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The Clonlara players and supporters celebrate with the Canon Hamilton Cup following their win over Crusheen in the 2023 Clare Senior Hurling Final at Cusack Park. Photograph by Natasha Barton

Clonlara stormed their Bastille and there was no going back

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Poet and GAA man Brendan Kennelly once told a great story about his undergraduate days in Trinity College when he lined out for a motley crew of footballers that had the good fortune to be sprinkled with the stardust, belligerence, and derring-do of the great Kevin Heffernan.
Kennelly was a county minor in his day and even played in an All-Ireland final in the grade, but the ‘Uncrowned King’ of Marino and the Big City that was Heffo was the nonpareil — the man apart and above all his peers on that Trinity team that tried to put it up the traditional powers of the universities’ game like UCD, UCC and UCG, even Queen’s.
And in putting the Dublin legend on this pedestal the Ballylongford bard recalled one game in the late 1950s when he and others felt humbled and were left “humiliated by Heffo’s greatness” in the way he just bent proceedings to his will, just because he could and they couldn’t.
There wasn’t a football in sight in Cusack Park on Sunday, but the greatness that Kennelly spoke so lyrically about all those years ago in Heffo could be seen during this county senior hurling final game, and afterwards as well.
And, it went all the way back to last year, in fact. All the way back to a wet Friday night in Sixmilebridge.
John Conlon, the wearer of the Clare saffron and blue jersey at senior level more times than anyone else ever, has had better games in this year’s championship campaign for Clonlara, but his influence and presence and guiding spirit was never more apparent than it was at key stages of this final as the black and amber from the south-east finally reached the mountaintop once more.
It was in his two early points when others had already begun to make a hero out of Dónal Tuohy in the Crusheen goal, but more than that it was inside the last 15 minutes and just after Óisín O’Donnell’s goal had brought it back to a three-point game and threatened to turn this county final on its head.
All the old doubts, insecurities and failings must have flashed before Clonlara eyes everywhere. They had to have! Seven points up at half-time; nine points up early in the second half, but now theirs looked like a house of cards built on sand that was crumbling — crumbling fast.
This was the 2016 final against Ballyea all over again — six points up inside the last 15 minutes but they couldn’t close it out. Why would it be any different seven years on?
This was 2013 again, when despite having five men who played in the All-Ireland final-winning team and loads of good hurlers around them, they couldn’t bring that through at club level.
Same old, same old, with the force being with the men of Crusheen — where the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts — as there were ‘red’ shoots everywhere. Cian Dillon was coming out of defence and growing; young Óisín O’Donnell had 1-4 to his name and it was as if all of Crusheen could smell it.
But not for long, because much like Heffo did with the force of his personality all those years ago, so did John Conlon in his own quiet and understated, yet belligerent way and ‘humiliated us’ with his greatness.
It was the next score: big John won possession because he just had to — you could almost see it in the way he went for the ball, and quickly fed his fellow countyman Ian Galvin, who then fired over the bar for a score that was as important as the 2-12 that had gone before.
From a position where they were gasping for air, they could breathe again. And although Jamie Fitzgibbon almost immediately reduced the margin to three points once more, something had clicked in Clonlara once more. Dónal Madden’s charges were away again.
That score spoke of a Clonlara team that wasn’t going to leave this behind. No more. As the last man standing from the 2008 win John Conlon wasn’t going to stand for it — none of those who had grown up around him on the team were either.
Confirmation came when man-of-the-match Micheál O’Loughlin crashed home his second goal a couple of minutes later and at once Clonlara were liberated from the chains that had encased them on their long journey since 2008.
The Bastille had been stormed and there was no going back. There couldn’t be! John Conlon wouldn’t allow it. Clonlara couldn’t allow it and as O’Loughlin revealed in the minutes after the final whistle this was coming from a long way back.
Last year in fact.
John Conlon — the force of his personality as he bent Clonlara and the ambition of a team he has been a cornerstone of for 17 years since his senior debut in 2006 to his will and humiliated those around him with his greatness.
“We were after winning three Senior Bs in a row last year,” said O’Loughlin, “and John Conlon was like an absolute lunatic inside in the dressing room.
“He said, ‘Is this where we want to be?’ We went back training in November and it was amazing. Things fell into place and it happened.”
Clonlara had beaten Feakle by 0-15 to 0-13 in that Senior B final on a wet Friday night in Sixmilebridge, but real county finals aren’t played on Fridays under lights and they aren’t played in Sixmilebridge either. John Conlon knew that and said as much.
“Lads were kind of celebrating and I suppose it was a turning point for us,” recalled Conlon. “I stood up in the dressing room and said that’s not good enough. ‘We can celebrate all we like or else we can knuckle down’, I said and I think we were back training within two weeks in the gym.”
Strong words, but ones that were followed by actions.
“It’s complete and utter buy-in,” said O’Loughlin. “From the very moment we decided to go back in November it was from one to 36. Complete and utter buy-in, you can see what it can do for a team and it did it for us.”
Humiliated by greatness, but inspired by it and in awe because Big John bent Clonlara to his will.
It’s why Canon Hamilton, whose birthplace was only 200 yards away from the Clonlara playing field, was home at last.
Humiliated by greatness, but inspired by it.

About Joe O'Muircheartaigh

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