I have many different passions but there’s a special one that rages in my middle-aged heart. Many people may think I am mad but it is the idealism of the majestic, elusive Munster Hurling Championship that makes my heart beat faster day after day.
Close your eyes …. Think of summer. What do you see? I see midges swooping and dancing through a languid sunset. I see heatdrenched Limerick jerseys shuffling through the streets of Thurles where bellows of banter waft along with the whiff of cider that floats from the open doors of packed pubs in Liberty Square. Inside DD Corbett’s a bitter alcoholic draws tears from the crowd with a soft, sweet rendition of ‘Slievenamon’. On a street corner a humming chipvan mumbles its invitation to giddy children as the June sun beats down. The Pecker Dunne sits, perched on a flat stone wall, plucking and strumming, twanging banjo chords as he winks at those who pass. A smile broadens his foggy beard as coins glint and twinkle from the bottom of his banjo case. Hoarse tinkers flog melted chocolate and paper hats on the brow of a humpbacked bridge as we move closer to the field of legends. The rattle and drone of kettle-drums and bagpipes rise from the Sean Treacy Pipe Band as they parade sweat-soaked warriors around the green hallowed sod. A whistle rings on high, ash smacks on ash and the sliothar arrows between the uprights. A crash of thunder and colour erupts from the terraces …… I see the Championship!!!
The Championship is something special. What else has such a choking grasp on an Irishman’s heart? What else has the power to cram Knockaderry Church on a Saturday night and leave it sleeping on Sunday Championship mornings? What else draws the likes of Mike Quilty and Mike Wall and sits them among roaring, red-faced lunatics in the shadow of the crowded Old Stand? What else exists that plucks the cranky farmer from the milking parlour and flings him into a concrete cauldron eighty miles across the province? There are those who swear the Apocalypse would not have the same effect….
Some of my earliest memories are of ‘The Championship’. I remember travelling with my father in Tom Howard’s black Morris Minor for the Munster semi-final in 1962 to see Ringy and the Rebels take on the might of Tom Cheasty, Ned Power and Frankie Walsh’s Waterford. Another day in Cork ‘down the Park’, saw me crammed like a sardine behind the city goal as I watched Cregan and Grimes emerge to mesmerise the Premier County. Another vivid memory is of Glenroe’s own Mike O’Brien with blood streaming from his temple, raising a fist to the crowd, ‘Waterford are bate and Limerick are in the All Ireland!’
….. But oh to be a hurler …. To sprint from the tunnel in Limerick like a greyhound from the traps. To hear the eruption from forty thousand sunburnt fans, to see the swish of flags among a sea of faces.
The Championship is more precious than life for many. I’ve seen grey-haired men gazing into half empty pints reeling off the names of the great ones, like prayers. I’m afraid I too follow suit. Ask me who’s the Minister for Finance and your question will be greeted with indifference. I simply couldn’t care less. But ask me where Carlow senior hurlers play and instantly I say, ‘Dr. Cullen Park … to the left at Church Street, up Clarke Street and half a mile out the Tower Road’. Monaghan? ‘Pairc Ui Tieghernan .. on the slope of George’s Hill, overlooking the County town’. Where do Sligo play? ‘Markievicz Park in the heart of Sligo town’. ‘Bless me father, for I’m a fanatic!’
…. But oh to be a hurler… If the truth be known I couldn’t hurl spuds to ducks. The boss of my hurley has seen the arse of a Friesian cow more often than it has the crisp leather stitching of an O’Neill’s sliothar! Okay, I’ve had my own All Irelands up against the gable end and in and around the mother’s flower beds but that’s as far as it went for me. My dad was the same but come May and the chirp of the sparrow, you can be guaranteed we’d be stuck in that long snake of traffic, as it slithered its way to Cork, Limerick, Thurles and other far flung fields. The terrace is where the real nectar of hurling comes to a head – when every Joe Soap in the country stands together on the same patch of cement with their eyes fixed on the same lush, green carpet…..
Open your eyes again…. The hazes of summer lie in distant days as the chilled weathergods spit and splutter their wintry flu over the land. And there’s that sodden Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, on the box waffling about stability, and growth, and austerity and ….Oh for God’s sake roll on the Championship!!