Hand of Tom: The Condon catch that ended Limerick’s 45 years of hurt

September 14, 2021 0 By HearthstoneYarns

A Knockaderry presentation to Tom Condon following his catch in the 2018 All-Ireland final.

ON THE SUNDAY after Limerick’s 2018 All-Ireland triumph, John Kiely’s squad were gathered in JP McManus’s €200 million Martinstown mansion for a celebratory dinner.

But two important members of the party were missing: Tom Condon and the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

40km west of Martinstown in Condon’s native Knockaderry, a small rural village of about 500 people, a slew of supporters had turned up to get a picture with a local hero and the most prized possession in hurling. 

Earlier in the day, Condon, Declan Hannon, Nickie Quaid and county chairman John Cregan were among a Limerick party that arrived in the parish to show off the silverware.

“You know long ago you’d hear about these political rallies drawing huge crowds in the church car park and people up on the back of a truck — it was like that,” Knockaderry chairman Richard Wall tells The42.

Hannon, Quaid and Cregan eventually made tracks to McManus’s home. Condon waited behind to fulfil the club’s request to get his picture taken with the throngs of fans in attendance. 

“Jesus, there were thousands there,” Wall laughs.

“We were adamant that we would try and get as many people as we could to get a photo with Tom and the Liam MacCarthy.

“We were flying through them. It was an orderly queue and we were getting through them as quick as we could. 

“I’ve no doubt he was late for JP’s house for that meal, but he stayed on until everyone had their photo got.”

It was big news in the locality. Condon had just become the first senior All-Ireland medallist from the club, who operate in Limerick intermediate ranks after years in the backwaters of junior hurling.

Decades ago, Knockaderry had players on Limerick junior sides that won All-Ireland titles. They had representatives on Limerick minor and U21 teams that reached finals over the years. But this was blockbuster stuff. Their night on broadway. 

“That was a very proud day: Liam MacCarthy coming into Knockaderry and a local man with an All-Ireland medal in his pocket.

“Back in 1973, people from Knockaderry would have had to travel down to Kilmallock to see the cup when it was going around that time. To get it into Knockaderry was huge.”

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the tactics and puck-out strategies and drama that comes with All-Ireland final day. In the hype of it all, we often lose sight of the bigger picture.

Crowds gather outside Limerick Colbert railway station to welcome home the Limerick team in 2018.

Source: TommyDickson/INPHO

What shouldn’t be forgotten is what it means to a small, hurling obsessed community when one of their own conquers the summit. 

Not alone did the county end 45 years of hurt, but to have a native son involved made the thing all the more special. He learned his trade as a seven-year-old on the local GAA field and played a role in Limerick returning to the pinnacle of hurling — a sight many who were around in 1973 thought they wouldn’t see again in their lifetimes. 

No more than the beautiful image of Micheál Donoghue’s late father bursting with emotion when he was presented with the trophy a year earlier, there was an enormous sense of pride in Knockaderry when Condon and his team-mates arrived home with hurling’s biggest prize. 

Even before Limerick became the sport’s dominant force, there was a simple pleasure for Wall in heading to a game and opening up the match programme to see the club’s name proudly sitting underneath Condon’s.

“We’re a very small, rural parish where Newcastlewest is our nearest town,” he explains.

“We’d often have had lads on minor and U21 panels but not starting or being prominent like that. It’s 99% hurling in Knockaderry and there isn’t much else.”

He looks back fondly on the days after the 2018 triumph, in particular.

“On the Monday after then we had the cup again in the afternoon from lunchtime on. Tom went to the national school and all the kids got their photo taken with him and autographs. It was brilliant.

“Earlier that morning we had been below with the senior citizens group and they had their time with the cup. It was an incredible time and there wasn’t a whole pile [of work] done for the few days after the All-Ireland, you can imagine. 

Condon and David Rediy celebrate after the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final victory.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Tom’s dad Sean is treasurer of the club and very involved. He’d always be involved with minor and U21 teams, even when Tom was gone well out of it. He’d always give a hand and his mom is a lovely woman.”

Condon announced his retirement from inter-county hurling on Thursday, bowing out of the game with two Celtic Crosses, three Munster titles and a pair of National Leagues. 

A competitive and unforgiving defender, Condon was a swashbuckling presence in the Treaty defence at his best. In the early days, a corner-back’s job was done when he cleared possession up the field. When Condon let fly, the crowd inevitably voiced their appreciation. 

His final season started out with rich promise. Condon impressed at corner-back during the early league games. Then came the shutdown and when things got going again, he was badly hampered by injury and he didn’t make the match-day panel for the All-Ireland final.

“He still got his second medal this year but obviously he’d have liked to have been on the field getting it, the same as everyone.

“But he’s had a huge career for Limerick,” continues Wall. “He never let us down. Every club game he played he always turned up. The rest of the lads looked to him, especially the younger lads. You can imagine.” 

He was first noticed by county selectors after a fine display in the 2004 junior county final marking Limerick senior Damien Reale. The introduction of divisional teams in the senior grade gave Condon further opportunities to catch the eye.

By 2005, he was part of the Treaty minor side that reached the All-Ireland final. They were beaten by a Galway outfit that featured Joe Canning and James Skehill. Condon was one of three Knockaderry youngsters on the team. “That was huge,” admits Wall.

Canning and Condon compete for a high ball during the 2005 All-Ireland minor decider.

Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

He hurled U21 with Limerick in 2007 and ’08. The same years he was also part of the intermediate county team, lining out at corner-back for their All-Ireland success in ’08. At full-back beside Condon in the final against Kilkenny was legendary figure Ciaran Carey.

“He would have got a good education from Ciaran,” adds the chairman.

Late last year, Condon married Carey’s daughter Sarah, who is a mainstay of the Limerick camogie side. 

In 2009, Justin McCarthy handed Condon his senior debut. That summer he made a few championship appearances off the bench, arriving onto the field to mark John Mullane in the Munster final loss to Waterford.

A disappointing season concluded with a heavy All-Ireland semi-final trimming by Tipperary.

Then McCarthy dropped 12 high-profile players off the panel in the winter. It sparked a chain of events that saw a host of regulars walk away from the squad in solidarity with their comrades, Condon among them. 

“You can imagine a young fella trying to get his leg in the door and trying to get on the team. You’re wondering is this going to count against me, I’m sure he was. There was a few that didn’t go on strike. He had to put a bit of thought into his next move.”

It was a big call by the defender to make after his rookie season on the panel. He spent the next summer in Chicago, unsure if the county would come calling again. 

But call they did and he was in the corner for the glorious Munster win in 2013 and the epic All-Ireland semi-final in the rain against Kilkenny the following year.

Condon sends Tipperary’s Eoin Kelly flying during the 2013 Munster championship.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

However, an appearance on the first Sunday of September never materialised until a precocious crop of youngsters arrived on the scene and reinvigorated the panel.

Kiely took over, brought in Paul Kinnerk, Caroline Currid and others. A new system of play was developed.

As Condon hit 30 he hung on and brushed off thoughts of retiring, desperate to see what their talented squad could achieve. 

All the hard work over the years culminated in what’s known locally as ‘The Catch’.

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By that stage a veteran, he started the 2018 All-Ireland final on the bench after serving a two-match ban earlier in the championship. A red card against Clare in Munster cost him valuable game-time during Limerick’s run to the final.

“At the time it was a bit raw,” he admitted later that year. “I wondered was that how I was going to bow out? But I let the emotion take over and I shouldn’t have.”

When Mike Casey went down injured 50 minutes into the final against Galway, Kiely told Condon and Richie McCarthy to warm-up.

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The latter got the nod and Condon returned to his seat in the stand until he finally got his chance after McCarthy succumbed to an injury in the 71st minute.

By that stage, Limerick had batted down the hatches in the face of a Galway onslaught. The reigning champions had been poor for long spells but they were motoring now with the finish line in sight. 

Stationed in the full-back line, Condon and Limerick were subjected to an aerial bombardment as Galway rained ball on top of big Johnny Glynn. 

Canning hit the net and pointed a 65 to bring the Tribesmen back to within a point deep into stoppage-time.

Then the Portumna man stood over a free well inside his own half and the Limerick support held its breath. 

Sat together near the back of the Cusack Stand were Wall and former Knockaderry chairman Ted Danaher.

“We were all living on our nerves,” says Wall. “We were so far ahead, we should have beaten them out the gap. They were coming and coming at us.”

In the 77th minute, a score from that Canning free would have earned Galway a draw and a replay.  The last puck was marginally within his range, even if he was fatigued from the helter-skelter tussle.

Canning’s effort looked to be dropping into the square, hanging in the air for what seemed like an eternity. Now the supporters were fraught with the prospect of Galway coming up with the ball and dispatching a goal to win it.

Joe Canning’s late free falls short and is claimed by Limerick’s Tom Condon.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It was deeply concerning for a side who’d already conceded two goals in injury-time. Even more so for a county with the ’94 final collapse against Offaly still fresh in the memory banks.

Condon later admitted his mind wandered back to ’94, like just about every other Limerick person in the stadium.

There were 12 bodies converged in the square when the ball fell out of the sky and the possibility of someone coming up with clean possession looked unlikely. The sliotar bounced off a hurley and for a split second sat invitingly in the air.  

Then a strong paw rose from the forest of players and Condon, with his familiar helmet, could be seen bursting out with the ball. 

“Next thing we see the white helmet over on the far sideline. We turned to one another and said, ‘It’s Condon!” says Wall, shaking with emotion.

“It was just majestic. Tom catching that ball and the referee [blowing the final whistle].

“Typical of Tom, he had to level the Galway lad in front of him on the point the whistle was blown. It was huge.”

In that moment, all his years of sacrifice became worthwhile.

And for the people of Knockaderry, they had an All-Ireland champion in their midst.

Magic.