The famous O’Connor Clan from Tubber know all about beating Kilkenny in national finals in Thurles’ Semple Stadium, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, who spoke to Patrick O’Connor ahead of Saturday’s decider.
PATRICK O’Connor was all set – in the words of Christy Moore he had his tent “rolled up tight” and was ready for one of the many direct descendants of the Lisdoonvarna Music Festival out there. Oxegen 2009. The rite of passage of any 18-year-old.
Three years on it’s a bit of blur to him who was on the ticket that year, but believe it or not, Blur were there, so too Snow Patrol, The Kings of Leon and The Killers, not forgetting the Artane Boys Band teaming up with The Brilliant Things.
It’s a blur because O’Connor never did make it to Oxegen – the closest he came was getting to hear the Tulla Pipe Band in Cusack Park instead of the Artane Band in Punchestown.
“I just had my Oxegen tickets bought,” he recalls, “and I was called into the Under 21 squad. Not even in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be called in. I remember the day because I had just bought the tickets, so I sold them for a knockdown price straight away, just to be part of the panel. It was the week of the first round game against Limerick.”
So began Patrick O’Connor’s four-year under 21 career, as he emulated his father Pat, and uncles Enda and Michael in wearing the jersey at that level. And like Pat he was an under 21 while still a minor, the difference being that he was among the first Clare generation ever to win some silverware.
Enda played on the Munster final defeats of ‘72 and ‘74; Pat, who showed the way for Patrick by being on the under 21 squad for four years from ‘73 to ‘76 played in the finals defeats of ‘74 and ‘76.
“I’ve never had an experience like the 2009 team,” says O’Connor. “It gathered momentum. It was like a ball rolling. At the Limerick game I was just delighted to be there, but not long after that I really wanted to make the team. I put my hand up a bit in training,” he adds.
O’Connor got his chance in the Munster final in Dungarvan against Waterford, coming on at half-time for Cathal Duggan as Clare stormed to a famous 2-17 to 2-12 victory.
“I had a perfect view of the first half. I was up in the stand,” remembers O’Connor. “I was sitting beside Pa Kelly and the call came ‘Pa, Pa, come on’. I thought it was Pa Kelly that was going on and I didn’t think in my wildest dream that I was going on. “But nce I got in there I got on the ball early and I settled down. After that it was just a normal game. I was just trying to stop the ball from going through and doing my job for the team.
“I was named to start the final and Sean Collins wasn’t because of his shoulder, but he got the nod for on the day. It was a huge occasion. At that stage Clare fans were starving for success.
“Myself and Conor McGrath came on about five minutes apart from each other and I got to run Croke Park for a while. I didn’t make much of a difference but it was nice to be there at the final whistle.”
O’Connor’s meteoric rise continued when he made his senior debut in 2010 – the same kind of progression that Pat and Enda made in the mid-’70s as Fr Harry Bohan began to assemble a side capable of mixing it with the best of them. It’s a history and heritage that all the O’Connors were weaned on.
“There isn’t much video footage of that time,” says O’Connor, “but over the years I’ve got a grasp of it. I’ve met all the players Pat and Enda played with and picked up on what a successful team that ‘70s side was – they are great role models to have, to try and reach that kind of level.
“Between my father and my uncles, they’ve instilled a great pride of club and parish into me. On the back of that a great pride of being a Clareman and I’d like to think that pride in my club and my county show,” he adds.
You don’t have to travel far from the O’Connor homestead on the edge of Tubber’s New Line to see this – it’s there that the O’Connors have their own hurling field, custom built posts made in Connor Engineering next door, sidelines and endlines mapped out.
“There’d be about 20 of us out there, all within about ten years of each other,” says O’Connor. “Myself and my brother and all the children of my uncles and aunts. At this stage they’re dotted around the country, but during the summers we’d all be out there playing away. The hurling matches we’d have on the lawn would be as fierce as anything I’ve played,” he adds.
Until Saturday that is, when O’Connor bids to emulate father Pat and uncle Enda by winning two national titles against Kilkenny – the first is in the bag from the 2009 in Croke Park, now for Thurles where Pat and Enda enjoyed National League successes against the Cats in 1977 and ‘78.
“We’re expecting classic Kilkenny hurling where the emphasis is on winning your own ball,” says O’Connor. “There can be no marking space and no zonal defending. You have to go toe to toe with your man and come out on top. That’s the responsibility that’s on you for the team.
“We have no doubt about it that Kilkenny are favourites. They had a great win over Galway. They’ve looked strong throughout their Leinster campaign. They a couple of lads with senior experience and more on the training panel, so they’re definitely the standardbearers at every level.
“When you see the Kilkenny jersey, they are the standardbearers and you’d like to think you’re able to raise your game another five or ten per cent to just be able to match yourself against Kilkenny – pitch yourself against the best.”
Above: Patrick O’Connor.