John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost was all I could think of as I listened to former Tipperary hurler and winning captain in 1989, Bobby Ryan, speak at length about his life and times.
In 1987, when Tipperary won the Munster Senior Hurling Championship, team captain Richard Stakelum declared “The famine is over”. Indeed it must have seemed like a hurling famine for the Premier County.
Having dominated the early 1960s and won the Liam McCarthy Cup again in 1971, Tipperary were one of the country’s top hurling counties. From 1971 until 1987 they failed to win a provincial title. It was ten years after that All Ireland win that Ryan joined the Tipperary panel, in 1981.
Last Sunday he recalled the woeful years when Tipp could scarce win a game, never mind a Championship. They were the reigning champions in 1972 when they took on Cork, winners earlier in the season of the National League, in Limerick. It was my first time attending a Munster Championship game.
When Tipperary led by ten points, 3-8 to 2-1, early in the second-half, I was crestfallen. It was warm day with a huge crowd and during the first-half Tipp were well on top. My discomfort was added to during that time when a burly Tipperary man, not bothering to make his way to the ‘Fìr’ area, simply relieved himself behind me and I got most of the contents of a very full bladder down the back of my pants.
I was only 15 so didn’t make any formal complaint! At least Cork staged a stunning comeback with goals from Charlie Mac and Seanie Leary, and a late equaliser from Charlie made it 3- 8 apiece. I was over the moon and the summer sun had well dried out my pants by the time we left the Ennis Road that afternoon.
Cork, the 1970 champions, and Tipperary, the 1971 winners, were evenly matched that day. That was my introduction to Munster hurling and ham sandwiches wrapped in newspaper — I’d say tinfoil didn’t come in ’til after we won the three in a row!
God, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder and that really applies to sport. I wouldn’t worry about group games, qualifiers or backdoors this year if only we had a good old-fashioned Munster Championship — straight knockout with no second chances.
I was asked last week if I had a choice at the end of these troubled times, would I prefer club or county games to be ‘restored’ first — that’s a no-brainer. The club is the bedrock of the GAA and caters for all — every Cork player is a club hurler but fewer than 5% of club hurlers ever wear their County jersey.
For the moment, we can only reminisce and dream of what was and what might be in the future.
That Sunday in June of 1972 we left for Limerick early, shortly after half- nine Mass in Bartlemy. I went with Pad Connors, Dave Ryan and Dan Dooley, who was born on the same day as me. Mick O’Neills Pub in Hospital was always the stop on the way to Limerick. My abiding memory of it is of cigar smoke and ham sandwiches everywhere.
Dave loved a pint or two before big games and the same afterwards. The atmosphere in O’Neills was just hurling, hurling, hurling. On the walls were pictures of Mackey’s great Limerick teams.
A bottle of lemonade and a ham sandwich was a feast for a king — no mustard, relish or cucumber pickle to adorn the feed.
I never saw Ring play but in 1972 it was less than a decade since he last wore the red and white of Cork. We had no Ring now but his name, his magic and invincibility were still spoken of openly.
Cork won the replay two weeks later in Limerick, thus beginning the ‘famine’ that Stakelum and Ryan spoke of. Ring used to say that “without Tipperary the GAA is only half-dressed” — a great tribute from a man that suffered a lot at the hands and hurls of Tipp in the early 1960s when Cork’s hurling stock was low.
I was lucky not to have experienced that barren era of a dozen years ‘tween 1954 and the great win of 1966. That victory in ‘66 was special for our club Bride Rovers as Seanie Barry starred on the team, 20 years after ‘our’ Con Murphy won an All Ireland medal. That campaign was discussed a share this week with the death at the age of 80 of Tom O Donoghue, full-back on that Gerald McCarthy captained side.
O Donoghue was an old-school full back — the ‘thou shalt not pass’ type that took no prisoners. Cork lost to Waterford in ‘67 below in Walsh Park when Tom got his marching orders. Some hurling ‘experts’ claim because Cork didn’t beat Tipperary in their Munster campaign of 1966 and lost the first round the following year that it cast doubts on the ‘66 win. In my opinion that’s pure nonsense.
Every All Ireland that’s won stands alone, whether it’s the breakthrough victory of Offaly in 1981 or Kilkenny’s fourth in a row in 2009. An All Ireland is there to be won in any given year and then a new chapter is written the following year.
Listening to Bobby Ryan speak so passionately and eloquently last Sunday, I now know what the Tipperary hurlers and followers felt like for 18 years. 2005 seems a distant memory now and the Cork ‘famine’ has stretched to 14 years.
You know that special Cork and Tipperary rivalry is just unique. When you mix respect, envy and tradition, the result is that indefinable quality we call a ‘sporting rivalry’ and it’s one that’s unsurpassed anywhere in the world. This year we could have a lot of hay saved — and silage made too — but ‘tis doubtful if we’ll have Tipp ‘bate’.
Hard to imagine that next October will mark the centenary of the birth of Christy Ring. From 1939 until 1963 he played for Cork but not alone did he just play, he dominated and popularised the grand old game.
I recall that famous interview Ring did with Donncha O Dulaing — one of the very few he gave — Christy came across as a shy man. He said he never met a hurler stronger than himself and that strength and inner belief made him The Greatest, though he claimed “the best hurlers are yet to come”.
I never knew Christy and only met him casually a few times during Cork’s three-in-a-row run from 1976 to 1978. He died in 1979 yet 41 years later the name Ring still has a resonance and special meaning for hurling followers everywhere.
I do hope that a century after his birth, we will be able to remember him in a fitting manner.
His birth-date falls on Thursday, October 12, maybe the following Sunday we might have Cork and Tipp in ‘the Pairc’ in Cork and then on Sunday, November 22 (Bloody Sunday Remembrance Day) we could have Cork and Kilkenny in the All Ireland Hurling Final! Hope springs eternal.
I had ham and bread ordered for the trip to Walsh Park on Sunday week. I think I’ll still make the sandwiches with plenty butter and crusty bread and have the bottle of lemonade as well and just imagine those summer Sunday mornings of long ago in O’Neills of Hospital.
A summer with no hurling seems so strange. I’d love to just see an under 8 or an under 10 game where lads play with pure abandon and enjoy the skills and thrills of the most Irish sport of all.
Sport with a dash in it, clatter and clash in it,
Something with ash in it, surely a game