The rise of Clonlara was signposted as far back as 2000 when the club first started winning underage A titles. So began the slow-burning revolution that made the men from Shannon’s banks into a major force in Clare senior hurling, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
JIM Gully is just over ten miles way from the epicentre of the fuss, but in truth there’s no real getting away from it. Anyway, the couldn’t really, even if he was so disposed. He isn’t.
And so, it’s hurling at every turn. Clonlara hurling. Even those ten or so miles across the Shannon to Newport in north Tipperary where he runs a news agency with his wife Bríd.
Bríd the Clonlara club secretary and there’s no busier time for a secretary than county final week; Jim is the club stalwart — the former manager who brought Clonlara hurling to where they never were before in 2007 and ’08, while now he pucks every ball with the team trying to get back to those heights.
“Compared to the last time we won the county in 2008 it’s much different,” says Gully. “Back then it was on top of us, because we beat Crusheen in a semi-final replay and were out the following week in the final, whereas there’s a two-week gap this time and much more of a build up that started straight after we beat Kilmaley. There’s been photographers around the place and hype like that.”
They’ll take it though, hype and all, whether they’re coming under the radar or within clear view of it, because “an rud is annamh is iontach” for this hurling corner of Clare that has made such huge strides in a decade.
Back in 2005 they were relegated to the intermediate ranks, but now they’re preparing for a third county final in seven years.
“And people might say that we should have been in a lot more than three,” quips Gully, “but people are missing a huge thing. Since 2009 we have been backboning every Clare team. Clare teams have been hugely successful with Clonlara lads on it. I think the club suffered because of that success. This year, because Clare teams have been out of it so early we’ve had these players for the past two months. That hasn’t happened in a long, long time.”
With it Clonlara have arrived back in big time once more — a case of what they’ve given to Clare hurling at every level since 2008 now coming back to the club with an overdue run to the final.
“It’s huge for us,” admits Gully, “because when you have the players it’s the county finals that you’re in that you want to win. God knows the club wasn’t in a final for generations and generations before 2008 and probably thought we’d never get to one.”
They weren’t alone — plenty of others thought they wouldn’t make the grade and it didn’t even cross their minds that a Clonlara conveyor belt would produce so many players for county teams that would bring All-Irelands to Clare.
Yes the exploits of the late Tom Crowe and Colm Honan in the 1970s and ‘80s were a reference point for what Cratloe could do — Honan the National League winner on the double and an All Star; Crowe of the famous goal in the ’77 league final that catapulted Clare to victory over Kilkenny.
More recently Ger O’Connell and Paul Collins were All-Ireland minor winners in ’97, while historically old-timers around the village and in Doonas, Truagh and Ardnacrusha would always namecheck the Mullane brothers and their contribution to Clare’s Munster title winning squad of 1932 and before that Michael Bourke who crossed the Shannon into Limerick to win an All-Ireland medal in 1921.
But it’s the Shannon itself that Jim Gully thinks of when explaining the gulf that once existed between Clonlara and senior championship success — you could say that it was as wide as the Shannon itself.
“It was Ahane from across the footbridge thanks links Clonlara and Castleconnell that had all the hurling tradition in the area,” says Gully.
“They had the Mick and John Mackey, Jackie Power and the Herberts and we looked over at them in awe really at what that club had won. “They gave us an awful time and they said ‘come across the bridge and we’ll show you what a county title is like’. All this kind of crap. It’s what drives us all, isn’t it. If you hadn’t got that, where would you be.
“When we won the intermediate title in ’99 they won the Limerick senior title the same year so it was decided that the two cups would meet on the bridge.
“Kevin Herbert was captain of Ahane and he said to our captain Anthony Fennessy. ‘Ye’ve a long way to go to win a senior.’ He said it in a friendly and battery way but he was right.”
“After we won that intermediate in ’99 we contested a Senior B final in 2000 after we were very unlucky to lose to Éire Óg in the quarter-final of the A championship. We had a substantial lead and it looked all over bar the shouting. We were in the semi-final, but all of a sudden Éire Óg got three goals and the rest in history.
“We played Newmarket in Senior B final and they gave us a lesson. The following year we played the ‘Bridge in the quarter-final and Kilnamona in Senior B and lost it again. The team lost its momentum after that. We seemed to be just fighting relegation after that.
“We were what I’d call a yo-yo intermediate team — up and down, up and down. Most of our teams were playing B. We were competitive at B, but mightn’t have been overly successful, just getting to semi-finals and finals where we might win an odd one.
“It was always our ambition to get there up to the top and in wanting to get there we admired teams like St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield from afar.
“We were always playing St Joseph’s at intermediate level up to ’92 and ’93 and had many a battle with them — then suddenly they left us in ’93 and went up senior and by the time ’98 and ’99 came around they were the back bone of Clare hurling and the leading club within the county. They showed us the way,” he adds.
Eventually Clonlara got there, with Gully tracing it all back to the millennium year when the first ever Under 12 title came to the club, while the same year Clonlara NS were Division 1 Cumann na mBunscol champions.
“That’s when it all started,” he says. “This bunch of players — the John Conlon, Nicky O’Connell, the Donovan twins era I call it. They started to arrive. From then on we seemed to be at A all the way up along, so then we we did arrive at senior it was no accident that we were able to play there,” he adds.
Of course, before they arrived there was that demotion to intermediate that came in November 2005 when the relegation rubber final down in Meelick saw them cross sticks with Cratloe.
“I took over the team after that,” says Gully, “and little could one have imagined that within a few years that both Clonlara and Cratloe would be county champions and would play in a final against each other.
“Eddie Horgan had the team up to 2005 and I took them over to 2006,” Gully recalls. “We got to intermediate semi-final and along the way introduced a lot of young fellas, had an eight point lead against Killanena with ten minutes to go and lost it.
“It all came together in 2007 though, with the young lads the driving force behind the team — giving us energy.
After we won that intermediate in ’99 we contested a Senior B final in 2000 after we were very unlucky to lose to Éire Óg in the quarter-final of the A championship. We had a substantial lead and it looked all over bar the shouting. We were in the semi-final, but all of a sudden Éire Óg got three goals and the rest in history.
“A big thing was winning the Munster title after with won that county intermediate. It was a huge boost to the club. It was absolutely massive. The significance of that proved that to us we could go places. It was the only competition when we had to beat every other team in the competition.
“Waterford weren’t finished their championship, so in one side of the draw we beat the Cork and Tipp champions and then Limerick who got a bye into the final. The confidence boost in winning that was huge and then in April 2008 we won the Under 21 A title with Tommy Galvin as the manager.”
“That gave the lads and the club belief that anything was possible and at the start of the 2008 señor championship we just said we’d take it game by game and see how far we go. They were so young they didn’t have any fear and surpassed everyone’s expectation to win it.”
To say that it was a meteoric rise is an understatement, both at club and county level. A year on from the 2008 county title there were five Clonlara players — Domhnall and Cormac O’Donovan, Nicky O’Connell, John Conlon and Darach Honan — on the Clare Under 21 team that won Munster and All-Ireland, while the same number — Domhnall O’Donovan, Nicky O’Connell, John Conlon, Darach Honan and Colm Galvin — played in the 2013 All-Ireland senior final replay win.
Throw in the contribution to the Munster minor triumphs in 2010 and ’11 and the three Under 21 All-Irelands between 2012 and ’14 and Clonlara’s contribution has been greater than any other club in the county.
Now it’s to bring that back to the club.
“In wanting to win more I always go back to 2009,” says Gully. “It was either before or after that Under 21 All-Ireland when you had all those Clonlara players on the team, and John Moloney in the subs.
“Anthony Daly was on RTE and someone brought it up about ‘where did Clonlara come out of with five players on the team’. Daly’s answer to the question was ‘I never played Clonlara at senior level in all my days with Clarecastle’.
“I’ll never forget those words out of him and I said ‘by Jesus you’ll here from us yet’. He was not telling a lie and in a way it shows how far the club did come, has come.”