When Cusack Park was last in the throes of redevelopment the Clare hurlers turned to Tulla full-time, with Dr Tommy Daly Park become their National League fortress in a winning run that captures the imagination of hurling people everywhere, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh who spoke to Fr Harry Bohan, Jackie O’Gorman and Johnny Callinan about this treasured time.
Oh the days of the Tulla matches
TWENTY two games. Fifty nine players. Dressing rooms with a galvanised roof. A water barrel from which to wash yourself down. The field, where the going could be heavy. Very heavy, with pools of water to contend with along the way.
It was Dr Tommy Daly Park in Tulla. More like ‘Fortress Tulla’ in Clare’s greatest ever era in the National Hurling League. The 1970s when in the words of Ger Loughnane “the Clare team captured the imagination of the whole country as a great team”.
Tulla helped build and put cement on that reputation and then sustain it, as Clare played host to all the big powers of the game in that era. They came, they saw, but they went home conquered. Every time, apart from a few notable exceptions.
“We lost a few alright,” recalls Fr Harry Bohan, who was team manager for most of that era, “but it was the very few and those defeats don’t take from the Tulla story, which was a great chapter in Clare hurling”.
Kilkenny, the winners of four All-Irelands in the 1970s were beaten on five occasions in Tulla; nearest neighbours Galway came three times and were beaten every time; Tipperary tasted defeat twice, while Cork, Limerick, Wexford, Waterford, Dublin and Offaly were others sent packing.
It was Tulla’s time at the epicentre of Clare hurling; where the team trained and played most of their games in a ten-year stretch from 1970 to 1980. Of those 22 league games they clocked up 19 victories, two defeats and one draw.
It was 14 straight wins to start with before the stumble of a draw with Tipperary in late ‘77 and then the fall with defeat to Wexford even later that year, albeit they still bounced back to win the competition with a final tour de force against Kilkenny when all of Clare’s 3-10 came from play.
“Tulla was some place,” recalls Fr Bohan, “and it got to the stage that teams hated coming to the place. The more games we won, the more we were considered unbeatable there and the more the whole thing was built up by the press. It became a special place and the making of the Clare team in that era in many ways,” he adds.
THE emergence of Tulla as the seat of Clare league hurling in the 1970s is largely attributed to the redevelopment work of Cusack Park — that mammoth project that saw the county grounds out of bounds for county finals for four years between 1976 and ’79.
This much is true, but not the whole truth, because the county team’s relocation had begun many years before that — the first league game being held there late 1970 before the move became permanent five years later and hosted every home league game from there up until the last game of the 1979/80 season.
Then it was back to Cusack Park, after a hiatus of another year as Clare had to play all their games in the 1980/81 season away from home as a fallout from the fracas that marred the end of the penultimate round game of the previous season’s campaign. That game was labelled ‘Day of Shame as sticks fly in Tulla’ in the book ‘Pa Howard’s Collection’, but sin scéal eile.
This story, the story of Clare’s great run started against Kerry in November 1970 when Noel Casey’s haul of 1-4 powered the Banner home to a 5-13 to 4-2 win and ended ten years later with a win against Limerick with the Sixmilebridge legend as the one common denominator between those two sides.
“Casey is the man I remember from the game that sticks out most,” says Fr Bohan. “It was against Galway one year and we were eight points down with only a few minutes left. We didn’t always make great switches, but I moved Noel Casey out from full-forward to centre-forward, everything changed and we beat Galway them.”
It was February 1979, with Clare trailing by 2-9 to 0-7 and four minutes on the clock, only for three goals to follow in as many minutes before the insurance point was walloped over from 75 yards by Colm Honan.
The first goal came when ‘Mickey Murphy in the left corner raced into the centre and passed to Pat O’Connor who slammed to the corner of the net’. Then came ‘a magnificent strike from Johnny Callinan with less than two minutes remaining’ after Seamus Durack and Brendan Gilligan had done the spadework. Then came the third: ‘Michael Conneely’s puck out was collected by Ger Loughnane, who soloed 50 yards before sending the ball to Noel Casey who crashed a fantastic shot to the net giving Conneely no chance’.
“That was definitely the most memorable game,” purrs Callinan, “and in an era well before mobile phones, people didn’t believe it up in Tulla afterwards”.
“There’s a story to go with that,” says Fr Bohan. “Colin Lynch’s grandfather Micky Lynch came from Feakle and when Clare were eight down he went away home — his home was very near Peppar’s Pub and he went in for a pint and eventually one of the Peppars arrived back and said ‘My God that was a great win today’. ‘What win,” said Mickey, ‘weren’t they beaten out the gate’.
“It wasn’t easy get out of Tulla that day there was such excitement afterwards,” continues Bohan, “and I remember when I was coming out John Connolly rolled down the window and said ‘God ye robbed us’. It was a sweet one,” he adds.
“It was sweet alright,” says Callinan, “and I remember my goal, just because I didn’t get too many of them. Another one I recall in Tulla was against Noel Skehan and I have a great memory of that one, because when you hear the phrase ‘he stuck it in the back of the net’ — it actually happened here because got stuck in the wire net in the far goal”.
“I remember the game against Tipp (in ’73),” recalls Jackie O’Gorman, “and that proved there was no such thing as a pitch being unplayable. There was the big lug of water in the middle of the field. The referee threw in the ball to start the game and Mike Moroney just pulled on the water, soaked everyone and no one saw the ball after that for a few minutes.
“Moroney was flailing,” laughs Callinan “and there was water everywhere”.
“That was my first game in Tulla over the team,” says Fr Bohan. “My first game was against Limerick. They were after winning the All-Ireland and they came to Cusack Park. We had two sent off the same day — Vincent Loftus and Enda O’Connor — and we were still only beaten a couple of points. There was a huge crowd at that one.
“Tipp really wanted that game in Tulla off. Donie Nealon was involved with the Tipp team that time and they didn’t want to play because there was the big pool of water out in the middle. I argued vehemently against it and we got our way. It was on the basis that we had brought players from Dublin, lads like Johnny Callinan. It was more than we just wanted to play and we wanted to beat them.”
That win against Tipperary was the third in a run that would extend to 14, a run that with each passing victory added to the lustre of the place and the team which along the way became a real force nationally.
“For Clare to win so many matches and so consistently never really happened before,” declares Fr Bohan, “and there’s nothing better for confidence that winning and Tulla helped create that in a big way.”
“It was the atmosphere,” says Callinan. “There were only two occasions when I physically felt the crowd when I was coming out onto the field. Tulla was one of those — the first one, that Harty Cup semi-final against Ennis CBS in 1971 and the other was the ’78 Munster final in Thurles. The roar was almost physical that day in ’71 and it following on like that in Tulla for the league.”
“There was only really the wire fence and one seat or two seats all round,” recalls O’Gorman, “so you had most of the people on the hill. The atmosphere was fantastic and you nearly had to walk from Kilkishen to get to the field. It was unreal — people walking for three or four miles to get to the games.”
“The huge crowd on the hill would go back along to the dressing room,” says Fr Bohan, “so there would be people everywhere. Behind the road goal and there’d then be a line of spectators over on the far side — it would be a narrow line between the side of the pitch and the wall but they’d still cram in there.
“It meant the supporters were very close to the players. When the players would come out of the dressing room the players were all around. I’d be coming to the matches from Shannon and I’d get to Tulla early, but even at that you’d have cars parked down the Kilkishen Road.
“The crowd would be there early and the atmosphere would be there early, while it added to the whole thing that everyone then went up to Tulla afterwards to talk it all out. It was a great run, but we were almost relieved at the time when we were beaten by Wexford (in ‘77) after 14 straight wins,” he adds.
THEY talk about those days in Tulla 35 years on from the last league win there before the re-opening of Cusack Park in 1980.
“I remember another year Tipp came and only scored three points — they had Babs Keating and them all and they weren’t too happy after that one,” laughs O’Gorman.
Another landmark was their 13th win in January ’77 — a decisive 3-11 to 1-8 win over Kilkenny that lay down a marker for the league final meeting between the sides that Clare won a few months later in Thurles.
“You meet people who were in their 20s in that era and Tulla was their big memory,” says Callinan. ”There was a generation of Clare hurling people who wanted success, we were winning matches and we were all playing off each other. There was a romanticism about the whole thing.”
“People followed the league as much as they did the championship that time and that’s why Tulla was a special place,” reasons O’Gorman. “It was basic stuff and you got a shower after the game if it was raining. The was a barrel outside the dressing room and it was a great spot — it was a 45 gallon drum and it was full of water. That’s how you got a shower.”
“There was a shower…,” reckons Callinan. “I think. But maybe we weren’t as bothered about our personal hygiene back then. It was grim. We used to train there at night time and I definitely remember Enda (O’Connor) driving in his Mercedes and turning on the lights of the car to give some light on the field. I don’t think there was electricity.”
“But it was our fortress,” says Fr Bohan, “and the newspapers would be writing about the dread that other counties had about coming to Tulla. The matches would come very close to one another that time — they could be week after week and John O’Shea in The Irish Press used to be ringing me looking for the team. He rang me very early one Monday morning wondering about when the team would be picked.
“We had built up a great record in Tulla at the time and O’Shea rather sarcastically said to me ‘have you sprinkled the holy water on the Tulla field for next Sunday’. I said to him ‘John, I’ll throw the holy water on you’.”
“In hurling that time,” muses Callinan, “there wasn’t a lot of enjoyment in it. The enjoyment was in the winning, because it was fairly dogged stuff, the pitches were heavy, that ball was heavy and they were real battles. We were a battling team and in racing terms there was a suggestion we were a soft ground horse rather than a good ground horse.
“I think the confines of Tulla might have limited us as a team as well. We became associated with being a Tulla team and that when it came to it we got caught out in the big open pitch of Thurles. So maybe there was a small bit of a downside to Tulla as well.”
That’s probably one of hurling’s great unknowns.
It was still a treasured time though. And it still is after all these years.