DCSIMG

TALES OF '73 IMMORTALS

GROWN men cried and JP McManus crawled through the dressing room window. TOM ENGLISH on the remarkable story of how Limerick triumphed 34 years In the early evening of Saturday, September 1, 1973, Mossie Dowling was kicking his heels in his room at the Crofton hotel in Drumcondra, counting the hours till Sunday, killing time as best he could.

Centre-forward on the Limerick team to play Kilkenny in the All Ireland final the next afternoon, a notion took him just after dinner. He'd get the bus to town. He'd head for O'Connell Street. There was something in a window there he wanted to see.

Dropped off near the Gresham hotel he strolled down to Clery's, not his type of place in a normal course of events but this night, this whole weekend and the crazy days that followed were anything but normal.

In the fading light, something shone through the glass; the Liam McCarthy Cup, on show to all gaeldom. Beside it, arranged in a neat display was a collection of medals. "Look at them," Dowling said to himself. "Them things will be ours tomorrow evening." He didn't have a doubt. Not one. None of them did.

How could this be? This was the county that was good enough to contest the previous five National League finals but frail enough to lose four of them.

The foundations of this team were the same as the team that had gone into the 1971 championship as the pundits' pick only to blow a big lead against Tipp in the Munster final, the same team, pretty much, that were talked-up in '72 only to fall embarrassingly at the first hurdle against unfancied Clare, the same group that had had the good fortune to meet London in the semi-final in '73 and then took all day to beat them.

And if one of their number is to be believed it was also a team never far from turbulence. "Dick Stokes was our manager," says Tom Ryan, "and Dick was one of nature's gentlemen.

He wasn't cut out to be a hurling manager because he was too nice. He confided in me a lot and felt undermined by senior figures in the team, people who shall remain nameless. Bully boys got power and they were calling the shots, not the management. They were a small group and they were nothing to be proud of."

Frankie Nolan: "Tom said that? He's a great man for controversy."

Eamonn Grimes: "Tom knows something I don't. It's not a cover-up. I genuinely don't know what he's talking about."

Whatever happened or didn't happen, Limerick were confident. But why? Given their near-misses in the League, given the failure against Clare, given the fact that the county had not won a Munster championship since 1955 and an All Ireland title since 1940, where was this strut of theirs coming from?

Bernie Hartigan: "Ah, we'd great players."

Tom Ryan: "We'd luck."

Eamonn Cregan: "We had a fine leader in Eamonn Grimes."

Tom Ryan: "We had Richie Bennis.

Ned Rea: "Richie was bould."

Eamonn Cregan: "He was arrogant in a good way."

Tom Ryan: "Pound for pound, the best Limerick hurler since Mick Mackey. He was our Roy Keane. Richie was driven."

For those reasons and for others, Mossie Dowling was sure things were going to go Limerick's way. He stayed awhile at Clery's window, then returned to the hotel, had a pint before bed and slept like a king. In the morning he pulled the curtains open and looked out on to a miserable September morning. The rain fell in sheets, the wind blew hard across the main road. He stared at the day for a minute or so and then smiled, his karma undisturbed. "Arrah," he said, "a bit of rain never hurt anyone."

SOME people will tell you that Limerick didn't win the All Ireland at Croke Park, they won it in Thurles, in an epic Munster final with Tipperary that swung one way and then the other and eventually came down to a Richie Bennis 70 that is still talked about now, 34 years after he struck it, the last and controversial puck of a tumultuous afternoon.

Mossie Dowling: "There was dust in the square that day, I can tell you."

Richie Bennis: "What was it? 6-6 to 2-18 with the last puck to come."

Eamonn Cregan: "Limerick hadn't won a Munster title since 1955, so you can imagine the pressure on Richie."

Richie Bennis: "I felt no pressure. Twas 35 degrees that day and I felt like the coolest fella in Thurles."

Tom Ryan: "Then Babs interjected. Babs was brazen, you know.

Bernie Hartigan: "I think Babs bet him he wouldn't score - 500 was it?"

Richie Bennis: "The Babs came over all right but I knew I was going to score. Fellas would be asking you, how did I know. I say, 'How'd you mean like?' I can't understand that negative thinking. Wasn't it my job? Drive it over the bar outta that."

Eamonn Cregan: "Tipp people still say it didn't go over. They say the goalposts moved and the ball was wide. They can say what they like. I call it the Ballinspittle Munster Final."

Mossie Dowling: "I call it the watershed."

For the Limerick team, winning Munster was a dead weight off their backs. Finally they had done it, at last they would have a shot at the All-Ireland, soon they would bring an end to a 33 year wait for a championship that an entire county craved like nothing else. Before then, though, there was the supposed formality of a semi-final against London.

The game was played in Ennis, a place no Limerick hurler of the time was all that fond of. Lots of bad memories there. It is Tom Ryan's view that Limerick were lucky to beat London, that they were poor on the day and that had London not been denied the services of their chief free-taker and best player then there would have been no Croke Park that year, no jubilation, no open-top bus through the streets. "The Gods were with us. But you don't hear anything about that now."

You heard little about it then either. Once London were beaten all thoughts quickly turned to the Cats. But this was a Kilkenny team robbed of the brilliance of Eddie Keher, Eamon Morrissey and Jim Treacy and with injury concerns hanging over Kieran Purcell. The four were special hurlers, key planks in a champion team. If their absence made Kilkenny vulnerable it still didn't take away their tag as favourites.

"Kilkenny Can Overcome Setbacks" was the headline in the Saturday's Irish Times, Paddy Downey outlining his reasons why the smart money should be lumped on Kilkenny.

"If one were to take the National League and Leinster finals as guidelines," wrote Downey, "then Kilkenny, regardless of the loss of key men, should have a few points to spare at the finish. In the former match, Wexford beat Limerick by 4-13 to 3-7 and in the provincial championship decider. Kilkenny hammered Wexford with a score of 4-22 to 3-15. It is impossible to discard consideration of Kilkenny's superb Leinster final form."

Limerick didn't discard it, they were respectful of it. To many of them, Kilkenny had aura, they were the Cats and the Aristocrats, the team every other county had to measure themselves against. But the one thing Limerick were not was overawed. Man for man they were ready for this final, more ready than they had ever been before.

Eamonn Cregan: "My brother, Michael, trained us and he was an army man. A tough boy now. We'd been training incredibly hard for months, from January really. We got to the stage where our fitness in the last ten minutes of games was as sharp as the first ten minutes."

Frankie Nolan: "Shur Mickey Cregan had us hopping of the ground."

Richie Bennis: "We were the fittest team in Ireland, no doubt about it."

The only concern they had was for Cregan's knee but he felt sure it would hold. What he also felt sure about was his ability to operate in his new position of centre-half-back, as minder to the dangerous Pat Delaney. Taking Cregan out of the attack was another reason why pundits like Paddy Downey had gone against Limerick. They thought, justifiably, that Limerick could ill-afford the loss of Cregan's goal-threat. That was the theory anyway.

WHEN Saturday came, the mayor was waiting for them.

Bernie Hartigan: "We travelled by train. Mick Lipper drove us. The mayor of Limerick took us up."

Richie Bennis: "You could feel the atmosphere as soon as we got off the train above in Dublin. There was Limerick people everywhere you looked. Everywhere. I didn't really think about what kind of day I wanted, the weather like. It didn't matter. But on Sunday I opened up the curtains and it was belting out of the heavens."

Frankie Nolan: "Twas lashin'."

Mossie Dowling: "Tell you the truth, I didn't notice it as soon as the match started. I didn't. Some fella asked me later, 'How did ye hurl in that?' I said, 'How'd you mean like'. 'Twas floggin,' he said. I dunno. I suppose I was so keyed-up I didn't pay attention."

Ned Rea: "Mossie didn't know it was raining? Yeah, that'd be Mossie all right."

Eamonn Cregan: "We all went off to Mass on the Sunday morning."

Richie Bennis: "Oh yeah. Mass was the done thing. You wouldn't miss it, like."

Eamonn Cregan: "I remember the priest's sermon very well. Honestly now, he was saying that not everything revolves around sport. He said life doesn't begin and end with a game of hurling. I was looking at him. I had a mind to say, 'With the greatest respect, Father, do you know we haven't won an All Ireland since 1940?' But I don't think he was sporty."

Limerick checked in at Croke Park, some of them beginning to feel a little anxious now. "The tension was hard to take to be honest with you," says Sean Foley.

"We didn't know what was out there. Yeah, Kilkenny were missing four players but if they were missing four more it would have been no different. This was Kilkenny. They had fantastic hurlers everywhere."

There are different accounts of this but Eamonn Cregan is sure it happened in the minutes before the team left the dressing room at the beginning of the match with Eamon Grimes just as sure it happened just after they returned there at the end but either way it happened, at one time or another.

Eamonn Cregan: "I'd say about about five or 10 minutes before we left to go out on the field there was a commotion at a window at the back of the dressing room. Grimesy was there with one or two others."

Eamonn Grimes: "Twas after, Eamonn, but go on…"

Eamonn Cregan: "I could hear Grimesy going, 'Come on, come on, in ye get' and he pulling somebody in through the window. First I saw a pair of legs , then a backside, then a head. Then I saw who it was: JP McManus."

Eamonn Grimes: "It happened, it did. He hopped up on somebody's shoulders outside and we dragged him inside. He was always mad for the hurling, JP."

At a little after 3pm the Limerick team (possibly with JP McManus in tow) entered the Croke Park arena. At 3.15pm the ball was thrown in, at 3.16pm, Frankie Nolan fired over the day's first point.

Frankie Nolan: "First ball I touched I put it over the bar. Now, says he."

Richie Bennis: "A few minutes in, Kilkenny got a 70 and Pat Henderson took it and I stood about 20 yards from our goal and caught it and cleared it out the field. That was a good start for me. First ball I got I cleared it 60 yards."

Eamonn Cregan: "I remember the first dropping ball between Pat Delaney and myself. When you're playing centre-back you have to dictate the play. I'd watched the Leinster final three times, watched how Delaney played. What did he do? He put up his left hand for most dropping balls, so I had to counteract that, let him know he wouldn't be allowed."

Richie Bennis: "That ball, I remember. I tell you one thing, Cregan didn't spare the pull."

All around the field, Limerickmen were getting on top. Liam 'Chunky' O'Brien took off dangerously at one point and was pursued by Grimes. Chunky was about to pull the trigger on goal when Grimes hooked him, gained possession and hammered the ball downfield. The Limerick crowd erupted.

Even when Delaney scored a goal, they were not silenced. At half-time Limerick had a two-point lead and all the momentum.

The new half brought two early moments of massive significance. Firstly, Seamus Horgan in the Limerick goal made a wonder save from Mick Crotty and then Mossie Dowling struck at the other end. It was not a thing of beauty but it put Limerick in the driving seat. They were motoring now.

Mossie Dowling: Nobody knew where the ball went. I was the only one who knew. Twas in my hand."

Frankie Nolan: "I think I sent the ball into him from the corner."

Mossie Dowling: "I was seven or eight yards out and I took a shot, full sure it was a goal. Noel Skehan made a brilliant save. He blocked it and he was down on his knees and I kept going. As the man says, I ended up with the ball in my hand. And I still kept going and in over the line, three or four fellas pushing at the back of me, Ned Rea being one of them. It was a ruck of bodies. I felt like Gerry McLoughlin. Somebody said it was the first try ever scored at Croke Park."

Sean Foley: "I was wondering how long the umpire was going to take to put up the flag. From my position at half-back, I didn't know if he was going to give it or disallow it. It was a long wait."

Ned Rea: "Mossie got the credit but there was a few of us in there. Was it a goal? Doesn't matter a damn."

Limerick were three points ahead, then four, then five. Twenty minutes to go now. Bennis struck from 70 yards: six points. Dowling struck another: seven points.

Sean Foley: "I started counting down the clock. We were well ahead but still I was concerned. Kilkenny could hit you with two fast goals and then where would you be? I kept thinking, 'Is this match ever going to finish at all?' The clock seemed to be stopped at 10 minutes to the hour. It was permanently stuck at 10 to 5. That's how it seemed anyway."

The end came soon enough, described beautifully by Downey in the Irish Times above a headline that roared Limerick Prove Magnificent Champions. "The time was coming up to 4.58pm. Crowds were banked deeply along the sidelines and behind the goals, and by the second growing deeper. The historic moment was at hand and they and all others in the arena knew that it was irreversible. The rain fell steadily, but nobody noticed. And then it was all over.

"The referee, Michael Slattery of Clare, his whistle-blast lost in the rising thunder of exultant sound, raised his arms above his head to signal the end of the All Ireland hurling final of 1973, and Limerick were again champions of all Ireland after 33 years."

Bernie Hartigan; "Ah, there was terrible euphoria. Incredible scenes."

Eamonn Grimes: "I had a speech prepared but that went out the window. I saw old men crying all around me. It had been so long since we'd won. I suppose they were wondering would they see it again."

Ned Rea: "It all happened so fast. It was hard to take it in."

Joe McKenna: "I was only 21. It was an unreal experience."

The homecoming was electrifying. Their train stopped at Castleconnell and they got an open-top bus into town, jubilant fans lining the route.

Mossie Dowling: "I remember seeing one woman standing in a field with a pitchfork in the air and two sods of turf ablaze on the prongs and she waving it. That image has stayed with me all these years."

Richie Bennis: "Shur the bus moved at a snail's pace because of all the people. People were coming out of pubs and handing us up pints and everything."

Eamonn Cregan: "We went past my father's house in Castletroy, just beyond the turn-off for the golf club there. I went quiet because he'd died the August of '72 and that would have been one of the things he would loved to have seen, one son a trainer and another a player in a championship winning team. He'd won a medal himself in '36 but, ah, he'd have seen it from above, a bird's eye view. He'd have been guiding our hand."

On and on they went, through the masses, through the 40-50,000 people they say turned up to greet them, to cheer them home and usher them into immortality. We crave another championship so much that we talk of omens now, we look back to '73 and we see the signs.

Back then, Limerick recovered from a horror-show against Clare the previous year and won the title. That rings some bells this time around. In '73 Limerick won an epic victory over Tipperary, just as they did this summer. Bennis and Babs were the dominant figures that day, as they were a few months back. And 34 years ago Limerick met Kilkenny in the final on September 2. This year they face the same county on the same date.

Does it mean anything? We shall see. But we know what it meant all those years ago. And what it still means today. There are different accounts of this but Eamonn Cregan is sure it happened in the minutes before the team left the dressing room at the beginning of the match with Eamon Grimes just as sure it happened just after they returned there at the end but either way it happened, at one time or another.

Eamonn Cregan: "I'd say about about five or 10 minutes before we left to go out on the field there was a commotion at a window at the back of the dressing room. Grimesy was there with one or two others."

Eamonn Grimes: "Twas after, Eamonn, but go on…"

Eamonn Cregan: "I could hear Grimesy going, 'Come on, come on, in ye get' and he pulling somebody in through the window. First I saw a pair of legs , then a backside, then a head. Then I saw who it was: JP McManus."

Eamonn Grimes: "It happened, it did. He hopped up on somebody's shoulders outside and we dragged him inside. He was always mad for the hurling, JP."

At a little after 3pm the Limerick team (possibly with JP McManus in tow) entered the Croke Park arena. At 3.15pm the ball was thrown in, at 3.16pm, Frankie Nolan fired over the day's first point.

Frankie Nolan: "First ball I touched I put it over the bar. Now, says he."

Richie Bennis: "A few minutes in, Kilkenny got a 70 and Pat Henderson took it and I stood about 20 yards from our goal and caught it and cleared it out the field. That was a good start for me. First ball I got I cleared it 60 yards."

Eamonn Cregan: "I remember the first dropping ball between Pat Delaney and myself. When you're playing centre-back you have to dictate the play. I'd watched the Leinster final three times, watched how Delaney played. What did he do? He put up his left hand for most dropping balls, so I had to counteract that, let him know he wouldn't be allowed."

Richie Bennis: "That ball, I remember. I tell you one thing, Cregan didn't spare the pull."

All around the field, Limerickmen were getting on top. Liam 'Chunky' O'Brien took off dangerously at one point and was pursued by Grimes. Chunky was about to pull the trigger on goal when Grimes hooked him, gained possession and hammered the ball downfield. The Limerick crowd erupted.

Even when Delaney scored a goal, they were not silenced. At half-time Limerick had a two-point lead and all the momentum.

The new half brought two early moments of massive significance. Firstly, Seamus Horgan in the Limerick goal made a wonder save from Mick Crotty and then Mossie Dowling struck at the other end. It was not a thing of beauty but it put Limerick in the driving seat. They were motoring now.

Mossie Dowling: Nobody knew where the ball went. I was the only one who knew. Twas in my hand."

Frankie Nolan: "I think I sent the ball into him from the corner."

Mossie Dowling: "I was seven or eight yards out and I took a shot, full sure it was a goal. Noel Skehan made a brilliant save. He blocked it and he was down on his knees and I kept going. As the man says, I ended up with the ball in my hand. And I still kept going and in over the line, three or four fellas pushing at the back of me, Ned Rea being one of them. It was a ruck of bodies. I felt like Gerry McLoughlin. Somebody said it was the first try ever scored at Croke Park."

Sean Foley: "I was wondering how long the umpire was going to take to put up the flag. From my position at half-back, I didn't know if he was going to give it or disallow it. It was a long wait."

Ned Rea: "Mossie got the credit but there was a few of us in there. Was it a goal? Doesn't matter a damn."

Limerick were three points ahead, then four, then five. Twenty minutes to go now. Bennis struck from 70 yards: six points. Dowling struck another: seven points.

Sean Foley: "I started counting down the clock. We were well ahead but still I was concerned. Kilkenny could hit you with two fast goals and then where would you be? I kept thinking, 'Is this match ever going to finish at all?' The clock seemed to be stopped at 10 minutes to the hour. It was permanently stuck at 10 to 5. That's how it seemed anyway."

The end came soon enough, described beautifully by Downey in the Irish Times above a headline that roared Limerick Prove Magnificent Champions. "The time was coming up to 4.58pm. Crowds were banked deeply along the sidelines and behind the goals, and by the second growing deeper. The historic moment was at hand and they and all others in the arena knew that it was irreversible. The rain fell steadily, but nobody noticed. And then it was all over.

"The referee, Michael Slattery of Clare, his whistle-blast lost in the rising thunder of exultant sound, raised his arms above his head to signal the end of the All Ireland hurling final of 1973, and Limerick were again champions of all Ireland after 33 years."

Bernie Hartigan; "Ah, there was terrible euphoria. Incredible scenes."

Eamonn Grimes: "I had a speech prepared but that went out the window. I saw old men crying all around me. It had been so long since we'd won. I suppose they were wondering would they see it again."

Ned Rea: "It all happened so fast. It was hard to take it in."

Joe McKenna: "I was only 21. It was an unreal experience."

The homecoming was electrifying. Their train stopped at Castleconnell and they got an open-top bus into town, jubilant fans lining the route.

Mossie Dowling: "I remember seeing one woman standing in a field with a pitchfork in the air and two sods of turf ablaze on the prongs and she waving it. That image has stayed with me all these years."

Richie Bennis: "Shur the bus moved at a snail's pace because of all the people. People were coming out of pubs and handing us up pints and everything."

Eamonn Cregan: "We went past my father's house in Castletroy, just beyond the turn-off for the golf club there. I went quiet because he'd died the August of '72 and that would have been one of the things he would loved to have seen, one son a trainer and another a player in a championship winning team. He'd won a medal himself in '36 but, ah, he'd have seen it from above, a bird's eye view. He'd have been guiding our hand."

On and on they went, through the masses, through the 40-50,000 people they say turned up to greet them, to cheer them home and usher them into immortality. We crave another championship so much that we talk of omens now, we look back to '73 and we see the signs.

Back then, Limerick recovered from a horror-show against Clare the previous year and won the title. That rings some bells this time around. In '73 Limerick won an epic victory over Tipperary, just as they did this summer. Bennis and Babs were the dominant figures that day, as they were a few months back. And 34 years ago Limerick met Kilkenny in the final on September 2. This year they face the same county on the same date.

Does it mean anything? We shall see. But we know what it meant all those years ago. And what it still means today.

 
 
 

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