My dad, my love of sport in general and hurling in particular
Last Sunday, my Dad (87), my sister Eileen, my son, self styled as the one and only Luke Murphy (11) and I went to Thurles to watch Clare beat Limerick in the semi-final of the Munster Championship. Clare have reached a Munster final for the first time since 2008 and on 9 July will play the winners of the other semi final (Cork or Waterford).
Having been living abroad between 2001 and 2015, the game last week was my first Limerick match since Clare fell to a last minute point by Ciaran Carey in the Gaelic Grounds in 1996. That year, Clare had come into the Munster championship as defending champions, having put an end the previous year to a 63 year wait for a Munster championship by defeating Limerick (in the end comfortably) in Thurles. I was there, my wife was with me and of course Dad was there with my mother. I had also been at the Munster finals in 1993 and 1994, when Clare had been beaten. Barbara now laughs about travelling back from Thurles to Dublin in silence but it was no fun losing and losing and losing.
In Ireland, the term “hurling people” is often used to describe those for whom the game of hurling is more than just a sport that they follow. It’s not especially profound but it reflects the unique relationship between people who understand the game and a sport that is one of the fastest ball games in the world. My father is definitely a hurling person. He grew up in the parish of Tulla in east Clare. As a schoolboy, he played Harty Cup for St Flannan’s, Ennis, winning a title in 1947 and losing in the final the following year. After he joined the Army, he won several all-Army championships and was a member of the Army team that lost the Galway county final to Liam Mellows in 1955. That Army team incidentally included Billy O’Neill and Jim Fives both of whom played in the Galway team that lost to Wexford in the All Ireland final that year. And the Galway captain that year was Liam Mellows’ Jimmy Duggan.
As a child, I liked to tell my friends about my father’s hurling prowess and was particularly proud of a scar over his left eye which was a legacy of his playing days. And it is hardly surprising that from an early age, I found myself travelling with my dad to hurling matches all over the country. I’m pretty sure I was at the 1972 All-Ireland final but the first game I remember was a Munster championship semi final between Clare and Tipperary on 7 July 1974.
I was 10 years old. Dad and I set off from our home in Longford town in the family Peugeot 404 (reg DIX 325, how do I remember that) for the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick. The reason I can remember the day clearly is that 7 July 1974 also happened to be the day of the World Cup final between West Germany and the Netherlands in Munich. In those days, I was a die-hard supporter of a declining Manchester United and, growing up in Longford, I played soccer but not hurling. So I imagine that I was encouraged by my mother to travel to Limerick and that there would have been some reluctance on my part to miss the biggest soccer game of the year in order to see a relatively minor hurling match.
My father liked to get to the ground around half-time in the minor game. In pre-motorway Ireland, match traffic started to build up well outside the town. As soon as Dad saw people pulling up on the hard shoulder, he too parks up and, after eating sandwiches prepared by my mother, we set out on foot towards the ground. Every junction on the route has a hawker selling hats, flags and rosettes. The sellers are all from Dublin. The hats and flags are the same colour for both teams. You can distinguish if you look closely at the peak of the crepe paper hat where the legend is “Up Tipp” or “Up the Banner”. My father chats to other match goers. There is much analysis and speculation about how the game will go but a genetic pre-disposition in Clare people to fear defeat. Clare are managed by a priest, Fr Harry Bohan and lining out for Clare is Ger Loughnane, later the manager of the historic 1995 and 1997 All-Ireland winning teams.
The stand in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick is the old Hogan Stand from Croke Park. Once through the turnstiles, access to seats is through tunnels that run below the stand. The tunnel also serves as a de facto pissoir so steering a straight line down the middle minimises the risk of splash damage.
I recall very little about the game other than that Clare did win. Contemporary press reports describe the game in unflattering terms, Tipperary in particular coming in for severe criticism for a very poor performance. Clare’s limitations were subsequently exposed in the Munster final when they lost heavily to a Limerick team that included genuine hurling greats, Eamon Grimes and Eamon Cregan.
When we got back to the car, we listened to the end of the West Germany Netherlands game on the radio. Most neutrals wanted the Netherlands to win. Everybody had been talking about Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels’ total football. But this is West Germany, at home, captained by Franz Beckenbauer, and they ruin the script. The Dutch scored a penalty in the first minute after Cruyff was fouled before any German player had touched the ball. But Paul Breitner equalised with a penalty for the Germans after 25 minutes and the great Gerd Muller won it with a goal just before half time.
Throughout my childhood, Dad took me to all sorts of sports events. At boarding school, he secured a pass for me to see a very good Clare team win a couple of national leagues. But it wasn’t always hurling. He was a decent golfer and we went to several Irish Opens. He took me to Lansdowne Road to see Machester United playing Shamrock Rovers. And he instilled in me a life long love of all sport. He used to tell me how he would love listening to John Arlott on the BBC commentating on English cricket and it was a great pleasure to take him to his first test match at Trent Bridge in 2010.
I wonder if, in 43 years’ time, Luke will remember the game last Sunday at all. It felt rather appropriate that his first Clare hurling match should be in the company of his grandad. Luke grew up in Nottingham. The parallels with his young dad are striking. Soccer is his first love and he plays with distinction for Mount Merrion Youths. Unlike his young dad though, he is a talented sportsman and he also plays hurling for Kilmacud Crokes u-12s.
And while Luke currently loves soccer, Manchester United, Ibrahimovic and the like, I do hope that as he gets older, he will grow to love the best game in the world as much as I do. I’ve been to the World Cup finals in Japan, I was in Croke Park on the day when Paul O Connell’s Ireland beat England in a hugely emotional game, I’ve been to Wembley to see Ireland draw with England and to see a remarkable FA Cup semi final when Gazza scored an amazing free kick to help Spurs beat Arsenal. But none of these fantastic matches can hold a candle to, for example, the 1997 All-Ireland final. Thirty amateur sportsmen, a sell-out crowd in Ireland’s largest stadium and a nail-biting match characterised by an incredible winning point from midfield by Jamesie O’Connor and a brilliant save by Davy Fitzgerald from John Leahy. Leahy is a winner. He was through on goal and could have sealed the draw for Tipp by popping it over the bar. But he went for goal. And only for Davy they would have won. The excitement of a game like this is simply unmatcheable by any other sport. And I do believe that this an objective observation.
So thanks Dad for sowing the seed 43 years ago and I look forward to being with you in Croke Park in early September when, whoever is playing, hurling people like yourself will simply be there for the love of the game.