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01 Dec 2021

THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: New book celebrates contribution of iconic Clara GAA family

THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: New book celebrates contribution of iconic Clara GAA family

Peter Nolan, centre, with Offaly football heroes Johnny Mooney and Tommy Greene.

A NEW book on one of Clara's iconic GAA families will be launched this Saturday night. “The Nolan's, Football Royalty Across Clara, Leinster, New York” will be launched in Clara GAA Centre at 8.00pm on Saturday, November 27.

The book is written by Billy Browne, a cousin of the Nolan's and it outlines the careers and lives of a family who made a vast contribution to the GAA in their home club, before emigrating.

It also outlines the careers of another famous Clara GAA family, nephews and nieces of the Nolan's, the Reynolds.

The Nolan's are a quite legendary family. They made a tremendous contribution to Clara and Offaly GAA in the 1950s and 1960s, before emigrating to New York and England.

Offaly has produced many great GAA families over the years. The Connor's, O'Connor's, Dooley's, Lowry's, Whelahan's, Fitzgerald's, Corrigan's, Troy's and others are part and parcel of GAA folklore in Offaly and all of those families have won All-Ireland senior football or hurling medals.

The Nolan's don't have All-Ireland medals and their names may not be familiar to younger people but they are very much a part of the GAA story in Offaly and Clara.

Peter, Johnny, Paddy and Willie Nolan are part of one of Offaly's great footballing families. Peter, Johnny and Willie all emigrated to New York while Paddy went to England, where he still lives in the Croydon area of London. Peter lives in New York but spends extended time each year home in his beloved Clara while Willie returned home in the 1970s and remains one of Offaly's most cherished and loved characters. Johnny, a great affable personality, who always gave a great welcome to Offaly emigrants and visitors to New York, sadly passed away a few years ago.

The proud family tradition was continued on by their nephews, David, Willie and John Reynolds who all played senior football for Offaly while a niece, Ann Marie Reynolds played ladies football for her county in the 1990s. They are the children of Willie and Nanto Reynolds – Nanto is a sister of the Nolan's and she was a proud and happy woman this year in O'Connor Park as Clara won the Senior “B” Football Championship.

The GAA careers of the Nolan's at home were comparatively short and it is a sign of their talent, their contribution that they have been remembered for so long.

Peter and Willie Nolan were the best known of them in terms of county and national recognition. Willie has the most honours. An excellent goalkeeper, he was between the posts as Offaly won the Leinster Senior Football Championship title for the first time in 1960 and retained it a year later. He was the team captain as Offaly went to the All-Ireland final for the first time in 1961, losing out to Down in front of a record attendance in Croke Park.

Peter Nolan would have been an automatic selection on that great team at centre half back only for his departure to New York. He had played against Carlow in the first round of the Leinster Senior Football Championship in 1960 but had gone to America by the time of the second round against Dublin. There had been a campaign to bring him home for the 1961 All-Ireland and for years, the decision not to remained a controversial subject for Offaly GAA supporters – irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the decision, there is no doubt that Offaly's victory chances would have been greatly enhanced with Peter Nolan on the field.

He was a brilliant footballer, strong, powerful and capable of extraordinary feats. He had a famously long kick of the ball and he could score. Peter was a pivotal figure as Offaly football began its great awakenening in the 1950s. He was centre half back as Offaly reached the 1954 Leinster senior football final, losing to Meath, while he was in great form as a crucial breakthrough was made when the 1954 O'Byrne Cup was won – the final was played in 1955.

That was Offaly's first significant senior football title and everything built from there, culminating in the ultimate breakthrough when the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship was won for the first time in 1971. Peter Nolan played 45 competitive senior football games for Offaly from 1954 to 1960 – one of his greatest performances was in a memorable 7-8 to 3-5 win over Laois in the 1958 Leinster Senior Football Championship when he scored 4-3 from centre half forward.

He was a regular on the Leinster Railway Cup team in the late 1950s and in that era, the competition and selection for it meant a lot more than it does now – huge crowds attended the finals in Croke Park. Peter also played for Ireland against the Combined Universities in 1958.

Willie Nolan played 40 senior football league and championship games for Offaly from 1957 to 1962 and he also played for Leinster, captaining them to the Railway Cup title in 1961.

Johnny Nolan played one game for Offaly, at corner forward in a 1955 league win over Roscommon.

The Nolan family were absolutely crucial as Clara came to the fore from the 1950s into the 1960s. Offaly's and Leinster's oldest club, Clara had been formed in 1884, just weeks after the GAA was founded, and they were initially mainly a hurling club before football began to take precedence from the 1930s onwards.

Very important wins took place in the 1950s and the Nolan's were central to these. They won their first Minor Football Championship title in 1952 with Johnny in goals and Peter at centre half back. Johnny was full back and Peter midfield as they won the Junior Football Championship in 1954.

In 1956, they reached senior ranks when St Mary's were beaten in the Intermediate Football Championship final with Johnny back in goals and Peter in familiar territory at centre half forward. By now a young Willie and Paddy Nolan were emerging onto the scene, excelling on talented underage football and hurling squads during a golden era for the club as they won minor titles in both codes.

Clara lost in the 1957 and 1958 senior football finals – Johnny, Peter and Paddy were all on the 1958 team while a young Willie was a sub – and the big breakthrough finally came in 1960 when they beat Tullamore in a replayed final. A key ingredient here was the presence of Peter Nolan who had moved to New York but returned home for the final and gave a starring performance at midfield while Willie was in goals with Johnny at corner back. Paddy Nolan was a sub.

When Clara won their second senior football title in 1964, the four Nolan's were abroad and the fact that they were able to win without them shows how good they were in that era. Of course, they might have won a lot more if they were still at home.

Unsurprisingly, the Nolan's remained immersed in the GAA in their new homes. The Nolan family is synonymous with New York GAA . They starred for Offaly teams there with Johnny and Peter winning New York Senior Football Championship medals in 1964 – Willie was in goals a year later when Offaly were beaten by Kilkenny in the New York final. Incidentally Peter referereed the 1966 final while Johnny was the man in the middle for the 1967 decider where Kerry beat Leitrim.

In the 1960s, New York competed in the National Football League final against the home winners for a few years and Peter was full back on the team that shocked Dublin in the 1964 decider while Peter also played in the losing finals to Galway and Longford in 1965 and 1966 and he won a second medal in 1967 as Galway were beaten in the two legged final – the aggregate scores counted. Willie Nolan was in goals in 1967 (another Offaly man, Tom Furlong was corner forward) and he also played in the 1966 loss to Louth.

The family tradition was carried on by the Reynolds. Willie won a Leinster Minor Football Championship medal in 1989 with Offaly while David Reynolds' scores from frees and play were crucial as Offaly won a famous Leinster Senior Football Championship title in 1997. The duo were also key figures as Clara had their second golden era, taking the Senior Football Championship in 1991 and 1993.

David played 43 senior football games for Offaly, Willie lined out fourteen times from 1991 to 1999 and younger brother John was the most “capped” of the trio – indeed John has not been shy about reminding people that he is the “most capped” Clara county footballer of all, making 79 league and championship appearances in the attack from 2002 to 2011.

The book promises to be a very interesting read and interested people are welcome to attend the launch.

Trivia corner

This week's answers are:

1 – When Offaly lost the 1968 Leinster senior hurling semi-final to Kilkenny, 3-13 to 4-6, they played with fourteen men for fifty minutes. Who was sent off?

Answer – Johnny Kirwan.

2 – Name the club that has had the shortest ever reign as senior football champions?

Answer: Gracefield – June 3 1973 to July 8 1973.

3 – When has a new name last gone on the Sean Robbins Cup for two years in succession?

Answer – Seir Kieran 1988 and Lusmagh 1989.

This week's questions are:

1 - Which Offaly hurling club has the distinction of winning two senior titles in one year?

2 – Name the first Offaly man to win an All-Ireland minor hurling medal?

3 – Three clubs won their first Offaly senior football title during three years in succession. Name the clubs and years?

Answers in the next column. With thanks to former referee Carthage Buckley for supplying the questions.

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