HURLING. The greatest game and the only game for Joan Browne, who is surrounded by it and completely immersed in it – in Ballyea and well beyond as she pucks every ball, because she’s always pucked every ball.
All-Ireland senior finals; Munster finals; National League finals; county finals, from senior to junior and underage all the way down to under 10 tournaments and even challenge games.
“The Lenmac,” she sighs going into rewind when recalling her son Jack’s formative years as a hurler. “We won it and we really thought it was an All-Ireland. It was that important. We’d be coming back from it hanging out of the car celebrating. It was everything.”
And, of course it was – it always has been that important to Browne, as a mother, a sister and an aunt, whether it’s Ballyea and Clare or Hospital-Herbertstown and Limerick.
Home was Hospital near the Tipperary border where she was weaned on the great Limerick team of the early 1980s that won back-to-back Munster titles, but just fell short when it came to All-Irelands.
Home has been Ballyea since the early ‘90s with the hurling field within walking distance – she couldn’t have come to a better place as it bridge the different generations of hurling in this corner of the parish.
The first generation that begat breakthrough championship wins like the Junior A title of 1940 and the intermediate win four years later; the present generation with her son Jack as one of the marquee players.
“This was the Markhams house,” she reveals, “and a great place for music and house dances… and for hurling,” she adds in a nod to an old godfather of Ballyea hurling Paddy Markham.
He was on those Ballyea junior and intermediate winning teams and then won a National League medal with Clare in ’46 before emigrating to America a few years later.
Joan Browne came in the other direction, while there was also something symmetrical to the fact that 70 years on from Markham’s part in Clare’s league triumph that her son Jack should bring a second medal into the house.
Not that it was her first taste of the thrills of National League success, however, thanks to her brother Jimmy Carroll’s exploits on a Limerick side that plundered a league title, as well as Munster championships and Railway Cups.
“I was brought up with all that,” says Browne. “We used to go everywhere with Jimmy when he was playing. I was nine years younger than Jimmy and the one thing we did was we went to all the matches – that was our life.
“Jimmy played midfield, always number eight. Dónal was on the Limerick squad for the ’96 All-Ireland and won an intermediate All-Ireland a couple of years later – they beat Kilkenny and Thurles. Who do you think he was marking for some of the game? Henry Shefflin. A very young Henry Shefflin.
“I remember Jimmy was playing poorly one day and there was this fella in front of us and he said ‘Jimmy Carroll, he’s f****** useless, take him off’. The next time there was a score my mother gave him an unmerciful dig in the shoulder blade with her umbrella. Then she was saying ‘where’s why bag, where’s my bag’. It was hilarious.
“Dad was more interested in farming more than anything and he used to leave the games early to get away home. Mam used to say, ‘don’t mind him, leave him off’. We’d eventually go back to the car and he’d go mad blowing the horn trying to get home to milk the cows,” she laughs.
It was as familiar a routine as the hurling was itself, something that stretches back nearly a century in Browne’s family circle. Her mother’s uncle Stephen Moloney won a Munster senior championship medal with Tipperary way back in 1924, while more recently Conor O’Donovan, who was an All-Ireland winner with Tipp in 1989, is also a family relation.
And with Limerick, her mother’s brother Jim Woods was a county minor paving the way for her brothers Jimmy and Dónal to make the grade with the county, while her nephew Damian Reale was part of the storied Limerick Under 21 side that won three All-Irelands in a row at the turn of the millennium.
By this stage she had become involved in Ballyea hurling, serving stints as both treasurer and PRO, all the while being a driver as the Ballyea travelled from pitch to pitch around the county and beyond.
“I joined the club when Jack was about four,” she recalls. “At that time I used to go home every second weekend and I’d put the green jersey on him and then in Clare the saffron and blue one – he used to say to me coming back in the car ‘am I going to play for Rinky [he couldn’t pronounce Limerick] or Clare. I’d say ‘I don’t know Jack, we’ll have to wait and see’.
“There were only seven boys in Jack’s class – Gudgie, Stephen Longe, Éanna McInerney and Dara Crowe were in it. They were so caught up in hurling. They were always up in the field and I’m only up from the field. When they were three, four and five they’d go up to the field.
“We’re up from the field and McInerneys are up from the field and Gudgie’s is across the road. I could see them walking down to the field – I’d ring Anne McInerney and tell her the lads are just coming down the field there, make sure you’re watching them. Then she’s ring me when they were on the way. Tony lived over on the Kildysart Road and he’d come over on his bike. They were always stuck together. They were fierce competitive from a very young age – then they started to win everything.”
Browne dare not think what it would be like to win the big one – her first All-Ireland in Croke Park was in 1980 when Jimmy was midfield on the Limerick side beaten 1-18 to 3-9 by Galway.
And there was a Cuala link that day too – the match referee Noel O’Donoghue was a founder member of the Dalkey club, as he was again on the whistle the following year in the tempestuous semi-final meeting between the sides.
“Jimmy and John Connolly were put,” she recalls. “They dropped the hurleys and were pucking the heads off one another. Then they were trying to prove to the referee they were great friends and then they went at in the tunnel as well, even though it was just the heat of the match,” she laughs.
Limerick eventually lost that semi-final after a replay, so maybe third time charm is at hand.
“Wouldn’t it just be unbelievable,” she says. “I remember after the county final when we were playing Thurles Sarsfields I was saying ‘to hell with it, we won the county and no one expected us to beat Thurles, so, so what, we still had a brilliant year’.
“Then we began to lose by too much and people were leaving, they were going. I said ‘well I’m not going, I’m staying to the very end’ and I could say to people ‘ye’re very rude, when they’re winning ye’re staying, but when they’re losing ye’re going’.
“The next thing we won. That was possibly the weirdest thing ever. Tony’s interview after it – his two eyes were popping out of his head, in sort of disbelief. It was as if there was a sarcastic grin on his face saying ‘did we think we’d ever win this.’
“It would be lovely to finish it now, wouldn’t it.”