*Johnny Callinan. Photograph: Joe Buckley
Depending on your vintage, the release of John Callinan’s autobiography ‘To Play, To Live’ is either a welcome lockdown leap down memory lane to an era in which Clare were a match for anyone in the land or a timely introductory insight into one of the county’s greatest ever hurlers.
For an uninitiated younger generation (Generations Z and Alpha to be exact), the Clarecastle native’s senior inter-county career spanned from 1972-87, a time when prominent facial hair pre-dated faceguards and crucially in Clare’s case, there was no championship backdoor.
After all, the fact that Clare were widely considered the second best team in Ireland behind Munster rivals Cork meant that championship success agonisingly eluded this much-heralded Banner side, with Callinan losing four of his six provincial deciders to the Rebels.
However, the versatile performer, famed for his iconic tache and tan (both natural he stresses), was fittingly decorated with two All-Stars (1979 and ’81), three Railway Cups with Munster (1976, ’78, ‘81) and of course Clare’s historic back-to-back National League titles in 1977 and ’78.
“They were massive,” the Ennis-based solicitor recalled to The Clare Echo this week. “We had been beaten in the National League Final replay in ’76 by Kilkenny so to then beat them in 1977 and ’78 was huge. “Kilkenny were a big scalp, they still are. We had experience of playing and beating everybody at that time but to actually win something like a National League for the first time since 1946 was a big deal and I suppose it essentially endorsed what we were trying to do.
“Unfortunately as far as the team were concerned, there was a four letter word when it came to championship called Cork who were also beating everybody else as well. We seemed to get a lot of stick over not being able to beat Cork at that time but nobody else could beat them either so perhaps It’s just that our timing as a team was a little bit off.
“I argue in the book that the 1978 team got such a build up through the 1970’s that the defeats in 1977 and ’78 but particular the latter kind of overwhelmed Clare people. I mean the same team and management were there again in 1979 but I can’t even remember who beat us. We just fell off a cliff which I would have been railing against. I mean I was only 23 in ’78, Enda [O’Connor] and [Colm] Honan were only 24, [Ger] Loughnane was only 25.
“However it just seemed that historically, the ’67 final defeat, the ’72 defeat and the ’74 defeat were all aggregated together into ’78 rather than just being a match we lost. And people had invested so heavily emotionally in our team that it definitely was a significant blow to the Clare psyche. That said, we came with a team again in ’81 and beat Cork before losing to Limerick so that was probably my biggest disappointment, losing that Munster Final as the core of the team were all at their peak.”
That’s merely a chapter of the Callinan story though as the book, part of Hero Books ‘The Legends Series’ and co-written by former Clare People, Clare Champion and Clare FM journalist Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, also chronicles an unrivalled underage career.
Carving out his passion for hurling in Clarecastle and St Flannan’s, Cal blossomed at inter-county level by excelling for three years at minor and five at Under 21 level while remarkably making his senior championship debut at just 17 in none other than the Munster Final of 1972, inevitably against Cork.
He finished as captain 15 years later amidst his most successful period for the Magpies. And if that wasn’t enough to whet your appetite, there’s also the juicy revelation that he could have been Offaly manager in that infamous 1998 season.
To Play, To Live is out now.