Limerick’s Once-Hapless Hurlers Get Used to Something New: Winning

CORK, Ireland — For decades, the story of Limerick hurling was a tale of failure so filled with off-field drama and on-field defeat that it verged on farce.

And it was a farce played out on the country’s grandest, most public stage. An Irish sport born some 2,000 years ago, hurling looks like a hybrid of lacrosse and baseball, with players whacking the ball, and each other, on a field big enough to land an airplane. For millions of avid fans, winning and losing records are measured in time spans that can seem geologic, and after Limerick’s golden age, way back in the 1930s, it acquired a history of futility neatly captured in the title of a 2009 book, “Unlimited Heartbreak: The Inside Story of Limerick Hurling.”

Most notoriously, the team was up by 5 points with minutes left in the 1994 All-Ireland Championship final against Offaly County. The conclusion looked so foregone that Limerick fans left their seats and headed toward the field, anticipating pandemonium. Offaly scored 7 points in a frenzy. Game over.

Limerick won a single All-Ireland title in 1973, after a decades-long drought, and then didn’t win again for more than 40 years.

“Even when the team was good, it contrived to lose in ways that were spectacular, almost ludicrous,” said Arthur James O’Dea, the author of “Limerick: A Biography in Nine Lives.” “They went to the finals five times after that win in ’73 and lost every time.”

Then, in 2018, Limerick began its improbable transition from also-ran to dynasty. The team won its first All-Ireland in 45 years, a squeaker against Galway. After losing the following year in the semis, Limerick went on a roll, winning the championship in 2020, 2021 and 2022. If Limerick prevails again this year, it will become only the third team in history, along with Cork and Kilkenny, to win four titles in a row.

“That’s way, way down the line,” Limerick goalie Nickie Quaid said this month about the prospect of a four-peat. “We’re only looking at the first round in two weeks’ time.”

The turnaround has been especially sweet for Quaid and his family. A Quaid has played on the county team in every decade since the ’50s, starting with twin brothers, Jack and Jim. Jack had a son, Tommy, who played goalie in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Jim’s son, Joe, took over the position and played in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s.

And in 2011, Tommy’s son, Nickie, became the third Quaid to serve as the team’s goalkeeper — and the first to win the cup.

On a recent Sunday, Quaid stood at midfield at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Cork’s hurling stadium, leaning against his bat, known as a hurley, and cooling off after just over 70 minutes of play. Limerick had just defeated Kilkenny in the final of the National Hurling League — a kind of warm-up to the All-Ireland tournament — and the Cranberries’ “Zombie” blared from loudspeakers as fans, dressed in the team’s green and white, cheered and beckoned for selfies and autographs.

The scene had all the familiar trappings of any postgame celebration, but something about hurling seems ready-made for mythology, as though fans aren’t watching a contest so much as a parable. Maybe it’s the age of the sport or the scale of the field, which is about three times the size of a soccer pitch. Maybe it’s the spectacle of men batting the sliotar, as the ball is called, at over 90 miles an hour and scoring points from as far away as 100 yards.

They do all this with a wooden stick that looks stolen from field hockey, then tricked out with a flat, rounded end that players use to bounce the sliotar as they run. The ball can be passed by a swing of the hurley, a slap of the hand or a kick, though whatever you want to do in this game, it’s best to do it quickly. There are 15 players on each side and while they can’t use their hurleys as weapons, they can come pretty close.

Beyond its proportions and physicality, hurling is set apart by what it pays: nothing, even at the highest levels. And you need to hail from the county to play for it, making hurling — along with Gaelic football — one of the last bastions of pure amateur sport. Like everyone else on the field, Quaid has a full-time job, in his case as a primary schoolteacher.

“It’s a big hurling parish,” Quaid said. “Nice if you win something, because you can bring the cup to school and see the joy in their face.”

Quaid has played a singular role in Limerick’s exit from its tragicomic era and one moment in particular stands out. It’s a play widely regarded as a turning point in the team’s fortunes and surely the greatest save of Quaid’s career.

It happened during that 2018 semifinal. The team was trailing against Cork, then mounted a comeback in the waning minutes, scoring 6 unanswered points. (Quick primer: You get one point for sending the sliotar over the uprights above the goal and three points for putting the sliotar in the net.)

The game was tied as the final seconds ticked away. Then a Cork attacker named Robbie O’Flynn took a pass near the goal and it suddenly looked as though Limerick was about to add another calamitous stumble to its rich library of pratfalls. O’Flynn was firing at almost point-blank range, which would have buried Limerick’s dreams for yet another year.

“This could seal it,” the television announcer shouted, “this should seal it!”

Instead, Quaid seemed to have read the play in advance and he lunged at O’Flynn with his bat, knocking the sliotar to the ground. It soon became known as “The Flick” and it turned Quaid into a folk hero, the play marveled over in pubs and dissected on YouTube.

“It was just one little incident in a whole game,” Quaid said when asked about The Flick. “It wasn’t anything that I dwelt on really or such like.”

Judged on the transactional basis of American professional sports, hurling takes far more than it gives. And the Quaids, with their affinity for the goalkeeper’s job, have accepted the terms of this arrangement and more than their share of the danger that comes with it. Prizing mobility over bodily harm, hurling goalies do not wear pads. (A 2011 Slate essay about the position was titled “The Craziest Men in Sports.”) Helmets were mandated by the Gaelic Athletic Association only in 2010, and it took some cajoling to convince many goalies to go along with the rule.

The risks of the job were amply demonstrated by Joe Quaid, who during a game against Laois County in 1997, took a penalty shot to the groin that destroyed a testicle. To the relief of family and fans, Quaid went on to father four children.

“The joke is that my aim improved,” he said in a phone interview.

Joe Quaid coached Nickie when he played in the under-16 league, though arguably the greatest influence on the newest Quaid in green and white is his mother, Breda Quaid. Her husband and Nickie’s father, Tommy, died at the age of 41 in 1998 after he fell from a building where he was working construction. Breda was determined to keep hurling in the lives of her three sons — Nickie is the middle child — and she enrolled in a course in coaching at a time when women were a rarity in the sport.

“She’s one of the most exceptional, most selfless women I’ve ever met,” said O’Dea, the author. “She’s one of the nine people I profiled in my book, and she agreed to speak to me on one condition: that I not put her face on the cover. She wanted Tommy’s face there.”

O’Dea was struck by her gifts as a coach — “She’ll kill me for saying that,” he said — and her devotion to both her children and the sport. Breda prefers talking about her son’s success. Reached at home in Limerick, she was expansive on the topic of the 2018 win.

“I’m one of those people who lived through the era of Limerick being starved of success,” she said. “So when we won, it’s hard to describe. We were all crying. His two brothers, at the end of that match, when the whistle blew, they were actually crying with joy.”

Limerick has excelled by pioneering a brand of hurling that prioritizes long-range scoring through the uprights as opposed to scoring goals in the net at close range. A goal is worth three times the points, but nearly every Limerick player is a threat from as far as 50 yards, allowing the team to pepper opponents from all over the field.

Back in the ’90s, most games ended with each team scoring 10 to 15 points through the uprights. Limerick will occasionally score double that number. Consequently, the job of goalkeeper has changed dramatically.

“When I was playing, your job was to keep the ball out of the net, then hit it as far away as possible,” said Joe Quaid. “Now the goalkeeper is more like a quarterback. When he gets the ball, he starts the attack.”

To be effective, a goalie must have pinpoint accuracy with that initiating pass, known as a puck out. The Flick notwithstanding, puck outs are the skill for which Nickie Quaid is most renowned. During warm-ups on Sunday, he stood at the goal and batted balls to players standing 60 yards away. In most cases, his teammates barely needed to shift their weight to make a catch.

He was nearly as good during the game. Just two of his 24 puck outs wound up in the opponent’s possession, an exceptional tally. When the first half ended, Limerick had a comfortable 6-point lead, which it padded in the second. By the time the final whistle blew, fans were musing aloud about the bulldozing strength of this squad as championship season began.

For a less exuberant take, it seemed apt to check in with Henry Martin, the author of “Unlimited Heartbreak.” In a phone interview, he echoed Nickie Quaid’s one-game-at-a-time philosophy, tamping down any premature optimism. After years of anguish, he is still getting accustomed to Limerick as a feared and dominant force in hurling, a transformation he knows is worthy of another book.

“There should be a sequel, but it won’t be written by me,” he said. “It should be written by someone less haunted by past defeats. Someone who’s grown up and witnessed this astonishing success.”

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