Micheál Houlihan won a Limerick county title with Kilmallock in 2021. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Micheál Houlihan may be the exception that proves the rule on Limerick's production line

The 25-year-old has taken an unusual route to the fringes of John Kiely’s team, which is backboned by academy graduates.

LIMERICK’S HURLERS WERE six weeks from a Munster championship opener against Cork when Mike Houlihan’s jaw was broken in two places by the flailing kick of a bullock. “Of course we are disappointed that Mike will not be available to us,” manager Tom Ryan conceded. What with the operation and recuperation that such an ordeal required, three months would pass before the Kilmallock man could even hope to hurl again. 

Such estimates are constructed around the capabilities of ordinary men, however. “Most players wouldn’t make it, but Mike has enormous willpower,” noted Ryan only two weeks later. “Last year he played with a shoulder out of place, and when I last spoke to him he was really upbeat about making it back for the Cork game.” 

When Limerick travelled to Páirc Uí Chaoimh at the end of May 1996, Houlihan assumed his place in midfield as Cork were defeated by a margin of 16 points. Three days after the wiring had been removed from his jaw, Houlihan’s perseverance echoed what Bill Shankly famously claimed of his Liverpool defender Tommy Smith: ‘He wasn’t born, he was quarried.’ 


Micheál Houlihan missed all this of course. Born the following year, he has only really known his father Mike as a retired inter-county hurler. Undoubtedly educated in the heartbreaking defeats his father’s team suffered in ’94 and ’96, he will also have heard stories of Mike’s fortitude, size and physical strength.

“Iron Mike himself,” a delighted Tommy Walsh remarked when naming his Top 5 Hurling Strongmen on Off The Ball a few years ago. “I went for naturally strong men, not guys who had spent five years in the gym . . . I went for strong, hardy men.” Houlihan was named third on his list. 

On Saturday evening, Micheál, who won an All-Ireland winners medal in July without seeing any game-time, took the first steps out of his father’s considerable shadow on the inter-county stage. Named as a starter by John Kiely for the first time, he converted eight frees and four more points from play to help Limerick on their way to a comfortable win against Clare. Following Cian Lynch, Gearóid Hegarty, Sean Finn, Barry Nash, Seamus Flanagan, Barry Hennessy and Nickie Quaid, he is the latest descendent of a former Limerick hurler avenging the disappointment of opportunities lost years ago. 

And yet, it has been a circuitous route to this point for the 25-year-old Houlihan. 


Limerick’s four All-Ireland wins since 2018 have been the realisation of underage promise in 2015 and 2017. All-Ireland U21 successes can be traced back to the formation of the county’s celebrated hurling academy. Spearheaded by Shane Fitzgibbon in the late 2000s, it was taken onto another level again when JP McManus declared it worthy of his interest – and investment – a few years later. Few current Limerick senior hurlers are without some measure of its benefits, but Houlihan only ever touched it briefly. 

Saturday’s starting place has its origins in club form. Three times a county finalist, he scored 0-11 as Kilmallock won the 2021 decider. The club’s dead ball specialist, Houlihan never wanted for hurling skill. Whereas his contemporaries benefited from the conditioning work which compliments the academy’s skills training, however, Houlihan has had to catch up. 

From the U15 age-grade, the 40 or so young players drafted into the academy get their first experience of gym work. Nothing extraordinary, they are schooled in the basics of strength and conditioning; skills they will build on as they play on into U16s and minor level.

Meeting weekly at the University of Limerick campus, as 13- and 14-year-old hopefuls these players are given an idea of what an elite set-up should be, and how you ought to behave within it. Not for nothing did Shane Dowling (a player who predated the academy) admit his surprise at the readiness of those first-generation academy players who backboned an All-Ireland win at senior level in their early 20s. 

As was the case in Mike Houlihan’s time, size and strength remain highly prized characteristics. The only major difference now being that the preponderance of such players is prioritised to eradicate any reliance on genetic good fortune. Be it Sean Finn’s legs, Cian Lynch’s torso or basically the shoulders and arms of any Limerick hurler, they are the product of a systematic approach and culture that lends itself to individuals willing to work within it. 

Familiar with the effort his son Gearóid puts in all year round, Ger Hegarty — no small man himself, and Mike Houlihan’s usual midfield partner in the 1990s — scoffs at the idea that he would ever have entertained such demands. Yet, if you matured within a world where such expectations were commonplace, they appear more palatable. 

To mature outside of this system takes some doing, therefore. Such is the path Micheál Houlihan has taken. Watching on for RTÉ, Anthony Daly, who spent a number of years heading up Limerick’s academy, was drawn to comment on Houlihan’s appearance. “Not a young lad,” he allowed, distancing the 25-year-old Houlihan from some of the exciting underage players getting a run at senior, “but in fairness you can see the body shape has changed completely. He’s in incredible nick.”

Houlihan has been in or around the Limerick panel for a year or so. He is proof that the rule allows some exception. On the one hand, it is a testament to John Kiely’s eye and impression of a player’s attitude. Buoyed by the assembly line feel of Limerick’s annual influx of fresh talent, Kiely’s willingness to afford opportunities to the likes of Houlihan or David Reidy has served him well. On the other, Houlihan is known to have embraced the winning culture since his arrival and worked ferociously to give himself a chance.

“If he’s going to earn his place on the team he’s going to have to do that regularly,” the Limerick manager matter-of-factly put it after Saturday’s showing from Houlihan. “Well done to him. But it needs to be backed up again as we go forward.”

Houlihan must now justify that he is worthy of another. 


Around 10 years before Michelangelo was born, the giant slab of marble that would become David had been quarried in the town of Carrara and shipped to Florence. It had been left more or less abandoned (if unsuccessfully coveted now and again) until Michelangelo began carving at the turn of the 16th century. 

Unfairly, perhaps, Limerick hurling has historically resembled that endearing but ultimately unfinished block of marble. Past heroes and previous All-Ireland winners do not supersede the notion that this current team are the masterpiece within. 

When Micheál Houlihan entered his 26th year, he surely understood that any hope he had of making it as a Limerick hurler would be decided therein. Saturday’s performance demonstrated that he had likely always been skilful enough to hold his own. What remains to be seen is if his delayed physical maturation can keep pace with players who have in certain instances spent almost half their lives being suitably prepared. 

Mike Houlihan was quarried; Micheál’s now being carved. 

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