sport that has to be played to be truly appreciated and, to be frank, I could not face hurling’s inherent dangers on the field without flinching.

The sliotar arcs the length and breadth of the Croke Park pitch several times before the first score is registered. A long ball towards the Hill 16 end slides past Limerick’s full back, Stephen Lucey, and Eoin Kelly is perfectly placed for Tipp. He takes the ball close to the goal and belts it in to the net. Gavin O’Mahony gets Limerick’s first point, but soon the Premier County is surging forward again. Lar Corbett collects the sliotar and makes a curving run towards the Limerick goal. Just as he appears set to shoot, Corbett passes the ball across the face of goal, where 18-year-old Noel McGrath is unmarked. The youngster slaps the ball home with his hurley to score Tipp’s second goal.

Within a minute, another mistake by a Limerick player – this time by the captain and champion defender, Mark Foley – opens the door for Tipperary. Pat Kerwick collects the ball and slides a low shot under the Limerick goalkeeper, Brian Murray, to net Tipp’s third goal in 17 extraordinary minutes. The fans in blue and gold are dancing and singing about the All-Ireland final. The Limerick supporters surrounding us have their face buried in their hands. The buzz from the crowd that was generated by the goals dies down and is replaced by a stunned murmur. The contest has been killed and the match is not yet 20 minutes old. “Well,” says a Limerick supporter behind us, “we best be heading off to beat the traffic, then.”

Limerick’s mistake-riddled opening sets the tone for the entire match. The boys in green fumble and miss-hit their way through the remaining 50 minutes. Tipperary’s defence is outstanding and the best moment comes when Conor O’Mahony blocks a run by Limerick’s towering corner forward, David Breen. Goliath bounces off David and lands flat on his back. Tipp seizes the ball, sends it to the other end of Croke Park and scores another point. Dozens of Limerick fans are filing out of the ground. Corbett, who remains scoreless up until the 56th minute, nets three goals in little more than 10 minutes to put the icing, cherries and sparklers on Tipp’s delicious cake. The final margin is 24 points. The few remaining Limerick supporters in the stadium are ashen-faced.

Despite the brilliant and crushing nature of today’s victory, few will expect Tipperary to win the All-Ireland final in three weeks’ time. The Premier County will face Kilkenny, which is aiming for a remarkable fourth consecutive title. The Cats have dominated hurling for much of the past decade and are led by one of the greatest players to have picked up a hurley, Henry Shefflin.

Tony and I file out of the ground and head to a nearby pub. He says the players are “stupid buggers”, but that hurling could grow on him. I can see the game’s charms and I am developing a sense for its history and deep connection with Irish people, particularly those from rural parts of the island. But the bigger ball excites me more, and the All-Ireland football finals start next weekend.

ALL-IRELAND FOOTBALL SEMI FINALS (ALL AT CROKE PARK)

Sunday 23 August – Tyrone v Cork
Sunday 30 August – Kerry v Meath

ALL-IRELAND HURLING FINAL (AT CROKE PARK)

Sunday 6 September – Kilkenny v Tipperary

Comments

  1. uncle tony says:

    Peter I realy enjoyed your article oabout hurling I hope it is still on when I arrive in October
    I fell in love with it 20 years ago when I accidently watched it on SBS I love the movement and speed and particularly the courage and daring odf the players.Im not sure for why but it instantly reminded me of Aussie rules.
    I remember as a young boy my mum telling me about her dad being a champion hurler before he came to Australia and that I too would inherit his skills though the genes.My mind went into a spin for a number of reason,firstly he was a very big man,a blacksmith and iron worker and I was a 6ft puny 9 stone weakling with an inmage of “hurling” that was the Scottish sport of tossing the caber (my confusion)
    That afternoon of SBS watching enthralled me as my knowledge and image of the game was instantly changed and recall talking to mum again sseking further information baout her dad and the game.My recollections of that conversation are hazy but I recall her pride in his achievemnts s a 16 year old playing the game with the men and winning accolades and awards in the competition he was playing in (all Ireland rings a bell-sounds a bit like the American “championship of the world doesn’t it)
    The story was further enhanced by my mums youngest sister who later verified the story and informed me that he soon after came to Australia an dplayed games with the shinboners.Eddie Sait (a bendigo boy )who worked with north in some cap[acity later verified that he wa sin an early team photo.SO I guess i have associated Hurling and Aussie rules with this experience.
    I have tried to catch when ever it is on nand It is onmy agenda for our visit in October.I am weel aware of your infatuation with the Irish round ball code and similalry disaapointed that your!!!?? in the other football has led you to it.Hope you are still there when i arrive

Leave a Comment

*