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Clonlara manager, Jim Gully celebrates with the Canon Hamilton in the dressing room at Cusack Park following their 2008 senior hurling final win over Newmarket-on-Fergus. Photograph by John Kelly

Back to the future for Clonlara boys

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If you ever wanted to know what Clonlara means to Dónal Madden just default to that time when he was part of the side that made the big breakthrough by bringing Clare hurling’s greatest prize back to the home parish of Canon Hamilton.
This week 15 years ago — October 18, 2008, and the black and amber had just dished out a 0-13 to 0-5 drubbing to Crusheen in the county semi-final, after which they’d go on to win the final against Newmarket-on-Fergus.
Dónal made the biggest impact on the scoreboard in that semi-final played in Clarecastle, with 0-7 on his scorecard. Here was the Tulla man abroad in Clonlara, but very much at home there.
A year after Tulla had beaten Crusheen in the county final to bridge a 74-year gap to their last county championship success — now Clonlara were 60 winning minutes away from bridging an even longer gap of 89 years.
A penny for Dónal’s thought as he looked at the histories of Tulla and Clonlara in the eye: “Personally, I stood in Tulla and had tears in my eyes when Tulla won,” he began.
“My Dad trained that Tulla team and I played with every one of them. I enjoyed every single minute of Tulla winning. They (Tulla) are the guys I grew up with and these are the guys I will grow old with. This is something different and does it mean as much? Of course it does!”
Of course, it does — you can be sure it does. And the emotion in Dónal’s voice that day hasn’t gone away — it’s only reinforced, by the way he willingly became almost tearful when talking about Aidan Moriarty’s tour de force in the semi-final when remembering Aidan’s late father Jack spoke volumes about one of the heartbeats of Clonlara hurling.
A heartbeat that’s always been in the village on the edge of Limerick City — it was there when Clonlara’s first county title was won in Treacy’s Field in the Mills; it was there when Mick Mackey lined out for them as a minor before crossing the footbridge back to Castleconnell and leading Ahane and Limerick to untold riches.
It was there in ’32 when John Mullane flew the flag on the Clare squad that won the Munster title and contested the All-Ireland; it was there in the 1970s when Tom Crowe and Colm Honan were in the vanguard of Clare’s National League successes, but it was that game and performance against Crusheen in 2008 that was then doubled down on in the final against Newmarket in the final provided the biggest heartbeat of all, as it sparked a revolution that has informed Clonlara ever since.
“It was the display of the year for us that year,” recalls Clonlara’s manager that day Jim Gully. “It was our third time playing Crusheen that year. We played them on a Friday evening in Clarecastle in the round-robin stage and with the three O’Donovans in America they beat us.
“Then we drew in the semi-final and then in the replay we really produced it. John Conlon was huge, but Tomás O’Donovan was the man of the match.
“Gerry O’Grady had caused us serious problems in the round-robin and we made a conscious decision to put Toddsie on him. He had to worry about Toddsie as much as Toddsie had to worry about him.
“It was one of those games when Crusheen were totally flat, while we were leaping around the place. It was brilliant,” he adds.
Going into that semi-final meeting Crusheen had put the disappointment of losing the previous year’s county final to Tulla behind them by winning five games in a row and were firm favourites to return to the big days against the upstarts from Clonlara.
“People don’t realise the momentum we had carrying us that year, and what we went through,” recalls Gully. “In 2007 we won intermediate and won Munster after it. The Munster final was at the end of November and we took four weeks off and back training in January between Christmas and New Year.
“At the end of January we were beaten by Tommy Larkins in the All-Ireland semi-final by a few points and then it was straight into U-21 training — Tommy Galvin, Eddie Horgan and Fra Moloney were over the team that went on to win the club’s first and only title in the grade.
“The younger players never stopped and it carried into the senior championship. John Conlon was 19; Darach Honan was 18 and a minor; Nicky O’Connell was 18; Cormac and Domhnall O’Donovan were U-21. We had that youth and one year rolled into the next. When we got to play Crusheen they had the badge on their back. They were after playing Tulla the year before in the county final and were there to be shot at for us,” he adds.
Still, when a Crusheen team more battle-hardened when it came to senior hurling raced into a 0-5 to 0-1 lead in the drawn game, which they held onto approaching half-time it looked as if things were following the script predicted beforehand.
But everything changed when it was back to a two-point game at the break before Clonlara took flight in the second-half thanks to a John Conlon goal.
“We were two points up well into injury time,” recalls Gully, and they got a goal from Paddy Meaney and it looked as if that was it. But it was a mark of the team that when the ball came out to Nicky O’Connell he put it over the bar for a draw.
“When we went back into the dressing room that day I couldn’t believe how positive the players were after the draw,” he continues. “The attitude of everyone was ‘we are going to take them out the next day’. We didn’t have much to say to them.”
A first county final appearance and victory since 1919 followed, but everyone in Clonlara will tell you that’s when the hard work really began, because for that team and generation and the ones that have followed since it has been about following it up with more.
They haven’t, but Sunday is Clonlara’s latest chance.
“After 2008 it was never as easy,” admits Gully. “We had nobody on the county panel that time. No one on the senior team, while the U-21 was over and had all the players all the time.
“We know it better than anyone that having the players doesn’t guarantee success, but having said that Clonlara’s contribution to Clare’s success over the past 15 years cannot be underestimated,” he continues.
“Of all the clubs in the county we’ve produced more inter-county players than anyone, but we just didn’t get it together on the club scene and it hasn’t translated. The Clare successes hampered ours in a sense. We had five All-Ireland medals in ’13 and one in the subs and were beaten in the semi-final by the ‘Bridge, so that shows you,” he adds.
County finals were lost in 2009 against Cratloe and Sixmilebridge and Ballyea in ’15 and ’16 respectively, as Clonlara failed to reach the heights predicted for them and they expected themselves.
“Cratloe were the better team when they beat us,” admits Gully. “I know we were two points up before they got the goal, but we were lucky to be ahead and Cratloe did the hurling that day.
“When we were playing Cratloe they had never won a county final; when we played Ballyea they had never won a county final. It wasn’t against a Clarecastle, a Sixmielbridge, a St Joseph’s or Éire Óg, an established club. They were new kids on the block, like we were in ’08.
“The only one that got away was the ’16 final — the drawn match. That’s the game we lost. We were by far the better team against Ballyea and it was a matter of seeing us out, but we didn’t and then they deserved to win the replay.”
Seven years on and Clonlara are back again, and hoping for a different outcome. This time around Gully is in the stands as a supporter, with his son Séimí manning the gap in goal, while John Conlon is the only playing link spanning those 15 years.
“There isn’t a Hamilton medal in my house, but if they win it there will be,” says Gully hopefully. “Having a son involved means there’s a different atmosphere in the house. It would be great — great for all the lads.
“It’s a long, long year when you’re playing with Clare and I just don’t know how John Conlon does it,” he continues. “Since 2019 we have been playing him at centre-back but this is the first year we have put him back up in the forwards. He was always our biggest asset up front. It was a masterstroke to put him back there.
“In 2008 he was very young and it wasn’t really his team. He was part of it, but the backbone of the team was in players like Donal Madden, Tomás O’Donovan, Paul Collins and Diarmuid Conway. John played a huge part, but they were the big names and stars.
“This would be seen as John’s team. They all look up to him and he carries that burden and carries it well. He has a great rapore with the young lads. He’s the man.”
All of Clonlara is hoping that the club’s greatest has another county final day in the sun.

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