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Clare, Tipperary and the enduring venom of a sprawling rivalry

Between 1993 and 2003, Tipperary and Clare met 10 times in the championship. Tommy Dunne and James O’Connor, key men for their respective counties, reflect on a sometimes bitter enmity

Shortly after Nicky English was appointed Tipperary manager in the autumn of 1998 every member of the panel was invited to an individual meeting in the Anner Hotel. Tommy Dunne was the incoming captain, and he knew from other conversations that he had the manager’s confidence, but he remembers the atmosphere in the meeting as pointedly cool; business-like. No small talk. They shook his hand, thanked him for coming, and then fired the first question between his eyes, in a premeditated hit.

“They asked me, ‘Why aren’t you doing for Tipp what Jamesie O’Connor is doing for Clare?’,” says Dunne. “I still remember being really angry, but I didn’t really have an answer. I was never cocky, but I probably had a bit more confidence than I should have had – about where I was with Tipp. At that minute he had me, Nicky. He had me then because I had to go after something.”

By the end of the 1990s Clare and Tipp lived in each other’s minds as Batman and the Joker. To the neutrals, those roles were interchangeable. Nothing between them was ever resolved, and the sequels kept coming: 10 championship meetings in 10 years between 1993 and 2003. The bitterness they shared was inflammable and visceral and compelling and virulent and box-office.

Back then the draw for the following year’s championship used to be made six or seven months in advance, so on that day of player meetings in Thurles, Tipp already knew that Clare was the jagged mountain in the distance, somewhere in the clouds. For the winter and spring, a part of them would be tethered to that climb and its sheer gradient, silently obsessed.


Dunne had no desire to look away. He found a picture of the six Clare backs and placed it on the floor of his gear bag. Every time he reached for his gear, those were the faces staring back at him.

Harsh beginnings

Dunne’s championship debut came against Clare in 1994; by then, James O’Connor was a second-year veteran. In the previous year’s Munster final Clare had been eviscerated by Tipp, beaten by six goals in the Gaelic Grounds. Dunne was a teenage sub that day; O’Connor was one of the few Clare players to walk unharmed from the rubble, his reputation enhanced. Clare stewed in the humiliation for the guts of a year, grooming their hot revenge.

“It comes down to a survival thing when you’re a young lad trying to get established,” says Dunne. “I didn’t survive in 1994, in my first championship start. I was useless. I mean, I was useless. Johnny Leahy got injured playing football and I played wing forward, in Johnny’s position, and I just couldn’t handle it. I remember the first ball that came. I remember it still. I was going towards the end-line and I failed to rise the ball in front of me, and I wasn’t even being challenged. I failed to rise the ball.

“I often wondered why they didn’t take me off. That match had a huge effect on me – in terms of confidence. I suppose there had been a bit of build-up in the papers in terms of the perception of me as a promising young player, but the step into Munster championship was like walking into a jungle.”

“In my first couple of years,” says O’Connor, “you’d hardly be able to get out of bed the following day. You’d see the red marks on your body and you wouldn’t even remember getting the belts. But they were there.”

As the relationship evolved, and the tension escalated, matches between Clare and Tipp assumed a Hunger Games quality. In the early years, especially, it didn’t even need to be a championship match for one crowd or the other to use the fixture as a makeshift hustings – in order to say something in public. O’Connor remembers Tipp coming to Ennis for a League game in 1995 and Ger Loughnane massaging it into something momentous in their dressingroom. He had that power over them.

“There would have been a level of belligerence on our part,” says O’Connor, “that we were coming. Definitely, it was seen as a game to stand up and be counted. Ye probably walked into an ambush, Tommy. I remember at one stage a row started. Leahy was on the far side of the field and I remember watching him coming across. I was quite happy to stay where I was [laughs] – I had no business going down there. But I remember [Anthony] Daly watching Leahy all the way across and having to move to intercept him.”

“The 1997 league game in Ennis is the one I remember,” says Dunne. “That wasn’t simple either now. I ended up in the net at one stage. Two boys were going at it in the net and I came on the scene. I’m not sure what I was going to do but one of the Clare lads made sure I wasn’t going to do anything anyway [laughs]. I was wearing a black helmet with a guard on it and he hit me down across the front of the helmet. There was a vertical bar that came down in line with your nose but not touching your nose. When he was finished with me the bar had nearly gone straight through my nose.

“There was no words spoken. That was it. I knew it was time to get out of town. That was a battle I wasn’t going to win so I had to cut my losses and move on. I’m talking about myself starting out, trying to be a good player for Tipp, but in the Tipp psyche as well, if you were inferior against Clare in the physicality stakes it was going to be very, very difficult to compete. They were in superb condition, they were big men and they were aggressive. Like, the backline was really, really aggressive – in your face, on the ball, off the ball, right on the edge, all the time. If you couldn’t learn to live with that it was game over – you were better off staying at home.”

“That same night I got a hurley into the mouth,” says O’Connor. “I think I had the ball in my hand. I remember going into the dentist the following morning and having X-rays done. Both of us probably took a certain amount of sh*t off the ball. If you took it, fellas would walk all over you. You had to be able to protect yourself. You learnt that fairly early. I think ye won that match, Tommy.”

“Yeah, I remember it was important for us to win it. That game did mean something to us. It meant a lot to us actually.”

That pendulum kept swinging. It was a ceaseless conflict of needs. Tipp and Clare had other appointments to meet, and bones to pick, but they couldn’t look at each other without spitting and cursing, and everything they thought of each other was fuelling the same renewable energy.

The system for the hurling championship changed twice at the height of the Tipp-Clare rivalry, but the way the draw panned out, seven of their 10 championship meetings in that time didn’t involve a second chance for the losers. What that added was danger and the sickening dread of not just being eliminated, but losing to the other crowd, and the months of compounded suffering that would entail.

In the 1997 championship they met twice: in the Munster final and in the All-Ireland. That summer, neither of them could imagine anything more important or hair-raising or deadly. For Clare, in their minds, beating Tipp was about avenging generations of subservience; for Tipp, they couldn’t find anything in the past that had any relevance now. The language, the build-ups, the perceived implications, all of it was on a grand scale.

“The 1997 Munster final was the best atmosphere I ever played in,” says O’Connor. “I remember coming out on to the pitch [in Páirc Uí Chaoimh] and I was buzzing. I hopped up it the air and I let out a roar – as in, ‘This is what it’s all about. This is why you were slaughtering yourself above in Shannon and Crusheen [during the winter].’ I remember saying to myself, ‘There’s no way Tipp will get a reception like this.’ Then Tipp came out and it felt like the ground shook.”

Clare won both games; the All-Ireland final was a cliffhanger. In his Hurler of the Year season, O’Connor scored the winner, a beautifully flighted point from under the Hogan Stand. In Tipp’s last attack Leahy eschewed a handy equaliser to try for an everlasting goal. Davy Fitzgerald saved it.

The margin at the end couldn’t have been smaller. Between Clare and Tipp, though, everything was magnified. In the space between winning and losing was an abyss. One of them had to fall.

“That game was ferocious,” says Dunne, “just ferocious. Intense, physical – but yet you could hurl in it. I was marking [Ollie] Baker. Just ferocious. You knew you had to be razor sharp because the margins for error against them – you weren’t going to get a second bite of the cherry.

“The thing about it was, I remember being very conscious – and still am – of my physique and my weight and how am I going to survive? That was a constant theme throughout my hurling journey – being able to match up, because I was slim and thin and all of that. That’s what I mean about being razor sharp. I knew the only chance I had was to have my touch and my striking spot on. Any time the ball was around you had to nail it because they’d kill you in contact. They’d kill you stone dead. And come back to make sure you were dead.

“I really enjoyed trying to be at that level. I’ve only one regret. We went a point up, they answered back, and Ollie had a big part in it [he scored the equaliser]. I didn’t have enough to stay with him on a ball that broke around the middle of the field.”

“Ye both played well, Tommy,” says O’Connor. “You were probably the man of the match if ye won.”

“Yeah, but he got man of the match [Baker]. That didn’t feel great in the Burlington that night. It’s so hard still, it really is. People say, ‘Ah time,’ and it does help, but it’s still there, it’s still awful – even talking about it now. Some matches I don’t remember that well. I remember that one fierce well. It was cruel afterwards. It’s just the emotion you have, the sense of being bet and being second best, against a team that you would have done anything to beat. Against your biggest rivals in a rivalry that had so much with it. And you’re thinking, ‘How are we going to get back here to put it right? Are we good enough put it right?’ It was tough, I won’t lie.

“But when you allow yourself time – where I am now – to think about it for a few minutes, they were huge events in your life. 1997 hurts so bad, but I love the fact that I was right in the middle of it.”

Primitive machismo

How far could they push each other? Who would crack? At the heart of it was plain, primitive machismo. For shame, nobody could blink. Weakness was vilified and fatal.

By the end of the decade, Tipp were still chasing. In 1999, English’s first year as manager, they explored new limits of physical endurance. That winter, hill running on Devil’s Bit was burned into their schedule. They won the league final in Ennis and some Tipperary supporters arrived in town wearing a T-shirt from their summer collection. Its central motif was a map of Ireland with Clare lanced off: “A Perfect Island” ran the caption underneath. Even the jokes were lethal.

“I’ve never before or since entered into a championship with as much confidence in my own physical ability as I did for the championship in ‘99,” says Dunne. “It was a new chapter. We had a new manager. Nicky, to me, was and is ... like for him to trust me, the validation that gave me, I couldn’t put it into words. For me, it was the turning point in our rivalry with Clare. We understood about getting into the best physical shape.

“We were building up to bury Clare because it had to be done. We were at that point where we were under Clare’s thumb, big-time. And it wouldn’t be tolerated. We were on a big mission in ‘99. Now, we didn’t get there. We just couldn’t bring the same energy to the replay that we did the first day.”

Clare survived the drawn match with a last-minute goal from a Davy Fitzgerald penalty and blitzed Tipp by 10 points six days later. “We produced the perfect display in ‘99 [in the replay],” wrote Loughnane in his autobiography, Raising The Banner. “It was enhanced because it was [against] Tipperary, but the performance was everything I strove for since I first trained a junior team.”

It was the last great Clare performance of the Loughnane era. A year later Tipp beat them by nine points and Loughnane stepped down. In this circus, Loughnane had been the ringmaster, but none of the essential feelings changed after he left. Clare came back in 2001, refreshed and reloaded.

“In 2001, there was nearly world war three at the throw-in,” says Dunne. “Gerry Quinn hit out across Mark [O’Leary] and broke his hurley when there was no ball in play. Clare were always the bully-boys and if you didn’t match it you were dead. So you had to decide, ‘Do we let this go, and not react?’ You were constantly fighting that thing the whole time. There was a bit of shemozzle.

“Then Dickie [Murphy, referee] threw the ball in to start the game. Myself and [Colin] Lynch were there and Baker and [Conor] Gleeson were there, and if you watch the throw-in, it’s manic. Lynch pulls about a mile over the ball – no free. The ball goes behind us and I just turned and whaled into him. I broke Lynch’s hurley and Dickie gives a free to Clare. And Seánie [McMahon] sticks it over the bar [laughs]. That was the way it was.”

Tipp won by a point, and won the All-Ireland, with Dunne as captain and Hurler of the Year. After a couple of years of trying to climb back to the top, Clare were shattered. “For us 2001 was one that got away,” says O’Connor. “We had savage work done. We had poured everything into it. I’ve never watched that game back. I played golf with Seánie and [Brian] Lohan a day or two afterwards and I thought I was gutted but the boys couldn’t talk. I’ve never seen disappointment like it. Not too many people outside of the team would know how much 2001 hurt us.”

Clare and Tipp met again in the next two summers, but by then every beaten team in the championship was given a second chance, and that sucked some of the poison from the relationship. In any case, fatigue had started to set in. “The crowds were nearly worn out from it at that stage,” says O’Connor. “They couldn’t keep getting up for these games.”

Off-field reflection

In their personal relationships the bitterness didn’t linger. On All-Stars tours and in Railway Cup dressingrooms going back the years, there was never any hangover from those battles. Much later, when Daly was the Dublin manager, Dunne went in as his coach.

He tells a funny story from a shinty trip to Scotland in 1997, when he ended up at a bar counter, shoulder to shoulder with Lohan, as if the enmity and rage of the previous six months had never happened.

“I don’t know how much talking we did, but we did some drinking. The match was on the day after and one of the Limerick lads was supposed to be hitting the frees for Ireland. I think he might have missed one early in the game, and next thing another free was given. I was in the horrors, really and truly, but I remember this roaring coming from behind. It was Lohan, coming out from the full back line: ‘Tommy Dunne, you take that free!’ And I was thinking, ‘I never thought I’d see this day.’

“I would have enormous regard – like, we hated them so bad it was unbelievable – but I would have enormous regard for James and Lohan and Daly and all of them. I always remember, we beat Clare in 2002, and I ended up near Seánie at the final whistle. He was broken after that match and he was walking away – he walked a few strides – and then he stopped and he turned back and came over and shook hands. The measure of someone to do that.

“Even though it stings [the games we lost], I feel privileged to have been in it. They were powerful days. Nerve-racking, but absolutely powerful. It really took you to your limits. To your real limits of what you could withstand. That’s what I felt. Very few things in life offer you that.”

What a thing to have lived.