THE great success enjoyed by Clonlara GAA Club over the past two years, in particular, together with the march of the Clare U-21s to the All-Ireland final has turned the spotlight very much on the South-East Clare club. While the club has, over the years, provided some great players for county sides, they have never had as many on a county team at the one time.
Killanena native Pat Conlon, father of one of the U-21 stars John, has seen this group of players get better with each passing year. Together with former Wolfe Tones man, Tony O’Sullivan, he has helped to guide these young players to a number of successes at juvenile level.
Conlon and O’Sullivan have a lot in common. Conlon played his early hurling with Killanena before setting up home in Conlara. Since his arrival in the parish he has immersed himself in the club and played a major part in its development.
O’Sullivan started his GAA career with Wolfe Tones, where his father Jim was a leading light having played football with the club after its formation in the late ’60s. Having played at all levels in hurling and football for the club, Tony followed in his father’s footsteps and became a referee. He officiated at all levels in the county and took charge of a number of county finals.
Having set up home in Clonlara, he immediately joined the club and teamed up with Conlon in the training and coaching of various underage sides.
“We started at U-10 in the Killaloe tournament and then we went on to Lenmac. We were beaten in the final of that competition in our first season in it by Éire Óg and a year later we were beaten in the semi-final. We were very good at U-11 ground hurling and we won that three years in a row. That would be mainly the present group,” according to Conlon.
“We won two Féiles in succession. The team with the O’Donovans won the first and then the team with John (Conlon) and Nicky (O’Connell) won the second one. Both were beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final and on each occasion the winners went on to win the national titles,” Conlon said.
“We won the U-12A in 2001. We beat the ’Bridge and it was the first A title for Clonlara. Mike Morey trained the ’Bridge team. We won a Mother Hubbard Tournament with that team. We had great matches with Éire Óg and the ’Bridge with that group. We beat Éire Óg in a Féile final, it was a fantastic struggle.
“We beat the ’Bridge in the A final in a fantastic game. Nicky (O’Connell) got a fantastic point from a 21’yard free on the sideline to level the game. We then got a free on the 45’ on the endline and he put it straight over the bar and we won by a point. We were beaten in an U-15A semi-final in a replay by the ’Bridge in Broadford and we won the U-16A then. Jimmy Browne was coaching that team,” O’Sullivan said.
“Two years later we got to a minor final but we were beaten by Newmarket. In 2005, we were beaten in the minor A semi-final by Inagh-Kilnamona, who won the title. A year later, we were beaten in the semi-final by Clooney-Quin, who also won the title. We lost to Newmarket in the minor A final in 2007. It’s the only A title that this group didn’t win,” said Conlon.
The Killanena man said that he saw potential in this group from the very beginning “but I didn’t expect that they would have so much success so fast”, he says.
O’Sullivan said, “In Féile in Kildare we were with Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary. We were narrowly beaten by James Stephens from Kilkenny. In fact, we were level with a minute to go. The next day we beat Glen Rovers from Cork and we both agreed then that Clare hurling would benefit.
“We always had six or seven great individual hurlers but a Newmarket man told me once that it’s no use having six or seven if you haven’t the corner men. We had to chase these and we called to houses to get them to ensure that we could compete at A level,” Conlon added. “Young fellas love hurling but they have to put the work in.”
According to O’Sullivan, winning at A level is very important. “There is great work done in the school. When I was growing up in Shannon, the schools were vital. We won three Féiles in the ’80s and the schools were great. They are not as strong there now.”
“Most of the current Clonlara team have played for Clare at some level. When I came to Clonlara first, the young lads were there but no one would take them on board. The young lads were always there and we now have some great fellas involved in the promotion of the game in the club,” according to Conlon.
Not surprisingly, both Pat and Tony are eagerly looking forward to Sunday’s final. “This would be special. They have given two great performances to get to the final,” said Conlon.
“This will certainly benefit our county team but it won’t automatically bring success at senior level. We have to be patient,” O’Sullivan commented.