I am Shane Dowling the person.
Most people know me as Shane Dowling the hurler and that’s OK because hurling has been the biggest part of my life so far. Of course, there is a lot more to life than hurling, but I do it because I love it and right now I don’t know how else to live.
My mood is dictated by hurling and I know that’s not right.
There have been some games down through the years where I haven’t been able to get out of bed for two days. If I saw anyone else carry on like that I’d give them a slap and tell them not to be so stupid, but I just can’t switch that off.
My mood is dictated by when I am not playing and if things are not happening for me on the field, you best stay away from me off the field. That’s just the way I am.
I grew up a stone’s throw from Na Piarsaigh GAA club in Limerick: out the door, turn your head to the right and there it is.
My Dad has been a part of the club since it was founded in 1968 so there was never anything else I was going to do. The first time he brought me down hurling as a toddler I didn’t take to it and he didn’t push me. Then from about four years of age, once I could strike a ball, it was every Saturday morning down at the club.
Pádraig Pearse is on the Na Piarsaigh crest. He was a warrior and a fighter and that’s what has been instilled in us.
That’s why winning a first county title in 2011 was so special to me. Winning the Club All Ireland and Munster Championship came later but that first county title – and seeing what it meant to everyone at the club – is what the GAA is all about. It’s a special feeling.
There was a club man called Paddy Verdon who passed away about six weeks after we won the All-Ireland Club, and I reckon he died a happy man. Back in 2009 he said to me: “All I want before I pass on is to see one county championship come back to this club.” That’s what it meant to so many people associated with Na Piarsaigh.
From 1968 to 2011 we were known as the soft city slickers and few could argue with that.
We’ve won four county finals now and, as long as I am playing, it’s about doing my bit to put as many county titles on the board as I can, not for me, but for everyone at the club that works so hard to keep things going. It’s a privilege for me to be part of that.
”John Allen was the first person to call me into the Limerick senior ranks. I was on my way to work when he called…there wasn't much work done that day!
2012 was a reasonably good year from my own point of view as we were beaten by a Kilkenny team at the peak of their powers in the All-Ireland quarter finals.
But the following year, John thought the only role for me was coming off the bench. I took that very hard at the time.
There was no conversation about it. You just listened every Thursday night when the team was picked. Growing up I was never a sub on any team I had ever played for so, at the time, John Allen was the demon, the big bad wolf.
As time went on I found him one of the nicest men in GAA circles, an absolute gentleman. I remember after winning the club final in 2016, he was working with TG4 at the time and he came up and gave me a big hug and was genuinely delighted for me.
But at the time I wanted to be starting. I wanted to be walking behind the band. I wanted to be arm-in-arm with the lads for Amhrán na bhFiann.
”We played Tipperary in the first round in Munster. I wasn't in the starting 15 and I remember driving home and pulling in around the back of the petrol station near the ground and breaking down for over an hour in my car. I genuinely thought my inter-county career was over. I was devastated.
I was 19 and thinking “I want to play for Limerick and you’ve a lad coming in from Cork here and he won’t even play me!” But he had his reasons and we won our first Munster in 17 years which was the long and short of it.
I reached out to Niall Moran who said to me at the time, “the wheel always turns”, and it does. I know that now. But at the time it was very hard to take. I took consolation in the fact that I would likely get 20 minutes or so to make an impact and I had to make the best of it.
So, coming on in the 2013 Munster final, scoring three points on our way to the win, firing balls into the terrace where all the Limerick fans were – that’s a memory that will last forever.
The fans carried me shoulder high off the field that day, I don’t think it was me in particular, they just saw a player and fired him up on their shoulders in the excitement of it all. If Limerick were to ever win an All-Ireland again you could end up on the roof of Croke Park!
Niall Moran is a good friend of mine. He’s a teacher down at Ard Scoil Rís and coached us to our first Harty Cup and he often talks about ‘Joe Public’.
Does Joe Public’s opinion matter when you’re lining out for a Championship game? The obvious answer is no, but Joe Public’s opinion mattered to me when I was a young player and it’s still difficult at times because I manage a pharmacy in Raheen and I deal with Joe Public every day. When it comes to the game you have to block out all the criticism and the praise. Opinion doesn’t matter when the ball is thrown in.
But I was very sensitive when I was younger and publicly criticised the fans and keyboard warriors in 2012 when I was still a teenager. It was because I didn’t recognise it for what it was – raw passion from the people of Limerick that wanted success but had not seen it in a long time. I meant what I said, and it was the case then. Less so now because we’ve had a snippet of success since.
I even look at Anthony Foley.
Before he died Anthony was getting a lot of criticism. His sister Rosie expressed that so well in the fantastic documentary that was made about his life. What happened to him was so tragic and his critics straight away changed their attitude and talked about what a fantastic person he was, both on and off the field, as a manager and a player.
So, people respect and appreciate what you’re doing for your team and your community but sometimes they crave success so badly that they can go overboard in their criticism.
Limerick is probably the place where that is most obvious because the fans are just so passionate and everyone in the country can see what a fantastic sporting city it is. It’s just that success, at senior level, has eluded us for a long time. We’ve had it at minor and U21 but badly need to bring that through to senior level.
It’s important for me to keep dreaming big with the county.
”When Davy Russell, one of my sporting heroes, won the Grand National this year he said “I’ve won this race a thousand times in my head and in my dreams.”
I smiled when he said that because I've won an All-Ireland with Limerick 10,000 times in my head but still not in reality.
Will it happen or not? Who knows, but what I can tell you is that it won't be for the lack of trying.
The young lads are a unique crew. They need very little help or guidance. There’s a real swagger about them – and I mean that in a good way. They are tough boys that have come up with a lot of success.
In my late teens we had very little success with Limerick. The younger lads know what it takes to win and have been playing together for quite a long time. We’re starting to see the benefit of that. Overall Limerick now has a great clan of players with different levels of experience.
When a team is performing, people are always going to talk about a change of mentality but that’s driven by media.
The truth is that our mentality in Limerick has always been strong. We work just as hard and want to win as much as anyone else does. People think it changes when you get a bit of a run or success but that’s not the reality.
Being named in the 2014 All-Star team was fantastic. There used to be these annual All-Star posters and, as a young lad, I used to collect them all from the early 2000s so to be named as part of that was magic. It’s a fantastic honour and great to have to look back on but that wasn’t for me really. That was for my family and the club and the people that supported me from a young age.
Since then there have been a lot of ups and downs.
The following year for Limerick was a disaster. Then 2016 with Na Piarsaigh was just unbelievable, fulfilling a dream of winning a club All Ireland in Croke Park surrounded by family and friends I grew up with.
We’d won two county championships and been beaten in two All-Ireland semi-finals, so going in against Oulart The Ballagh in the semi-final was one of the most pressurised situations I’ve ever put myself under.
I wanted so badly to get the club to Croke Park and see my parents there that, on the day, I fell out over every ball. I hit a load of wides. I was shocking! Thankfully we got over the line and I was so grateful to my teammates because I did nothing to help them that day.
I remember getting the train up to Croke Park for the final. When it set off that morning it was eight carriages long and full of Na Piarsiagh people.
We were in the last carriage so, as we left Limerick, we walked past every single supporter that was on the train to cheer us on that day. That was a special moment. Everything went like clockwork from there. It was just magic.
I said to myself that, whatever happens, I’m going to enjoy this and savour it so that I won’t have anyone say to me that the day passed me by. That was my mentality going into the final and I hurled a great game and I’ve always taken that mindset into games since.
It was such a special day and I’ve made sure to remember everything… except maybe getting off the train in Colbert Station on the way home!
”But I still can't really talk too much about losing this year's final to Cuala. That will sit with me forever. It was the saddest day of my sporting life. It hit me hard and still does. We could have - and should have - won the first day.
If I lose a game by 10 points, and we’ve tried our best, I’ll accept that – like 2014 against Kilkenny, the famous game in the rain. We couldn’t have given any more that day and I can live with that.
But I can’t live with the club final this year. It was sickening because the club means so much to me. It just killed me – that’s all I can say about it still.
Yet sometimes it takes something to put hurling into perspective.
The be-all and end-all for me now is that my family are OK and I’ll tell you why.
This time last year my parents went on holidays to Lanzarote and Mam came back and ended up in intensive care up in the Galway Clinic due to a freak illness; pancreatitis. That scared me.
I remember Dad ringing me in work. I got straight into the car and drove up. We didn’t know whether she was going to make it.
I’ve a niece that’s two this year, very attached to her Nana. It hit me: what if she’s not going to be able to spend time with her grandchild?
”I'd just bought my first house. There was a chance Mam would never even see me in it.
Thankfully she made a full recovery, but it was a tough week. I had a few sleepless nights travelling up and down the road.
We played Adare in the county championship that Saturday and I told Shane O’Neill I hadn’t really slept or eaten and wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I knew if someone hit me a belt I could turn around and take the head off him or start crying. We were beaten, and I only came on with 10 minutes to go when things were bad.
It took that for me to see that there is more to life than hurling and I know Joe Canning spoke last year about a similar experience. But I can tell you that once everything is ok off the field, lifting Liam MacCarthy remains my priority.
I was away with Na Piarsaigh a lot this year and one man’s loss is another man’s gain. I had no divine right to be in there playing with Limerick. If you’re successful with your club, there’s other lads getting chances with the county and you just have to accept that.
I was fortunate to get an opportunity to come back in against Waterford and did well. The previous week against Cork I didn’t get a single minute, so I went off and did a training session on my own on the Sunday in Na Piarsaigh.
It was a beautiful day. Tipp and Waterford were playing in the Gaelic Grounds and as I finished up my training session I passed a load of Waterford lads out drinking pint bottles. They said, “Dowling, there’s a few lads from Ballygunner here want to have a word with you!” because we’d beaten them in the club championship. I told them I’d be over in 10 minutes and to get me a pint bottle as well. I thought I might as well since I wasn’t playing.
Then a week later you’re putting in a winning performance against Waterford and I’m surrounded by hundreds of fans on the pitch. Fast forward another week and we’ve lost to Clare and I can’t get off the field quick enough!
It’s just been ups and downs all year and that’s the nature of the new format. From a spectator’s point of view it’s magic. It’s magic for players too but it’s very hard work. Three weeks in-a -row of 70+ minutes of hard graft hurling. That’s very difficult.
I thought we were going to get better each game. We were lucky we had no injuries but credit to Clare, they were not going to be beaten in their own back yard.
We still have a shot and everything I do each day is still working towards that. Not just physically training but mentally training too. You need the discipline in so many ways. You’re training every day and if you have a Sunday off you train yourself not to go for pints or the snack box.
”If it's 30 degrees outside you don't go and lie out in it because you know you need to be always hydrated and ready to train. If you've banked all the hard work, you'll be ready on the big days and the pressure doesn't get to you.
Right now, hurling defines me, but only when everything else is right. If you don’t have a good career, good friends and the support of your family, hurling is irrelevant: Happy player off the pitch, better player on the pitch.
People say hurling is one of the best field sports in the world. I say, it is THE best field sport in the world. There is no comparison and I wouldn’t change what I have for anything. Through the years you make so many friends and get so many opportunities. The buzz you get from games, whether it’s an All-Ireland final or a junior final in your local county, it doesn’t matter. The pride you get from winning with your buddies is something money can’t buy.
I hope that can continue for a long time yet.
There is a Limerick team there good enough to win the All Ireland. We just have to get over the setbacks and go again. It would be magical if we could get there.
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