Denis Walsh’s much acclaimed Hurling: The Revolution Years tells the wonderful story of the metamorphosis of hurling following Clare’s breakthrough in the mid-90’s. The book is a nostalgic behind-the-scenes account of the unprecedented excitement and unpredictability that surrounded the era, as new teams emerged to challenge the traditional powers of Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary. But almost twenty years on from Clare’s dramatic All-Ireland triumph, it seemed as if the volatility of the championship had all but dissipated. The Old Order had been re-established, the revolution quashed. Since Offaly’s victory in ’98, ‘The Big Three’ had resumed its autocratic strangle-hold on the Liam McCarthy, apportioning thirteen consecutive All-Ireland titles between them.
Until 2013. A heat wave swept over the country that summer and brought with it a kaleidoscopic effect that distorted our perception of the natural world. Giants that had once seemed infallible suddenly exuded weakness. The “small fish” suddenly seemed larger than we ever thought possible. For five beautiful months, the spirit of The Revolution Years was reborn, as a collective democratic movement through which the playing field returned to equilibrium. Fittingly, an old protagonist would emerge triumphant.
At the outset of the championship, Kilkenny’s era of dominance showed no signs of relenting. Like all dynasties, The Cats vice-grip on hurling felt ominously permanent, as if they were transcending the laws of morality that generally govern sport. Galway could, possibly should have toppled them the year before. Kilkenny eked a draw and as punishment for their intransigence, the Tribesman were subjected to an 11-point shellacking in the replay. Tipperary, who had threatened to usurp the throne at the turn of the decade, had regressed. Cork and Waterford were both stationed somewhere between a phase of turbulent transition and a period of steady decline. Galway, of course, were still Galway. When Kilkenny regained their National League title after a feisty encounter with Tipperary, many anticipated that the ‘real’ championship wouldn’t commence until the two rivals met again in September.
It would be easy to suggest that the first signs of Kilkenny’s demise appeared when Offaly bagged a couple of goals inside 13 minutes of their Leinster Quarter-Final. Without the aid of hindsight bias however, the truth is that Kilkenny recovered, put 26 points on their opponents and moved on. Despite an uncharacteristic shipping of four goals, nobody envisaged at that point that Kilkenny’s Leinster campaign was in serious peril. Dublin hadn’t beaten the Cats since 1942, their most recent championship encounter, the year previous resulting in an eighteen-point trimming. An unconvincing display against Wexford, described as ‘constipated hurling’ by Ger Loughnane, did little to suggest that their seventy-one-year losing streak was about to come to an end.
A healthy dose of diuretics ensured a much improved performance, but losing streaks aren’t easily broken. Even when Joey Boland put Dublin in front with less than a minute to go, the weight of history coupled with the poise of TJ Reid meant that they couldn’t see it out. The perception was that underdogs only get one chance to slay the favourite. Especially against Kilkenny. You come at the king, you best not miss. But six days later, Dublin would defy this logic, withstanding a barrage of late pressure to record an historic win. The following week, Dublin, imbued with a potent mix of confidence and momentum, overpowered Galway to return the Bob O’Keefe trophy to The Pale for the first time in fifty-two years. Queue the ‘There won’t be a cow milked in Marino’ gags.
Below in Munster, Limerick were improving, albeit from a very low base following the ignominy of 2010, a ‘lost year’ in which a player mutiny resulted in a plethora of chastening defeats. Having beaten Dublin in the Division 1B League decider, they welcomed Tipperary to the Gaelic Grounds with a quiet confidence. Tipperary, strong favourites to claim their third successive Munster title, were ripe for an ambush. On a sweltering hot afternoon, the Treaty men emerged from the long grass to record an against-the-odds victory over the old enemy. Limerick fans streamed onto the pristine turf. It would become a familiar sight. The final itself, like in Leinster, proved somewhat anticlimactic. Seven unanswered points in the closing stages against a 14-man Cork team meant that the result was a formality long before the final whistle blew. Once it did, throngs of Limerick men and women again spilled out onto the pitch. Only three years on from their darkest hour, the sun was shining on Shannonside.
Off-Broadway, Tipperary were drawn to play Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in the qualifiers, akin to a heavyweight eliminator bout at an Atlantic City casino. The sell-out crowd, the doe-or-die nature of the contest and the premature meeting of two of hurling’s greatest foes all contributed to a fervent atmosphere. The baying crowd weren’t disappointed as a gladiatorial contest ensued under the warm evening sun. With six minutes remaining, Henry Shefflin entered the bear-pit, his first taste of hurling since the previous September. The King was back. As too were Kilkenny, who would live to fight another day. Two weeks later, Waterford would refuse to wilt, bringing the All-Ireland Champions to extra-time and forcing them to exude every ounce of their indomitable spirit to prevail. But prevail they did, tired and bloodied, yet still standing. If the revolution was gaining momentum, the monarchy was refusing to fall.
When Clare defeated Waterford in the opening round of the Munster Championship, their first win in Munster since 2008, talk either side of the Shannon immediately revolved around the imminent Clare-Limerick Munster Final and a revival of the intense rivalry that dominated the mid-90’s. All nostalgia was quashed however, when Cork, written off after a disastrous league campaign, produced a performance from nowhere to inflict an eight-point defeat on The Banner. Thus, Davy Fitzgerald’s troops were forced to navigate the murky backwaters of the qualifiers, sustained on a regimen of Mi Wadi and biscuits. While all eyes were on Nowlan Park, Clare disposed of Laois with consummate ease, all but goalkeeper and corner-back Domhnaill O’Donovan contributing to the final tally of 1-32. Demoted to undercard status again for their subsequent tie, they would require extra-time to dispose of a game but limited Wexford side. The field by now, had been whittled down to six. For the first time in five years, Clare were among them.
It was assumed there was a kick in Kilkenny. Tipperary and Waterford had failed to deliver the fatal blow and the general consensus was that they were regaining strength. But ultimately, a Rebel onslaught proved a battle too far for the champions and as the walls came tumbling down, the gates were blown wide open. The hurling world was euphoric, not owing to a disdain for Kilkenny as such, but rather due to the excitement that their exit instilled in the remainder of the championship. Cork’s victory changed the complexion of the competition, with five teams vying for the vacant throne, all of whom fancied their chances in this new egalitarian world. Later that day, Clare staked a convincing claim, beating Galway with a surprising degree of comfort.
And so, come August, there were four teams left standing in the most unpredictable of championships. If that year’s league standings were an accurate representation of hurling’s hierarchy, none of the top four seeded teams had made the cut. Whichever way you looked, compelling narratives were waiting to be written. Dublin were still in the hunt for The Double. Cork and Clare, under the tutelage of past players, were returning to former glories. Limerick, a phoenix from the flames of an internal crisis, were longing to make amends for years of crushing Croke Park failures.
When Cork took on Dublin in the first of the semi-finals, any pressure felt by the two counties certainly didn’t manifest itself on the pitch. Instead, an electric, exhilarating encounter unfolded, which teetered on a knife-edge until Dublin’s Ryan O’ Dwyer was shown a second yellow. Playing the final twenty minutes with an extra man, Cork finished strongly, a fortuitous Patrick Horgan goal effectively sealing the deal. Cork, who had been relegated from the league four months earlier, were back in an All-Ireland Final.
It doesn’t take a lot to excite the Limerick hurling fraternity. Having seen all of their provincial frustrations dissipate into the warm July air, they had a four-week wait in which to agitate themselves into a frenzied state of anticipation. In a brazen temptation of fate, a song was even released, opening with “40 years of waiting, to bring McCarthy back, when we do it this year, we’re going to have some craic”. When the Limerick players eventually took to the field, Clare wasted no time in perforating the hype-bubble. Having had a string of games to work out the kinks in their ‘total hurling’ system, their tactical acuity dumbfounded a Limerick team playing only their second game since the start of April. The flatness of the Limerick performance was compounded by a first-half free-taking malfunction from Declan Hannon and ultimately, it was Clare who would pencil a September date into their calendar.
As The Gospel of Matthew had prophesied in its pre-championship analysis, So the last shall be first, and the first last. And so, five months after the two paired off in the league’s relegation playoff, Cork and Clare would contest that year’s showcase event. The bookies sat on the fence, unwilling to call a winner after a summer in which form and logic had been cast aside. On one hand, there was the artisanry of Clare’s attack coupled with the solidity of their half-back line, coalescing seamlessly using a precise short-game, refined over the course of a long summer. On the other side, Cork were Cork. History, tradition and self-belief. ‘Corkness’ as it’s now known.
‘Corkness’ was nearly enough too. For three-quarters of the All-Ireland Final, Clare played all the hurling, leading 0-21 to 1-13 after 55 minutes. But for a goal of sheer individualistic brilliance by Conor Lehane, the game would have been effectively over and a summer that had produced so much exhilaration and drama would have petered out into the dampest of squibs. Then Cork were awarded a free from 20-yards and up came Anthony Nash. The patented Nash technique, which involved using a pronounced lift to negate the first five yards, was first showcased in a qualifier game against Wexford the previous year. On this occasion, his thunderbolt found the net to reduce the deficit to three. A late Patrick Cronin goal levelled the game and with time almost elapsed, Patrick Horgan put Cork ahead. A textbook smash-and-grab looked imminent, history trumping hurling. As the clock ticked past the allocated two minutes of additional time, the referee allowed for one last play. Under the cover of the Cusack Stand, just inside the 45m line, the ball found Domhnaill O’Donovan, the one man not to score against Laois back in July, the one man tasked with snatching a draw from the most undeserving of defeats. Over it went. Oh Holy Moses.
The replay was fixed for a Saturday evening, to the chagrin of traditionalists. But in a championship which refused to be dictated by tradition, the novelty spectre of a floodlit All-Ireland Final seemed perfectly fitting. Much of the discussion before the replay centred on Nash’s party-piece, its legality and its associated hazards. As in the drawn game, Nash was beckoned forward on three occasions, tasked with keeping Cork in the game. As before, only one in three would find the net. At the other end, Clare made hay, scything through the heart of Cork’s defence with impunity. Shane O’Donnell, who had only been notified of his starting berth that morning, pilfered three goals inside twenty minutes. With ten minutes remaining, a Seamus Harnedy goal drew Cork level. The porosity of their defence however, ensured that any reprieve was fleeting, Conor McGrath finding the net at the other end almost immediately. A manic finish to the game would see each team goal once more and when the music eventually stopped, it was Clare who came out on top. The best team and the unlikeliest of victors, a beautiful contradiction that epitomized the championship.
When the dust settled on the 2013 All-Ireland Hurling Championship, the accepted narrative was that Clare would dominate the ensuing years, in the same way as Kilkenny dominated the late-Noughties. They capped the year with the retention of the U21 All-Ireland title, copper-fastening the consensus that this was a multitalented generation of limitless potential. The vast expanses of Croke Park were destined to become their playground, an arena in which the magic of ’13 would be recaptured for years to come. They haven’t won a championship game there since. Instead, their success became the catalyst for an era of uniformity across the board. The past six years has seen four different counties lift the Liam McCarthy, traditional powerhouses Kilkenny and Tipperary sharing the spoils with history-makers Galway and Limerick. Cork, for their part, have oscillated wildly in the intervening years and haven’t returned to a final. Davy Fitzgerald’s reign came to a disappointing end in 2016, having lost the support of a cohort of players. Now at the helm of Wexford’s revival, it is not inconceivable that he could replicate Clare’s accomplishments in his adopted county.
We are currently in the midst of hurling’s new Revolution Years, a glorious era where the upstarts cohabit hurling’s highest echelons with the aristocrats. Only this time, they look set to stay.