How Ballyea discovered a jewel from Kerry

When 23-year-old Ballyduff man Pat Joe Connolly is asked to reflect on where his hurling career is about to take him, he momentarily pauses to search for the appropriate words.

How Ballyea discovered a jewel from Kerry

The former Kerry hurler moved to Kilmihil in west Clare 15 months ago. On hearing the identity of his native county and that he kicked football, the local club set about introducing themselves.

Very soon Connolly, who works for Marbleteck in the village, was wearing the green and gold of his new club. So far, so good. Word soon reached his ears that a few Kilmihil men hurled with Ballyea, which is a half an hour drive east. Stan Lineen, Martin O’Leary, and David Egan were all part of the Ballyea set-up and encouraged Connolly to pack his hurley and come for a spin.

On his first night at Ballyea training, he was told to “go in corner forward”.

Connolly was man-marked by Joe Neylon, an old style cornerback who doesn’t mind if he never hits a ball as long as his opponent doesn’t either.

Connolly survived the test and has since thrived. Fast forward 14 months and he is the holder of county and Munster senior championship medals.

And tomorrow Connolly will find a former Kerry team-mate, Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell, sharing the Croke Park field with him.

“It has been just amazing,” is how he succinctly encapsulates his Ballyea experience.

Seven years ago he lined out against two of his Ballyea clubmates, never envisaging that one day they would tog out together in Croke Park on March 17.

“I played with the Kerry minors against Clare. Jack Browne was wing back and Tony (Kelly) was centre-forward. I never would have thought that I’d end up playing with them,” he laughed.

Neither did he think he would line out against Abbeydorney man Darragh O’Connell, with both men representing non-Kerry clubs.

“I played with Darragh with the Kerry U21s. We won the All-Ireland B together,” Connelly said.

Growing up in Ballyduff, only one game mattered.

“There’s a little pocket and it’s all hurling. I started when I was 11, which is late enough compared to some of the Ballyea boys,” he said.

Always confident that he would cut it with Ballyea, Connolly acknowledges that it took him time to find his rhythm.

“I had played county hurling at home but it took me a while to adjust to the pace of Clare club hurling. I was with the Kerry seniors for two years. I played league but I never played Christy Ring hurling.”

Ironically, Connolly has already been part of a matchday squad in Croke Park.

“I haven’t played there but I togged out for a Christy Ring final up there,” he said.

He finds Clare club hurling to be quicker than its Kerry equivalent. “It’s more professional and the intensity levels are higher. There’s a faster space and the skill levels are higher.”

He believes that he has evolved as a hurler with Ballyea and feels that the management of Robbie Hogan, along with Fergal Hegarty’s coaching, has been pivotal to his development.

“They have been great on and off the field. I have learned a lot from ‘Hego’s’ coaching,” he said.

And now he stands just an hour away from an All-Ireland medal at GAA HQ.

A daunting experience it may be, but Connolly stresses that they must not allow themselves be overawed by the day and the occassion.

“St Patrick’s Day is going to be an unbelievable feeling to run out, competing in an All-Ireland final. We might never again get the chance. Clare was nearly as tough as Munster so we mightn’t even come out of Clare again.”

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