Cork has been home to Mickey Leahy for over half a century now, but Clare is still his home place as the flies the flag for the Banner County deep in Rebels territory, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
MICKEY Leahy goes for a ramble around his old farmhouse home at Crookstown in the parish of Cloughduv that lies halfway along the main drag on the Cork to Macroom Road.
“Let’s see what we have in here,” he says, disappearing into the darkness of an outhouse for a few seconds, before emerging with the fruits of a few different ash trees in his hands.
“That’s an old one – before my time,” he says pointing to the squarer than rounder boss. “That’s from around the 1920s, like the hurleys Tommy Daly used,” adds Leahy before he’s engulfed by red jerseys.
Leahy is like old Mr Simms handing out confectionary – there’s a hurley for everyone in the audience. His three grandsons Bill, Michael and Dara, their first cousins Kate, Andrew, David and Aaron, with Mickey the only Clareman in Rebel Island.
“They’re mad Cork supporters, but they know I’m Clare and they know the saffron and blue will be beside their Cork flag on the side of the road when match day comes around.”
Eight-seven-year-old Leahy won’t be there with it, however, as he’ll be in Croke Park 60 years after he had his debut there at the start of the great Oireachtas rivalry with Wexford.
“Those games against Wexford were great and Michéal O Muircheartaigh said they were among the best games he had ever seen as a commentator and he’s seen a few,” says Leahy hurling back the years.
“In the replay in ‘54, I was on Tim Flood and you couldn’t be on a harder man. I was on Paddy Keogh another day. I think there were 34,000 at the Oireachtas final replay in ’54 and it was late in the year – it shows you the appeal Clare had in those years, but it was a world away from the hurling you have now.
“The training at that time wasn’t like it is at all now – we weren’t training at all. After I served my time I started teaching in Kilkenny and spent eight years there and trained with the Kilkenny lads for a couple of years.
“The training was two nights a week for a fortnight each year. I’d be taken up to Nowlan Park in a taxi – the Walshs of Slieverue, Paddy Buggy and a few more and myself. That was it as far as training was concerned.”
Still, it was enough to make the Clare team from the early to mid-‘50s among the best, with all the major powers of Cork, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Wexford, Galway, Limerick and Waterford falling to them over the course of a few roller-coaster years.
“We were good,” says Leahy, “and we weren’t afraid of any team. In ’55 Cork were All-Ireland champions but we beat them in Thurles. Then we beat Tipperary when Jimmy Carney scored a goal in the second half, but we flopped against Limerick in the final.
“You could compare that match with this year’s semi-final against Limerick. It was Murphy’s Law for Clare that day – anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. There was a bit of that for Limerick this year.
“The team was scattered. There were five or six in Dublin and I was in Kilkenny. That’s what cost us. We had great hurlers, but when it came to having a great team, I don’t know.”
Nearly 60 years on Leahy has no such doubts about the current harvest, having seen them play all their championship matches this year. “Every time I see them they’re getting better,” he says, “and because of that I’ve no doubt that they can win.
“All around they’re saying that Cork will win and they believe it because Cork are always confident. I’m in for a lot of ball-hopping because I’m saying Clare will win.
“I’m telling them that Clare can and will do it, while they’re saying that Clare haven’t a chance, not a snowball’s chance in hell. The talk down here and what they’re saying is that ‘the way we beat Clare is that they targetted the extra pass’. I don’t know how far that goes. Cork are also talking about their tradition, but I don’t go with all the guff about tradition and all that.”
This is the attitude Leahy himself was armed with 58 years ago when he was part of a full-back line that also included Dan McInerney and Michael ‘Haulie’ Donnellan that travelled to Thurles to tackle a Cork team going for four All-Irelands in a row.
“I was on Willie John Daly most of the time that day,” he recalls. “Christy Ring was playing outside me on the wing – he was playing on Noel Deasy, who was a young fella at the time and Noel made a very good job of him.
“Ring was the best man I played on – maybe he was the best man anyone played on. I played on him twice. Willie John Daly was tough – you’d get nothing soft there. You wouldn’t put your hand up for a ball when those fellas were around, but we weren’t afraid of them.”
And how did you do against Ring? You held your own?
“I’d like to think I did you know,” he says with a smile.
There’s not too many around who can boast such a feat, but it’s nothing like the smile that will come over him in Croke Park on Sunday if the All-Ireland title comes to Clare rather than Cork.