Written by Matt O’Donnell
Despite games such as rugby invading the hearts and minds of people in Ireland, there’s no hiding the fact that the All-Ireland finals are among the most watched events on television every year. Many people with either no Irish blood or a lack of skin in the game often only get their eyes in front of the competition when it finally comes down to the two best counties playing on the final match day of the year (for inter-county play). This being the case, we’ll take a look at this year’s participants, Limerick and the reigning champions, Galway. We’ll see them from a standpoint of their county’s history as well as a look at the road that each took to get to Croke Park this coming Sunday.
Galway and Limerick are two of those counties that are fairly bound together in destiny for hurling. Despite having only irregular matches due to playing in different provinces and different periods of dominance affecting their standings in the same division of the National League, they’ve faced off in the All-Ireland season eleven times. While Limerick owns a winning record of 6 matches to Galway’s 4 (plus a draw), a pair of Galway’s wins are the 1923 and 1980 All-Ireland Championship medals.
134 years after the establishment of the GAA, many counties can claim to be thought of as important to the game. No matter who you’d support, though, its easy to agree that Galway has been a solid rock since the establishment of organized play. Even if we overlook an apocryphal story about Michael Cusack wanting to establish the GAA in Galway (a story full of plot holes), we know that early hurling tournaments were a huge draw in the county by 1887. The popularity and skill shown in Galway led them to enter a team in the first All-Ireland championship that year. Under the banner of the Meelick club, Galway would reach the final before losing to the Tipperary champions, Thurles. They have never received the losers’ medals that they are entitled to.
Despite nearly two decades of dominance in Connacht provincial play after the dawn of the 20th century, Galway would finally stand alone as champions in 1923, losing the following three finals they appeared in. Despite incredible club hurling in the county, the inter-county record in the decades that followed for the Tribesmen resulted in not much more than heartbreak. The side would finally raise the cup in 1980, defeating…Limerick. This championship came at a time of pain for the west of Ireland, suffering from both great economic hardship and subsequent mass emigration. The speeches of Joe Connolly and Joe McDonagh from the Hogan Stand live on in glory to this day. Senior medals were won in 1987 and 1988 against perennial powers Kilkenny and Tipp, respectively. Despite overwhelming wins in the All-Ireland club championship, The West would only awaken again in 2017 to finally win a championship for modern hurling phenom Joe Canning.
In light of Galway’s unity and prominence from near enough the moment that organized play under the GAA began, it’s with a more somber mood that we consider the early years of Limerick. Despite the Limerick Commercials winning a senior football title for the county in 1887, unrest of the political flavor caused bitter division and controversy for a decade. Despite walkouts, abandonment of fixtures, and even multiple county boards at one point, Limerick recovered thanks to an emergency convention to establish a new governing body in 1894. Commercials would claim their second football title in 1896. Then finally, in 1897, the Kilfinane club would topple Tullaroan from Kilkenny to make Limerick All-Ireland Senior Hurling champions for the first time.
1910 would be the next time that Limerick, represented by the Castleconnell club, would reach a final. 1918 would see another title, spurred by a new dedication to preparation. Limerick adopted the style or training pioneered by Clare and Laois of players being on a strict diet, grueling physical regimen, and a training camp held in the lead-up to the final. Having lost to Wexford in their previous appearance, Limerick won the final this time by 26 points, an utterly crushing contest. They’d do it all over again in 1921, beating Dublin 8-5 to 3-2, but the real story of The Shannonsiders would be told through the 1930’s. In that decade, they’d win not only the 1934, 1936, and 1940 All-Ireland titles, but they’d also win the National League a ridiculous 5 times in a row, from seasons ending in 1934 through 1938.
Limerick’s 1973 All-Ireland is their only senior title since 1940. Despite this, polling in the decades that have passed shows that passion, participation, and support for Gaelic games in the county have never dwindled. This will be their first appearance in the Croke Park final since 2007.
At the GAA Special Congress in 2017, it was decided that rather than have provincial knockout tournaments, the Senior Hurling Championship would be played using round-robin groups of 5 teams in both Leinster and Munster, while the B Championship would move to a system more like the National League (the specifics of this are available upon request, though it’s worth mentioning that the cup for the new highest tier of the B system has been named after the aforementioned Galway man, Joe McDonagh). Most agreed from the very start of the summer that this system helped produce the most exciting hurling championship in recent memory, with the most extreme saying that it’s by far the best ever.
It’s truly hard to say which side had the harder time of it getting to this Sunday. Limerick finished straight in the middle of the pack of the Munster Championship, with 2 wins, a draw, and a loss. They opened with a less than comfortable, in hurling score possibility, win over Tipperary 1-23 to 2-14, before moving on to draw with eventual division winners Cork. They would work through the back half of the Munster group 2-26 to 1-16 before taking it on the chin from Clare by 9 points. Thanks to the 3rd place finish in the province, they placed in the preliminary quarter-finals, starting with an absolute demolition of Carlow, scoring 5-22 to 13 points. In the quarter-final, they just barely got over the line against Kilkenny, taking a single point to victory for the first time in the competition since 1973. Only a slightly larger 4 points would separate them from Cork in the semi-final, in what was absolutely be a classic game for the ages. Watch it if you can.
On the other hand, Galway are here by some combination of dominance and good fortune. No one could touch them through the round-robin phase of the Leinster Championship, trouncing Offaly, Kilkenny, Wexford, and Dublin in order. On July 1st, nothing separated Galway from Kilkenny at 18 points each in the Leinster final, forcing them to do it again the next week. On that day, 3 goals from Kilkenny weren’t enough to stifle an increased number of players joining in the scoring and they fell to the Tribesmen. As provincial winners, Galway didn’t appear again until the All-Ireland semi-final round, where they faced off against Clare, who had just knocked off Davy Fitz’s continual building side from Wexford. Galway were again made honest men of when they drew Clare at 1-30 apiece, forcing a replay. While the defending champions were able to adjust to Kilkenny and win that replay by 7 points, the repeat of the semi-final was only decided by a point.
While there have been plenty of storied meetings between these two counties, the easiest place we can look to find what we may need to know was during this year’s National League. Limerick took the day back in March, defeating Galway by a score of 2-18 to 1-19. The already oft-mentioned Joe Canning is second in total points scored in this championship with 1-69, while Limerick’s seventh placer Aaron Gillane sits with only 1-34. At the same time, both Gillane and Shane Dowling both make the top list of scorers in a single game at 0-13 and 0-15 respectively.
Many GAA pundits see the maturity, consistency, and toughness of Limerick’s play over the full 70 minutes as possibly being an edge, if there is one favoring Limerick. In both semi-final appearances against Clare, Galway bounded out ahead early before letting Clare come back and make it worrisome for Micheál Donoghue’s squad until the final whistle. On one hand, the dominance of a scorer like Canning and his supporting cast including Cathal Mannion playing in a direct return to the Croke Park final gives them an experience that Limerick haven’t had for a moment in time, only last having lost to Kilkenny in 2007, the second of four consecutive titles for an utterly dominant side of The Cats. Irish bookmakers Paddy Power set the odds for this match at Galway 4/7 and Limerick 11/8, with 9/1 odds of a draw. No matter which captain raises the Liam MacCarthy Cup on Sunday, it will have been well earned.
*If you want to watch it all go down with the NGAC, join us at 9 am on August 19 at East Nashville Beer Works. We’ll have Irish Breakfast Pizza on a pizza buffet ($10), plus beer and wine available.