Yesterday, in the All-Ireland Hurling Final, Limerick beat Waterford comfortably to win their second title in three years. It was the first time in its history that the final has been played in December. It was also the first time that these two counties, from the province of Munster, had met in the final. Waterford last won the All-Ireland in 1959.
As noted on these pages many times, my father was from Kilkenny. I follow the county’s senior hurling team with great interest and have enjoyed their unprecedented success in this tournament over the last decade and a half: 12 finals in 16 years, 8 titles in 10 years (but none since 2015). From the way that Waterford demolished Kilkenny in the second half of the semi-final last month, I thought that they had a good chance of ending their 60-year wait for an All-Ireland but they didn’t come close. Even so, I have made Waterford, rather than Limerick, my word of the week.
The name “Waterford” always brings to mind a story my father told many times when we were children. My brother, three years older than me, had just started at primary school, the same one that my sister and I would later attend. Many of the children were, like us, of Irish background, and one of his classmates, Kevin, told him that his mother was from “Wa’erford”. He pronounced it in the cockney way, missing out the “t”, and that’s how my brother repeated it. My father was fascinated by this and told this story throughout my childhood. As I remember it, he pronounced “Waterford” without the “t” more often than with the “t”, copying Kevin’s pronunciation.
My knowledge of Irish counties has been improved by following Gaelic games and by travelling around the country as an adult. As a child, visiting Ireland on holiday, my awareness was restricted to a handful of them. There were the three that I had stayed in overnight (Dublin, where my mother was born, Cavan, where her mother was born, and Kilkenny) and I could easily place Carlow, Meath and Wexford on a map from driving through them. The last of these was the most clearly defined, from the one time we took the ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare.
I had also spent a few afternoons in Longford, where my mother’s father had grown up. He moved to Dublin as a young man, but my mother’s aunt and uncle, and various distant cousins, were still there. We visited them when we were staying in Cavan. Longford and Cavan are neighbouring counties, but the former is in the province of Leinster, and the latter is in the ancient province of Ulster.
In 1984 we (my mother, father, sister and I) spent Christmas with members of my mother’s family, in the house that they had built just outside Fermoy (County Cork), on several acres of land incorporating a stretch of the Blackwater River. My uncle was a keen fisherman and that part of the country attracted anglers from all over the world. It was the first time I had set foot, or spent the night, in the province of Munster. The drive from Dublin to Kilkenny was familiar, but the next part of our journey, through Tipperary and into County Cork, was not.
Later that trip my mother and I spent an afternoon in Monaghan, at the country estate of one of my more well-to-do (old money) college friends. The scenery was a revelation. We pushed on through to spend a night in Cavan, where my maternal grandmother grew up. (She died when my mother was seven years old.)
In the summer of 2004, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, we toured many parts of Ireland that I had never seen. We landed in Rosslare and stopped in the town of Waterford on our way to Kilkenny. Our brief visit was for a medical reason: it was the time of day when my wife injected heparin, the blood-thinner that was helping this pregnancy go to term after four miscarriages in under two years. We stopped in a bar, had a drink and a bite to eat, and she administered her injection in the ladies’ loo.
During the following week we toured around the west of Ireland, the only time that I have visited the Munster counties of Kerry, Limerick and Clare, and (in the province of Connacht) Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. By the time we returned to Kilkenny I had totted up the number of counties I had spent time in at some point in my life (even if it was just to drive through them): 23 out of 26. The three that I had never seen were Sligo and Leitrim (in the province of Connacht), and Donegal. Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, are the three counties in the ancient province of Ulster that form part of the Republic of Ireland. The others are the six counties of Northern Ireland (Derry, Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Antrim, Down). I have never been north of the border, and I have yet to visit Sligo, Leitrim or Donegal.
And although I have driven through it a few times, I have only spent an hour or so with my feet on the ground anywhere in the county of Waterford. You may know it as the source of world-renowned crystal glasses, or as the birthplace of Val Doonican. I remember it as a place my father pronounced without the “t”, imitating a cockney accent. My wife and I remember it as a place where she injected heparin, once, in the summer of 2004. Maybe next year the county will win the All-Ireland Hurling title for the first time in my lifetime.