The most famous Clare v Limerick championship game of them all was in 1955 – when Clare were shoo-ins for a Munster title only to be shocked by Limerick in The Gaelic Grounds. It was the game that kept back Clare hurling for generations, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
Clare v Limerick 1955: Greyhounds of the Apocalypse
“Mick Mackey not only trained that team, but wired them as well to take power and energy from every turbine in Ardnacrusha. The Clare lads were like racehorses trying to match pace in an unequal contest with speed cars.”
Spectator at The Gaelic Ground on 10 July 1955
“AND now here’s the result of the Munster Final,” blurted Michéal O’Hehir over the Raidio Éireann airwaves, no doubt heavy of hurling heart as he spoke given that his Clare connections that went all the way to Paradise in Ballynacally.
This was no Paradise for Clare, but instead it was hell on hurling earth as O’Hehir continued with his Munster Final broadcast: “Limerick 2-16 Clare 2-6”.
For those Limerick people of little faith, those stay away supporters that The Limerick Leader’s hurling correspondent of the day ‘Camán’ said were “kicking their heels restlessly on the beaches of Kilkee and Ballybunion when the all too brief message flashed over the ether” it was scarcely believable.
They’d availed of the blisteringly hot day to head for their favourite coastal resorts of Kerry and Clare instead of going to the Ennis Road. Maybe now they were suffering from some sunstroke.
They’d gone west because this Munster Final was a foregone conclusion, because as Camán had told them, “few could see a crowd of young Limerick lads, a lot of them not yet to reach their majority making any impression on the solid Banner County defences that had withstood successfully the terrific barrage of the Rackards, the Rings, the Bannons and all the big scoring figures of recent years”.
But it happened. In two years there had been a 44-point turnaround between the near-neighbours — it was no wonder that those in Kilkee and Ballybunion were thinking sunstroke and that ‘Camán’ could hardly contain himself when it was all over.
“Sunday, July 10th, 1955 is a day that will go down as one of the most glorious in the long story of Gaelic Games by the Shannon,” he thundered.
“(In Kilkee and Ballybunion) Hundreds wondered if there was any mistake and some were inclined to think the scores were reversed — even at that they were satisfied Limerick had made a good showing. The win was eventually confirmed and the rest of the time was spent gasping for details of the victory.
“Clare players and spectators were bewitched and bewildered by the lightening pace and rapid strokes of the green jersied brigade, who hurled with the unison of a well-geared machine, and had the happy knack of being in two or three places at the one time.”
For Clare it was the apocalypse.
For Limerick it was the Nirvana. More still it was Valhalla.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
“ALL READY FOR VICTORY,” boasted The Clare Champion in bold and capitalised font on the eve of the game.
Indeed, this Munster final joust with Limerick — only the second ever meeting between the sides in the provincial final showpiece was just a stepping stone to greater things. 1955 was about the All-Ireland, not just the Munster Final.
“As the weeks go by since the first two games of the current championship, Clare’s achievement looks greater,” said the Champion’s correspondent, “beating the All-Ireland champions and the National League holders within a fortnight. It would make any team favourites for the supreme title which Clare has only gained once and contested on only one other occasion,” he added.
And, it was no wonder such confidence coursed through anyone of a saffron and blue hue — the combination of the previous November’s thrilling Oireachtas final victory over Wexford and the defeats of Cork and Tipperary had created an aura around this Clare team.
Created a team of All-Ireland champions in waiting.
The Oireachtas final win had teed Clare up as the coming team — the team to beat for 1955 even. “Had it been an All-Ireland final they would have rated it the best for several years,” said John D Hickey in The Irish Independent after Clare’s 3-6 to 0-12 win over Wexford. The atmosphere was electric and for Clare folk it was indeed, a joyous occasion,” he added.
“The feast of hurling was so substantial, so grand in style and extent that cynics could do no more than thank God they had been permitted to live to see the day,” said Wexford hurling writer Nicky Furlong of that game.
“It was that good; Clare were that good, so much so that the team now had a return visit to Croke Park the following September to win an All-Ireland very much on mind. I was convinced that Clare, the team that had won the Oireachtas final of 1954, would be the All-Ireland champions of 1955,” Furlong added.
Clare’s 3-8 to 2-10 over three-in-a-row All-Ireland champions Cork in the Munster quarter-final the following June on the back of a tour de force from full-back Dan McInerney added to the team’s growing reputation.
Then came the semi-final, when it was a case of ‘Bring on Tipp’.
“Those amazing Clare hurlers have done it again,” proclaimed Pádraig Puirséal in The Irish Press after the league champions were felled in semi-final. “As at Thurles against Cork a fortnight ago they snatched victory from defeat in the closing minutes and by the same margin, a single point, humbled the pride of Tipperary.
“Just ten minutes from time the fireworks began. Tipperary were hanging on doggedly to a two-point lead against a steady Clare offensive when the Bannermen were awarded a free at midfield,” he continued.
Captain Matt Nugent took the puck and when he floated it towards the small square Jimmy Carney from Bealaha “slipped through the ruck to flash it past Reddan and Clare led for the first time since the opening minutes”.
Tipp equalised through Tony Wall, but according to Puirséal “to prove that the vital moment had really come, Clare’s Jimmy Smyth now took off his boots and almost at once pointed a free to send Clare’s supporters delirious once more”.
And it was this sense of delirium that promised to sweep Clare all the way to September and the Liam McCarthy Cup.
That’s what supporters believed. And what players believed.
“We had the All-Ireland sewn up,” said Jimmy Carney, who played left-half-forward. “I was 19 years of age and all I had on my mind was an All-Ireland medal,” he added.
Whatever about the All-Ireland, Clare looked to have the Munster title sewn up. After all, it was only Limerick – the county they’d beaten by 10-8 to 1-1 in that 1953 game, a 34-point mauling that prompted John D Hickey to say in his report “were hurling a professional rather than amateur game I could well see this morning’s Irish Independent carrying an advertisement in letters bold and big: ‘Wanted a Limerick hurling team’.”
By 1955 Limerick had just that, with only three survivors from ’53 in corner-back Donal Broderick from Dromcollogher, centre-forward Dermot Kelly from Claughan and corner-forward Gerry Fitzgerald from Rathkeale.
The men of Clare against the boys of Limerick was the currency beforehand, but a few lines from The Clare Champion’s preview of the game were telling. “This is destined to be one of the fastest Munster Finals ever fought as the opposing sides are amongst the liveliest in the country, young and agile,” it stated.
“Limerick will pin their best hopes speed, concentrating on getting there first and striking quick. Clare has an outstanding defence, but it will have to move faster than usual to cope with the spirited Limerick combination,” the preview added.
And there was another line: “Dermot Kelly has the experience to worry Clare’s O’Grady.”
The preview was haunting in its accuracy.
THERE was a crowd of 23,125 at the game — a drop of over 15,000 from the semi-final against Tipperary at the same venue two weeks earlier.
And, it wasn’t the only difference. There was the weather, described by ‘Camán’ as “the first real sunny weekend in two sun-starved years” when temperatures touched 28 degrees.
Meanwhile, there was also the presence of a bishop, not from the Killaloe or Limerick diocese, or even the patron of the GAA from Cashel and Emly but Dr Leo D’Mello, the Bishop of Ajmer in India who got “a rousing reception as he advanced to centre-field to start the game” as the St John’s Brass Band played ‘Faith Of Our Fathers’.
Then, explicably within minutes of the start Clare started losing the faith, despite beginning with a couple of Jimmy Smyth points.
“Long before the half way stage was reached the field was a mass of wide-eyed, open-mouthed spectators marvelling at the speed of the Limerick youngsters, and wondering whether Clare had any tricks left to counter a new hurling technique that set a pace yards faster than anything previously encountered,” said ‘Camán’.
Clare trailed by four at half-time, then by 2-9 to 0-5 by the three-quarter stage as many shocked Clare supporters began heading for the exits.
“At half-time we were a few points up. Mackey got up on the table at half-time and I never saw or heard an ovation like it. He was like a hound after a hare up in Liscannor, with the hare cornered. He was like Martin Luther King or John F Kennedy. The words were flowing out of him. That’s where you saw the hurling passion come out in him. Having Mick Mackey as a trainer was worth its weight in gold, because everyone was in awe of him at the time ‘We have ‘em, we have ‘em,’ he said. We were all about three feet off the ground going out for the second half,” added Kelly.
“Mackey banged the galvanised roof with the hurley at half-time,” revealed wing-forward Ralph Prednergast, “and said Clare have never beaten us in the Munster Championship here and they aren’t going to start now. I believed him and vowed to myself that I wasn’t going to be on a team that was the first team to be beaten. I was only 19 so I was easily fired up.”
“We weren’t able for them,” revealed Jimmy Smyth in Henry Martin’s in biography of Mick Mackey. “Dan McInerney, the full-back, wasn’t in it; Nugent at wing-back wasn’t in it; there was nobody in it. I was average myself, no more than average.
“We were looking towards the All-Ireland really. We were looking one step ahead. On top of that nobody on the Clare team played well whereas every Limerick player played well. In centre field we were being beaten all hands up.
“We did take Limerick for granted because all these Limerick players were young fellas with the exception of Dermot Kelly. Kelly was a great hurler and every ball he hit that day went over the bar. Donal O’Grady, who was on him, was a great hurler, but he was never switched on the day and I would blame the selectors a lot for that,” he added.
“Impudent youngsters coursed the ball with such confidence that the Clare backline hardly knew where they stood,” gloried ‘Camán’ in The Limerick Leader. “Prendergast travelled along the wing with the leather literally glued to his hurley; Dermot Kelly flashed here, there and everywhere, took some delightful passes and was eventually undisputedly in control of his sector – and it was a wide one.”
“The victories over the All-Ireland champions and National League holders faded from memory as quickly as they had come,” mourned The Clare Champion. “Limerick had hit Clare like a thunderbolt. The sun beat down relentlessly throughout the game, making this Munster Final one of the greatest endurance tests. And the youth stood it the better. Limerick, averaging only 23 years, made light of such weather.
“Such a look of surprise and bewilderment has rarely been seen on a GAA arena. When the final whistle went Clare players were dumbfounded. They found it impossible to realise what had happened. The disastrous game had completely overcome them. And the supporters! They were dismayed beyond imagination.
“Sunday’s defeat was the biggest blow to Clare in the county’s GAA history. It will never be forgotten. It was a heartless affair as far as the losers were concerned and the spirit of a Munster final was completely lacking on their side.”
It would be 40 years before Clare summoned the spirit to win a Munster title.