Hurling and Miltown Malbay goes all the way back to Michael Cusack’s time, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, with Conor Cleary now the keeper of the game’s flame back west by bringing it to All-Ireland level.
THE significance of Conor Cleary’s involvement in Saturday’s All-Ireland final won’t be lost on GAA historians out Miltown Malbay way. The place is home to the Old Kilfarboy Society, so they know a thing or two about their history.
John Reidy, Joe Cullen, Gerry ‘Tack’ McMahon, Noel Walsh and Cyril Jones to name but a few will know the significance of 2014 vis-à-vis All-Ireland finals and Miltown – all because it’s 80 years since Kilfarboy’s greatest played a decider.
That was Georgie Comerford, of course, the hero of Clare’s All-Ireland minor football win 85 years ago when he scored 3-2 in the ’29 final against Longford, who then went on to play in the senior final five years later.
Comerford had to go to Dublin to play in that All-Ireland – joining the all-conquering Garda club football team in the capital before throwing in his lot with the county team for a few years, during which time they reached the final in ’34.
For Cleary the journey to play in an All-Ireland has been much shorter. To Kilmaley. To St Flannan’s College. Two giant leaps out of the football country that hugs the Atlantic coast to Miltown way into hurling country.
He’s not the first to make the jump though – indeed, you could say Miltown’s association with the small ball goes all the way back to before the whole GAA show got on the road.
When Michael Cusack and his friends congregated around the Wellington Monument in Dublin’s Phoenix Park to hurl, among the regular gatherings was a Miltown man by the name of Molohan – the original keeper of Kilfarboy’s hurling flame.
It’s in Conor Cleary’s possession now.
“It comes from watching the Clare teams when I was younger,” he says. “It was seeing the Clare team of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. I was very young, but I have memories going back as far as 1998, with my father bringing me to the games against Waterford and Offaly. Those things stay with you and he always encouraged me to play hurling, my mother as well.
“I always like the game and when the decision came to go to secondary school, I went to St Flannan’s, so that meant I was hurling all the time. You hurl morning, noon and night there and that’s what I did. I pushed on from there,” he adds.
“At Kilmaley he started to show promise from a young age,” says Niall Romer, manager of the Kilmaley side that won the county minor title in 2012 with Cleary as the star turn of the team. “He got the winner for us that day. The big thing about Conor was his interest – a big lad who really wanted to hurl and we were glad he came to us and we were able to help him. He was always very aeger to listen and learn,” he adds.
“At under 14 and under 16 level I didn’t really get a start with the county squads,” says Cleary, “but lucky enough when it came to minor I got my place. To make a minor team in my last year, back in 2012, was a big thing.
“We played Waterford in the first game that year and were beaten, but then beat Cork in the round robin, before playing Limerick in Cusack Park. That was a big day for me, beating Limerick in the park and going home thinking to myself that I’d be playing in a Munster final was unreal. It was a dream.
“When you get a taste of that experience – playing in a Munster final – you want more and it drives you on to try and get back to have other days like that,” he adds.
Cleary went straight from the minor team to the Under 21 squad for 2013 – he got no game time in Clare four-game run to a successful defence of their All-Ireland title, but this year has made the jump from sub to starter on the back of being called into the senior squad at the start of the year.
“Coming into the squad first last year,” says Cleary, “was a great privilege with the likes of Podge Collins, David McInerney and others in it.
“They’re as close as you’d get to professional hurlers. You see the way these guys live. It’s a wake up call to see them up close, see what it takes if you want to be a top inter-county player. To be involved and to be playing this level of hurling is something else.”
For most an All-Ireland final can’t come quick enough – Cleary is the same, but what he’d give for another week as he tries to fast-track his recovery from the hand injury he received when playing for Kilmaley against Sixmilebridge three weeks ago.
Shane O’Donnell suffered a similar break in the Munster final, but made it back to play in the All-Ireland semi-final against Antrim. Cleary, who is now cast-free and back hurling this week, can only hope for the same luck.
“It would mean everything to play in an All-Ireland final,” he says. “Please God there will be more chances to play in an All-Ireland, but you never know what will happen in the years ahead. I’m trying my very hardest to get back – it would mean everything to me.
“For me, to get a chance to play in the Munster final and win it was unreal – it would be the same now to have a chance to play in the All-Ireland.
“The Munster final was great – to have your family and friends out on the field after the game, to have the Kilmaley club players that I’ve grown up hurling with, to have them all around after the game was great. It would be great to experience that again after the final.
“There’s been no talk as a three-in-a-row in the camp. Apart from Tony Kelly, Aaron Cunningham and the few others who have been there for the past three years, it’s a new thing for a lot of us.
“A lot of us have no All-Ireland won on the field of play, so that’s what’s driving a lot of lads for this game. It’s just about winning this – not a three-in-a-row. This game is all that matters to us.”
Georgie Comerford’s All-Ireland final back in GAA golden jubilee year of 1934, when he was joined in the Dublin side by Labasheeda’s Mick Casey, ended in defeat to Galway – Conor Cleary will be hoping to go one better 80 years on to ensure an All-Ireland medal will be coming back to Miltown once more.
And if it happens, the famous ‘Coming Back to Miltown’ ballad might even rent the air.
Left: Conor Cleary being interviewed by Joe Ó Muircheartaigh ahead of Saturday’s All-Ireland Under 21 final.