Cork is Jim O’Sullivan’s home place, but Shannon has been his home for nearly 45 years and that’s why he always raises the Banner against the Rebels, while at the same time doing his bit to change the course of hurling history in Clare. Joe Ó Muircheartaigh reports.
IT’S the August weekend in 1990 in west Cork and if you’re a fan of the pigskin there’s no better place to be. The All-Ireland semi-final between the Rebels and the Rossies is only a week away, with the final piece in Billy Morgan’s jigsaw being an A versus B game at Skibbereen’s O’Donovan Rossa Park.
Wolfe Tones stalwart Jim O’ Sullivan is on his annual holiday in Castletownsend that same weekend and of course he’ll take in the game, but not among the 4,000 plus who make it their business to be there for a de facto All-Ireland semi-final trial.
“Any chance you’ll ref a game for me,” whispers Cork selector Christy Collins to Jim the night before over pints. “Sure,” he replies, “but what game are you talking about,” not realising it was to police members of the greatest Cork squad ever as they did battle for their places on the semi-final team to play Roscommon a week later.
“It was tough,” says Jim’s son Tony, “and it was full-blooded, but the big talking point was the way he referreed a great game that finished something like 4-15 to 3-13”.
“Niall Cahalane and I became great friends,” says Jim, “but he had a reputation of being a tough man on the field and he showed it that day. There was a clash with one of the Davis’, but I went over, whipped him up and told him he wouldn’t get away with that stuff with me.”
“He was a bit of a hero for what he did in tackling Cahalane and someone roared in ‘that’s the referee we need in west Cork football’ and ‘you’re one of our own’,” recalls Tony.
This much is true. The home place is between Skibbereen and Bantry in a place called Caheragh. Deepest football country and from where the young O’Sullivan was reared on a diet of Michéal O’Hehir word pictures on the deeds of Neilly Duggan, Toots Kelleher, Nially Fitzgerald and many more.
“It was all football and Cork had a great team in the ‘50s,” he says. “Mick Goold, Denis Bernard and Paddy Harrington were in the half-back line, but I never saw them play. As for hurling there was none. You’d have to go to Bandon for a bit of hurling – that was 45 miles away. I saw Ring play once when he came to play an exhibition match in Skibbereen.”
O’Sullivan didn’t know it at the time, but it may have been when hurling started seeping into his blood, a transfusion that continued on his first visit to Croke Park in 1966 when Cork beat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final and again in London where in fell in with the St Mary’s hurlers and finally when he landed in Shannon in 1969.
“I’m a Clareman now,” he says over 40 years after putting down roots in the county for the first time. Indeed, he’s been a Clareman for a long time – he may have supported the Rebels when it came to the 1972 Munster final against Clare, but it wasn’t long before he changed his colours permanently.
“When I came here first,” he recalls, “I remember we had ten old pence in the club and hurling in the county was in total disarray as far as I’m concerned. It was all bickering and club rivalries – everything that was bad about the game you got it in Clare.
“I remember I was refereeing a football game one day. Paschal O’Brien and Michael Kilmartin were playing the day before they were playing a championship match for Clare and they were pucking each other.
“The breath of fresh air was when Harry Bohan took over – I sensed it straight away, but he was in trouble after two years when they got plastered in the league final replay by Kilkenny and then by Limerick in the championship after it.”
That’s when O’Sullivan played his part in changing the face of Clare hurling. When the Rebel mind, but Clare heart was really born.
“I was up in Ballyreen fishing – it’s on the coast road between Lisdoonvarna and Fanore and I met Fr Harry who was there with his brother Seamus and his wife and they were having a picnic.
“‘Come down here and we’ll catch a few fish,’ I said. “
‘You’ll need help,’ I added.
‘Who do you have in mind?’
“My first cousin was married to Justin’s brother and even though I’d never met Justin I said I’d ring him and ask, because he’d been down in west Cork the previous week for the turf season.
“That Friday I got on to Justin and he said ‘I’d love to do it’ and on the Monday morning I met Harry in Shannon, made the call back to Justin, gave Harry the phone and walked out the door. Harry came out an hour afterwards with the thumbs up… that was a real break for Clare.”
The rest is history. Clare harvested a couple of leagues in ’77 and ’78 and while Cork were a game too far in Munster finals those years, it was a great Clare team, with Jim O’Sullivan among their biggest supporters.
“There was hope in the air in those years,” says Jim, “and I was Clareman then. I had to be a Clareman when you saw the change that came over Clare hurling in those years.”
“Jim went down to the 1977 and ’78 Munster finals and he was fighting with the Cork lads,” recalls Tony. “I always wanted Clare to beat Cork – I was in Clare and I was involved in the club. I knew know no one in Cork,” adds Jim.
And the story was still only beginning, because even through the dark years O’Sullivan was always one of the believers. Cut to the programme notes of the 1989 county senior championship final between Sixmilebridge and Clarecastle.
“I see a great future for Clare hurling,” said that year’s county final referee – one Jim O’Sullivan. “Especially with our minors doing so well, and the great that has been done by our schools and colleges. My greatest wish is to see the McCarthy Cup coming to Clare. I believe with the right management that it can be achieved within six years.”
That right man was Ger Loughnane; six years from 1989 took Clare up to 1995 and the All-Ireland was won, but it was never so easy.
“The knives were out for Loughnane in 1992 after the Munster Under 21 final,” recalls Jim, “and when it came to the job our club were voting for Jimmy Cullinan, but there I was voting for Loughnane. I was nothing against him but we couldn’t lose Loughnane after what he’d done for hurling in Shannon.
“I was told, ‘you won’t even get a seconder for Loughnane’. I just said ‘not only will I get a seconder, but I’ll push it to the limit’. I met the Shannon Gaels delegate John McCarthy, who was a Garda in Limerick and said ‘I don’t have a seconder, but he said ‘I’m the chairman of Shannon Gaels I’ll second you’. Ende Mulkere of Crusheen was canvassing for Loughnane in the background but he lost the vote by two and only for Vaughan the show was over for Loughnane. Vaughan was a very straight man and he’d fight for the underdog.”
The following year Loughnane came back to the fold on his terms, that he’d be a senior selector on the understand that he’d be the next manager when Len Gaynor stepped down.
“At the meeting John McCarthy (Wolfe Tones) proposed Loughnane and I seconded it and Loughnane stood up and said ‘but for these gentlemen beside me I’d never see inside a Clare dressing room again’.”
Inside two years the Munster and All-Ireland had fallen to Clare. On the journey home after the Munster final the team bus pulled its way towards Shannon and stopped in Ballycasey Cross where all the dignatories lay in wait.
Jim O’Sullivan, Patsy Riordan and John McCarthy, all of whom had fought the fight.
“He said to Brian Lohan,” recalls Tony, “‘take that cup down to those lads’. It was all over after that.”
It meant an awful lot to the Rebel who lived for the cause of Clare.
Like he will when Sunday comes around.