When the Limerick Senior Hurling Team went on strike in early 2010, nobody in their right mind could have envisaged such a stark turnaround within such a short space of time. Multiple All-Ireland winning goalkeeper Nicky Quaid was part of a young batch of outfield players drafted in by then manager Justin McCarthy to make up a squad when most of the previous year’s squad went on strike in support of a couple of senior players who were dropped from the panel. It resulted in Limerick being relegated to Division 2 that Spring after a 31 point mauling by Dublin. The unfortunate context to this is that it was considered that they had squandered what were considered a golden generation of players at senior level after winning three All-Ireland U21 championships in a row in the early 2000's. Urgent change was needed!
Enter a number of people who sought to ‘Lift the Treaty’. A group of people led by Shane Fitzgibbon and Eibhear O Dea sought to get Limerick's house in order. Fitzgibbon had helped transform the Adare underage club structures, resulting in huge club senior success for Adare in the noughties and was now seeking to do similar with Limerick. Dr Aine McNamara (then a sport psychology lecturer at University of Central Lancashire and currently DCU) and Dr Cian O’Neill (then of UL) among others were recruited to help and were involved in drawing up a blueprint towards improvement. It was eventually approved by the county board and titled ‘Lifting The Treaty’. In an interesting article on Fitzgibbon by Kieran Shannon in the Irish Examiner (link below), Dr Aine McNamara (DCU) recalled that “The thing that really struck me about Shane and that group of guys was that they were in it for Limerick and not for themselves. It wasn’t about Shane Fitzgibbon driving the future of Limerick hurling, it was about Limerick hurling."
Limerick had not been having much success at minor level and the ‘Lifting The Treaty’ project sought to change the whole culture around Limerick hurling to maximise the talent within the county by exposing their development squads to higher levels of training. That would include developing best practice in terms of diet and nutrition, strength and conditioning, psychology and a coaching plan that sought to look widely across the county in terms of talent identification. Strength and conditioning coach Andy Murphy (now Connaught Rugby) became involved, as did numerous Ex Limerick hurlers and coaches such as Mike Galligan, Frankie Carroll, Ger Hegarty, George Lee, Brian Finn, Anthony Carmody, Joe Quaid, Eamon Cregan and Ger Cunningham (UL) among others. The main emphasis was on developing players holistically across squads and age grades with the sole focus being on developing a strong senior team down the line. They knew that if they did things correctly, the talent would flourish.
JP McManus became central as the project moved forward, supporting the project financially. McManus' brother Gerry became centrally involved with Ex Limerick stalwart Joe McKenna in over-seeing the academy development project. McManus’ funding saw ex Antrim senior hurling manager Jerry Wallace (Cork) take up a role as Academy Director on a full time basis. He was followed in this role by Ex Clare senior hurling manager and Sunday Game analyst Anthony Daly (Clare). These appointments were a real signal of intent and gave a loftier status to the Limerick Hurling Academy that ensured people looked differently at it. More than that, it sent out a serious message to clubs and young players that Limerick hurling was intent on doing things right and gave it a status that allowed it to compete favourably with other sports in Limerick that may have had a hold on talent in previous years
Central to the change however, was doing things right in every respect. It wasn’t just about the sport science, it was as much about how you carried yourself as a Limerick hurler and what you represented.
In the same Irish Examiner article (www.irishexaminer.com/sport/gaa/arid-30925148.html) Fitzgibbon relates a story where he is taking an underage Limerick squad for a Saturday morning session on one of the astroturf pitches in UL when he sees two players — who would both go on to be 2018 All-Ireland senior winners — standing at the side of the pitch, urinating.
“What does he do? What would you do? Ignore it and pass it off as something harmless and something they’ve probably seen or even done before back at their clubs? Not when you’ve talked about and emphasised the importance of culture. There’s more to it than sweeping the sheds. It’s literally not taking the piss. Not any more.
He recounts that “I called all the lads in and said to the two boys, ‘Lads, would you stand up and piss in your sitting room?’ Of course the boys were all sheepish. ‘No.’
“So I said, ‘Well, why would you come into this facility and disrespect it?’ Now apologise to the group.’ So they did. And then I said, ‘Okay. Now tog back in. You’re not training today.’
“Then I said to the rest of the lads, ‘This has to be a lesson to you. This is Limerick hurling. In Limerick hurling, everything we do is about respect. We respect the facilities, we respect our teammates, we respect everything to do with Limerick hurling. The minute you get that jersey, you are elevated to another level, so we must behave accordingly. At a higher level’.”
With reference to the four in a row All-Ireland winning Kilkenny team, he relates also that ““I’d often go to see Kilkenny train in Nowlan Park. Henry Shefflin would be on the field by quarter-past-five. By half-five most of the team were out, bating balls across the field. By 20 to (six), they were all out. Then the local church bell rang for the Angelus and they all ran into Mick Dempsey. Bang. Six o’clock. Training’s starting. They’d all warmed up themselves.
“In Limerick guys would still be running out onto the field, pulling up the socks. Different culture, different mindset. So we had to change that. One of my great frustrations in Limerick was that for generations we were beating ourselves first before a Cork or Tipp would try to.””
Later, when he was asked to write up a memo on Limerick underage hurling and how it should be restructured, he put hard work, honesty and respect at the foundation of his pyramid!
On the development front, the first positive wave of energy appeared in 2013 when Limerick won their first Munster minor (U18) title since 1984. The title was retained in 2014 and at least 10 of that particular group went on to feature and win All-Irelands at senior level. More importantly, Limerick reached 8 out of 9 munster finals in the years that followed reinforcing the value of the academy process, and developing a conveyor belt of success and a strong development pathway to senior success that followed. That commenced with the senior team winning breaking a 45 year wait to their first All-Ireland in 2018 from their previous success 1973.
Around the same time as the academy began to see success, Ard Scoil Ris (boys secondary school in Limerick) had a strong reputation in rugby, and through the 90's and early 2,010's, reached provincial finals in A schools rugby and produced players of the calibre of British and Irish Lions captain Paul O'Connell and numerous others that would go on to play professionally for Munster Rugby. The Limerick hurling academy success however, made hurling a lot more popular in Limerick City, translating into school success and gave hurling more prominence in the minds of young talented athletes over other sports.
Ard Scoil Ris began to have success at schools level under the influence of Derek Larkin, Liam Cronin, Niall Moran and Fergal Lyons, and more recently Clare hurler Paul Flanagan among others. This schools success only served to reinforce and accentuate the work done at academy level. Ard Scoil Ris have had numerous successful school teams at Munster A grade levels (White Cup (U15), Dean Ryan Cup (U17) & Harty Cup (U19) and All-Ireland Colleges Senior (U19) level in the last fifteen years. These teams included many of the record breaking Limerick team and most of the Na Piarsaigh team that went on to All-Ireland club success, while record breaking 5 time All Ireland winning captain Declan Hannon from Adare also attended the school around this time. The academy has spread its tentacles far and wide in search of talent and this is rubbing off in less populated areas with the likes of secondary schools in Doon and Hospital now competing in the colleges A grade competition (Harty Cup). Such is the popularity of hurling now in Limerick, Castletroy College, which would be previously known as a strong 'Rugby School', is also entering teams in the A grade Munster Colleges hurling competition.
McManus facilitated the academy players progression to senior level with his sponsorship of the senior team which allowed them to recruit some of the best sport science professionals on the circuit in supporting their senior teams. On that front, Paul Kinnerk was recruited as coach from the All-Ireland winning Clare team of 2013, while Caroline Currid has received many plaudits for her work on the psychological side of performance. Joe O Connor, Michael Kiely, and more recently Cairbre Ó Cairealláin took the reigns on the strength and conditioning front and brought them to a whole new level. Their analysis team, led by Sean O'Donnell, leaves no stone un-turned while others are engaged in looking after the nutrition and medical side of the team’s support structures. It was all done in the name of doing things right in the best interests of Limerick hurling.
As the lights dimmed and after the crowds had left after the Munster championship victories against Clare and Cork in the TUS Gaelic Grounds pitch in Limerick in the Summer of 2023, the players and management could be seen together in each others company, taking it all in, shooting the breeze together, with pizza and a couple of beers. The craic was so good that on one occasion, midfielder Will O’Donoghue, living nearby, had to run home for extra supplies. In a recent newspaper article, O’ Donoghue suggests it was the wish of the players as when they go into town, it’s hopping and you’re not going to get a seat in a bar whereas there’s a keg under the stand and they get to chill out under the Mackey Stand, with the sun splitting the rocks. They had a speaker going, put the chairs in a big circle and sat there for three or four hours enjoying each other’s company. They’re special moments, as special as the dressing room after a match.”
It was also interesting to note that on the biggest of days, it was very visible how they included their kids and families in their celebrations. They had a family like feel about the group and the children of both management and players joined their parents on the pitch for the celebrations. Special times call for special moments!
Carrying the culture is a major task and it is mainly set by very upstanding and principled people. Incidentally, there is a high volume of teachers in the Limerick management structure with the main man John Kiely holding the principalship of Abbey CBS in Tipperary. Alan Cunningham is a principal at St Caimans Community School in Shannon, while Aonghus O’Brien is a principal at Broadford National School. Head coach Paul Kinnerk was formerly a PE teacher at St Caimans before pursuing doctorate level study in University of Limerick, while logistics manager Éibhear O'Dea is a principal of a second level Gaelscoil in Limerick City.
Collectively, they have scaled heights not seen before in Limerick and their current crop have probably out-done the deeds of their fabled hero Mick Mackey and his infamous hurling deeds of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Their challenge now is to continue to dream and perhaps even fulfill a new dream – and that may be to go and do what has never been done ever before in hurling and win five All-Ireland senior hurling championships in a row.
After they won the All Ireland in 2023, they veered away from the tradition of celebrating post match in a Dublin hotel. They headed back down the road to their own and partied it up with their families at Fitzgerald’s Woodlands hotel in Adare. They swapped the suits for a more relaxed evening in their shorts and t-shirts for the Sunday celebrations in Adare – only a stones throw from where Fitzgibbon first started transforming the Adare GAA underage culture over 20 years previously. They visited the sick children in University Hospital Limerick with the trophy the following day. They would write their own template and dance to their own tune. It had all come full circle. The ‘Hard work, Honesty and Respect’ has born fruit.
Will Dolores be playing her song in Croke Park in July 2024? Who knows? Either way, the hurling gods will dance to the victors tune and somebody's dreams will come true.
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Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited performance psychologist with Sport Ireland Institute.
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Irish Examiner article on the Adare man Shane Fitzgibbon, that helped create the rocket for the moon. www.irishexaminer.com/sport/gaa/arid-30925148.html
Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport