In my role as community champion of the Clare Covid-19 Community Response Forum, we had a photo shoot in Ennis a couple of weeks back with a number of stakeholders, including many of the GAA clubs and their representatives from around the county.
St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield secretary Tommy Duggan was representing his club and I spotted my opportunity to rekindle an old flame that once burned like a blaze.
“Hi Tommy, you’re a bit too near to me there.”
The Doora-Barefield man instantly fanned the flame and got it flickering in our minds again.
“The last time I was this close to you Dalo, I was just outside the line and you were just inside it,” Tommy said.
Tommy was a selector with the great St Joseph’s team which we had so many epic battles with in Clare in the 1990s and early 2000s. Christy O’Connor wrote some great stuff about the St Joseph’s-Clarecastle rivalry in his brilliant book The Club, and the unique dynamic at the heart of that relationship.
St Joseph’s suffered some desperate heartbreak at our hands, losing to Clarecastle for four successive years, including two county finals, before they finally made the breakthrough.
And overcoming that adversity turned them into one of the greatest club teams of all time.
Although we lost the game — similar to Clare’s 1996 defeat to Limerick — one of the games I remember most was our Clare semi-final against Doora-Barefield in 1999. They were the All-Ireland champions but Christy still wrote in The Club that it was the “biggest game” Doora-Barefield ever played.
It certainly felt like one of those occasions. Johnny Callanan had lit the fuse in his column in the County Express beforehand by saying Doora-Barefield weren’t the “real” All-Ireland champions because they hadn’t beaten Clarecastle in the 1998 championship.
I remember Fergie Tuohy saying in a team-meeting in Powers that day of the game: “These are the golden boys. They’re loved — Jamesie (O’Connor), Seánie (McMahon) (Ollie) Baker. We’re hated. We’re nobody’s friends.”
We tried to bring that siege mentality with us into that match. Drainage work was being done in Cusack Park at the time so the game was played in Shannon, which we were excited about, because we thought we’d drag Joseph’s into a war in a tighter pitch. There was massive hype in the build-up because everybody knew the background.
People came from Galway and all over Munster. Close to 12,000 turned up.
There was no stand, just banks of grass, and the atmosphere was electric.
The Shannon pitch is at the end of a lane and it was chaos beforehand. We travelled a back road trying to steer clear of the traffic gridlock and we still got caught up in the jam.
I was demented to try and win that game. It was an epic match. It was one of the best games I ever played in. We all realised how great that Joseph’s team was but it killed us that they had done what we didn’t — win an All-Ireland.
It was heartbreaking to lose but Doora-Barefield just had to win that day. It was all on the line for them and they manfully stood up to the challenge to beat us for the first time. I knew what they’d been through so I stood at the door of the Doora-Barefield dressing room afterwards and shook the hand of every one of their players.
Traditionally, Newmarket-on-Fergus were Clarecastle’s biggest rivals but Joseph’s assumed that mantle during the 1990s and early 2000s because we met so often, and engaged in so many epic battles; the clubs met in 10 massive championship games between 1994 and 2004.
We dominated the relationship in the early part of the rivalry, but I knew every year it was a matter of ‘can we keep these boys down for another year?’ Eventually, we couldn’t.
When Tommy Duggan and I had the craic a few weeks back, Tommy’s line was probably a reference to our quarter-final meeting in 2001, which was the last time I played against Joseph’s, because I missed our group game against them in 2003. When Joseph’s went four points ahead late on, and I knew the match was gone, I wanted to have one final say — when the opportunity arose, I wore the hurley off the arse of one of their forwards.
Jamesie O’Connor wrecked us the same day, scoring five points from play. I wasn’t marking Jamesie but he was like DJ Carey in many ways — you couldn’t really hit James (I always called him James, just like all the Doora-Barefield fellas did). You could hit any of the other Joseph’s fellas but you just couldn’t touch Jamesie. I’d be pulling at his jersey and trying to annoy him but you’d be the big bad wolf with the crowd if you laid a finger on the greatest forward Clare ever produced.
All the Clare players were, and still are, great friends, but friendship went out the door when we squared off.
At the end of our 2000 first round meeting, Seánie and I had a big set-to when a row erupted at the final whistle. But we soon made up afterwards. Baker and I always had it hot and heavy during those games but we always had an agreement beforehand; no matter what happened on the pitch, or what was said, we’d always meet up for two pints somewhere in Ennis after the game, before heading our separate ways.
Our rivalry with Joseph’s was fierce but if a club championship is to be highly competitive, you need rivals from every angle. And that’s what made the Clare club championship so great in the latter half of the 1990s.
I certainly used to feel that way. “We hate everyone. And everyone hates us.”
It really was the golden period of Clare hurling. Clare won two All-Irelands and three Munster titles but Clare clubs won six successive Munster club titles between 1995 and 2000.
Four clubs dominated that period — ourselves, Joseph’s, Sixmilebridge and Wolfe Tones — but the championship was a total bearpit. You could be caught on any given day. O’Callaghan’s Mills were fierce unlucky around that time. Tulla were a hard nut to crack.
The year Joseph’s won their second successive Munster title in 1999, they were haunted to escape with a draw against Ogonnelloe in the quarter-final. Ogonnelloe, a small club on the shores of Lough Derg had such a good team at the time that they should have dethroned the then All-Ireland champions; Seánie needed to land a last second free from somewhere out near the Mills to secure a replay.
Unless you were tuned in every day you went out, you knew you could be scalped. Scarriff were robbed by Sixmilebridge in the 1995 county final, and the Bridge went on to walk the All-Ireland club title afterwards.
We were as sore as hell in Clarecastle as we watched the Bridge march to Croke Park because we felt we’d taken our eye off the ball. The week after we won the 1995 All-Ireland, we scraped past St Joseph’s by one point in the first round before a crowd of about 15,000.
We thought we had negotiated one of the biggest hurdles but we went down to Newmarket a week later and were caught cold by Cratloe.
The following year, we went into the county final cocksure we’d beat Wolfe Tones from Shannon. Cocky against the Lohans? What planet were we on? I remember Johnny Callanan saying to me beforehand. “The Shannon forwards are more afraid of the Lohans than they are of the Clarecastle defenders.”
Johnny was dead right. That Shannon team went on and reached the All-Ireland final.
After two years of disappointment, we were mad for road in 1997.
After Eilis and I got married in September 1997, we went to Cancun in Mexico for two weeks on our honeymoon. It was a brilliant trip but my head was all over the place on the Sunday of the first weekend because Clarecastle were playing Tulla in the first round of the championship.
It was the first championship game I’d missed since making my debut 10 years earlier.
I rang my mother that afternoon during the game and it was torturous because Clare FM seemed to have no regular updates. I was in a payphone in the hotel, firing money into the box, desperately hanging on for some news. Suddenly my brother Martin arrived in the door.
“Draw,” said my mother. “But Fergie Tuohy got a red card and is out for the replay.”
I was in bits. I went back to Eilis who was lying beside the swimming pool on a sunbed. “Do you want the good news or the bad news,” I said. She looked at me as if I had two heads. “Look Eilis, I can’t stay out here for the replay.”
It was fixed for the Saturday and we flew into Shannon late on the Friday evening. Nobody knew I was home until I ran out the following day. I was marking one of the Quinn brothers, I can’t remember which one. “You’ve put on a lot of weight on in the couple of weeks,” was the first thing he said to me. He was probably right. Throughout the match, I was constantly reminded about my “tanned” legs.
I didn’t play that well. I don’t know how we got out of there with a win the same afternoon, but we did. Eilis wasn’t too happy having to cut our honeymoon short but we had as good a time the night of the match as we certainly would have had in Mexico.
Everyone was on a high. Because the club championship was delayed with Clare winning the All-Ireland, we were effectively playing championship every weekend.
But we still had a huge hooley every Saturday or Sunday night, depending on which day we played.
It was the most amazing craic. We all celebrated together but every Monday night,led by Tom Howard, we all suffered together too. By the time we went back to hurling training on the Wednesday night, we were ready to go again.
The whole magic of that time captured the essence of the village. Clare were All-Ireland champions and everyone in the parish was tuned into the senior team’s bid to win back the county title. It was drama and more drama at every turn, which culminated in us winning the Munster club title.
Our dream of an All-Ireland ended on a cold afternoon the following February when we lost to Birr after extra-time in a replay. It was devastating but one of the standout memories of that time was the massive Clare support we received during that run.
Every team which won Clare at the time profited from the feelgood factor around Clare hurling but it also showcased the deep respect amongst Clare clubs. We had absolute war on the field but we all backed each other up too when the opportunity arose to support each other under the Clare banner.
That respect percolated through at every level. In 1998, we were drawn to play Éire Óg, Ennis in the first round. The townies were one of our biggest rivals but Colin Lynch had been suspended for three months after that year’s Munster final and we decided to wait until Lynch’s suspension was up before we played the game.
Normally, you wouldn’t be doing the townies too many favours but we felt it was the right thing to do. I remember it being said in training one night that the county board were putting heat on us to play the match. It was the first round, the championship was already up and running, but we said no.
Out of solidarity to Lynch,” I said to the lads the same night, “it’s the honourable thing not to play until he’s back.”
Next thing I knew, myself and Lynch were going to war together inside in Cusack Park before a massive crowd. We absolutely wore the hurleys off each other in the drawn game. It was even more vicious between us in the replay.
Éire Óg relieved us of our county and Munster titles that evening and a pumped-up Lynch was unstoppable. He was absolutely the difference in a tight game.
We didn’t shake hands on the field. I was heading out the gate afterwards when I passed Colin’s late father, the great Johnny Lynch from Feakle.
Johnny suddenly piped up: “Hi Dalo, did ye make it up, ye two clowns.” I walked over to Colin and we hugged. Johnny really appreciated that we had done right by his son.
The 1990s was a magical time in Clare but the championship system was fierce tough on club players. It was straight knockout so most players were training all year, for only the promise of one championship game in September. Yet the championship was so open and so competitive that everybody felt they had a chance.
Ger Loughnane got some stick during his reign for the vice-grip he had on the county players, and the lack of leeway he gave the clubs. Loughnane though, always had an instant answer. I remember being in his company one night when someone gave it to him in the neck about the club championship repeatedly being put on the back-burner.
“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,” bellowed the bould Ger, the laugh being the precursor to what was forming in his mind.
“Hi, hold on, before I took over, a Clare club never won an All-Ireland. Now, Clare clubs are winning Munster every year. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.”
In fairness to Loughnane, he was right. Nobody wants knockout anymore but it does breed a different beast. That last-chance saloon atmosphere can be infectious for supporters.
If we do have a provincial and All-Ireland championship later this year, and it is knockout, I think it could be a glorious rekindling of what we once had.
On a once-off, that do-or-die element would be even more magical given what people are missing out on this summer.
The inter-county game is always the big attraction but I think the current crisis has rightly drawn more attention back to the club game, especially when every club is so rooted in their community.
I’m seeing that first hand more than ever now in my new role as community champion of the Clare Covid-19 Community Response Forum. The spirit and togetherness has never been stronger in our communities.
Everybody is accepting their new responsibilities in such challenging times but I also think it has made us all appreciate the club game even more, and what clubs really mean to their communities.
We’re all hankering for any form of action at the moment. Nobody knows if there will be club championships but if there is one in Clare in 2020, it is certainly a different landscape now to the one that lit up the club hurling world two decades ago.
Ballyea in 2016 are the only club to have won a Munster club title since Clare clubs had an iron grip on the provincial championship. St Joseph’s are back down intermediate. Wolfe Tones spent a year in intermediate. So did Éire Óg. Clarecastle have been in three of the last six senior relegation finals.
Sixmilebridge have become stronger than ever but they have a whole new set of rivals challenging them now, clubs that weren’t even on their radar in the 1990s; Ballyea, Clonlara, Cratloe, Crusheen, Clooney-Quin, Inagh-Kilnamona, Kilmaley.
I remember coming back from an illness in 2002 and playing Clonlara in an intermediate league game in early 2003, and not knowing beforehand what colour jerseys Clonlara wore. Look at the players they’ve produced for Clare since — John Conlon, Domhnall O’Donovan, Darach Honan, Colm and Ian Galvin, Nicky and ‘Tots’ O’Connell. Apart from Jamesie, have Clare ever had a better forward than John Conlon?
Times have changed. That altered landscape has been hugely beneficial to Clare hurling but we in Clarecastle hope the wheel will turn and that we will win senior championships again.
I was involved with the Clarecastle U21s this year. One night earlier in the year, I cut loose at a meeting about trying to bring Clarecastle back to the top table again.
A few days later, the father of one of the players told me what his son said to him when he arrived home that evening: “We might not win the U21 championship. But we’ll die roaring trying to.”
I hope those young lads will get that chance this year, but that’s the spirit which elevated us for so long as a club.
And it’s one which contributed so richly to the magic of Clare hurling during its golden era.