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'There were dark moments along the road. It always makes you appreciate the brighter days'

A new hurling book, Limerick: A Biography in Nine Lives, tells the story of heartbreak and joy.

Image: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

IN THE LONG list of heartbreak and near misses, the 1987 Munster championship semi-final would rank low for the majority of the Limerick faithful. For Ger Hegarty, it remains at the forefront of his mind.

At the time, the group’s trajectory only pointed one way. A rising green tide. In 1984 he was an All-Ireland minor winner. He won a Munster U21 in 1986 and went on to win an All-Ireland at the same grade in 1987. At senior, they opened the ‘87 campaign with a convincing win over Waterford in Thurles.

Three weeks later, it was back to the same venue to face the defending champions, Cork.

denis-walsh-and-shane-fitzgibbon-1987 Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“That was a Cork team that had been a marvellous team but were probably gone past their best,” Hegarty recalls.

“We felt we had a great chance the first day, but it went to a replay. We had the winning of that game. If we beat Cork, as it looked like we might, it would have put us into a Munster final against another emerging team, Tipperary.

“Tipperary were coming from the doldrums. We were coming from the doldrums. It would have been a unique Munster final. Unfortunately, we lost heavily in the replay. Cork went on and Tipperary got a great uplifting win. A missed opportunity.

“The margins are tiny between defeat or victory. Just a point away. But the difference in how you feel afterwards is enormous.“

Hegarty is one of the subjects in Arthur James O’Dea’s new book, Limerick: A Biography in Nine Lives. O’Dea works as a producer for Off The Ball and is ideally placed to tell this story. Sligo by birth, Limerick by blood.

His father hails from Kilmallock and passed on the affliction. Published by Hero Books, the book touches on the small sporting story of how the 2018 breakthrough happened while plunging into the heart of the bigger picture. Specifically, what it meant for the county and its people. 

“This book has been written for all the conversations that could not take place on the drives home from matches,” it declares at the beginning. A promise made. A promise expertly delivered.

“There is very real, traditional masculinity in this Irish-specific context. Just being averse to sharing your feelings, certainly among men. Fathers and sons,” O’Dea says.  

“Now, that was never at all an issue in our house. That stereotype was not there. I was keen to make sure it didn’t come across that way.

“Our relationship transcends hurling. We don’t find understanding through hurling alone. But it just always stuck with me that the resounding memory of Limerick matches was coming back with that shared sense of disappointment.

“I was more disappointed for him. Often there was a sense of finality. Nothing to talk about because in twelve months they will play again, and we will see how it goes. Helplessness and hopelessness. The story for a long time was, ‘another year gone.’”

To truly appreciate this golden age, the preceding barren years are crucial. In a distinctive and common way, the 45-year famine touched all nine figures. They are Mick Mackey, Eamonn Cregan, Tommy Quaid, Joe McGrath, Ger Hegarty, Tom Ryan, Shane Fitzgibbon, Stephen Lucey and Shane Dowling.

It was passed down and carried on. Pent up so long that it was destined to produce an almighty bang.

Consider Hegarty’s ordeal to get on the field in 1994. Eight years of senior hurling resulted in four knee operations. He tore his ACL in 1993 and had to endure extreme cutting surgery. He preserved through rehab and setbacks, making it to the 1994 decider.

It all came crashing down during that infamous five-minute final. The book begins with the 2018 victory over Galway. The game still shakes with the echoes of that triumph. A case of many regrets followed by relief? Not even close. Just grateful their day has finally come.

“I never had any regrets,” Hegarty stresses. “I never regretted a day I pulled on my jersey. Whether that be Limerick CBS, my club jersey Old Christians or Limerick. Any day I went out I gave my best and whatever happened then, so be it. No holds barred; I went out to give my all.

“The only regret I have is I lost a significant portion of my career with injury and that is something I couldn’t control.

“There were dark moments along the road. It always makes you appreciate the brighter days. You get through them and it makes you stronger really. You know how quickly it can be taken away.

“Reading the two books about Limerick in recent years, the light at the end of our tunnel was 2018. On top of that, we’ve had 2020, 2021 and 2022 as well. We are in the midst of a fantastic era.

“The number of people who said to me you must be relieved Limerick won in 2018. I wouldn’t use that word. You are appreciative of the moment and want to enjoy it. Look, no one has a divine right to one. We know that. Relief comes from expectation.

“You have to go out and win them. That was a thrilling final and it was fantastic to get over the line.”

diarmaid-byrnes-gearoid-hegarty-richie-english-and-peter-casey-celebrate-after-the-game-with-the-liam-maccarthy Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Family ties run deep through the book. Valerie Lynch, Cian’s mother and sister of three-time All-Star Ciarán Carey, once described watching the 2018 final as the worst, longest day of her life. She knew how deep a loss could cut. They all did. 

It is who they are. As Breda Quaid, wife to the late Tommy and Nickie’s mother, told her eldest two children in 1992 when they accompanied her to the National League final, ‘there’s no point looking for mammy if you get lost, so if somebody asks you your name tell them that your father is playing inside in goals for Limerick.”

“One thing I found very interesting was that the likes of Ger, Shane Fitzgibbon, Stephen Lucey, how much joy they took in 2018,” says O’Dea.

“Especially Lucey, he may as well have been on the pitch. There was no ounce of bitterness or jealousy. It just helps process everything else that came before.

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“Now I don’t think anyone has to explain what it means to this team, but it has to be something they carried within them. You have players there like Nickie Quaid who seems to be revered.

“You can’t know Nickie’s story and not know what came before him. That is part of them.”

Of all of them. It is why he wrote the book.

“I don’t have to chase anything to make my father proud or to get attention. But I wanted to do something he took immense joy in. He has thankfully. He read it and is re-reading it.

“You also want good positive critical feedback. You want your peers to think it is well done. At the same time, I really wanted my family to like it and enjoy it.”

Last July, Ger Hegarty watched his son soar in Croke Park, hitting 1-5 in a man of the match performance. That showing helped Limerick to their fourth All-Ireland in five years. 

For Ger, any questions about the past or the future pale into insignificance for this group. The key is to cherish the now.  

“Gearoid grew up with it. He knows the history but he lives in the moment. He is a very bright guy. Do the present team have an eye on what happened before? I don’t think so. I actually think that is why they are so good.

“If you look back at the history of Limerick hurling, it is 50, 60, 70 years of disappointment. Bar 1973, you have to go back to the 40s. These guys are not looking in the rearview mirror. They have driven on. Going forward rather than looking back.

“They are just creating their own history. One thing he says all the time. We can look back after our careers. They live in the moment and are tuned into the fact it can end quickly. They don’t have the baggage of yesteryear.

“What 2018 did was it took away the baggage we suffered from. All the concrete blocks on your shoulders were gone in 2018, anything was possible after that. We can achieve anything.”

As they continue to prove.

Limerick: A Biography In Nine Lives by Arthur James O’Dea is out now in all good bookstores or on Amazon. 

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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