Brian Gavin interviewing John Maughan for Midlands 103.
THEY may be known mainly for their footballing exploits but there is a rich and powerful tradition of hurling in Clara.
Formed in late 1884, Clara is Offaly's and Leinster's oldest GAA club. Other clubs came and went in the Clara area in those rocky early decades of the GAA but the parent club, Clara survived. For most of its early decades, hurling was the main sport in Clara, ahead of football in its list of priorities.
Looking back on it now, the GAA was a strange affair in Offaly in the early years. The first official game in April 1885 was a football one between what became two hurling strongholds in Killyon (Drumcullen parish) and Coolderry – though judging by newspaper descriptions of it, that game had more in common with rugby than what we now know as football.
Edenderry was also a mainly hurling club in its early years and it was some time before the hurling and football demarcation that we now take for granted came into being. The hurling heyday in Clara was in the 1920s and 1930s – they reached four senior hurling finals in 1923, 1924, 1927 and 1935. They lost to Drumcullen twice, conceded a walkover to them in '24 an were overwhelmed by Tullamore in 1935.
From then on, football began to gain a foothold. The process developed in the 1940s, gathered pace in the 1950s and was completed in 1960 when they won the first of six Senior Football Championship titles – that famous success resulted in a Clara man, Willie Nolan captaining Offaly in the 1961 All-Ireland senior football final defeat to Down and their contribution to Offaly football has been immense.
In all of this, Clara has retained a great love and passion for the ancient game of hurling. A hardcore of hurling enthusiasts have ensured its survival and they have reached for the stars on occasion. It is now in another spell of bounty and having won the Intermediate Hurling Championship in 2019, they now find themselves in the senior “B” final, facing off against Tullamore in a mouth watering derby next Sunday.
They had previously gone senior back in 2003 when they won the intermediate title and the following year they reached the quarter-finals, losing to St Rynagh's. They struggled for a couple of years before going back to intermediate – there was no senior “B” at that time.
Clara have a tradition of producing very good hurlers. William Flynn was on the periphery of the Offaly panel in the 1990s. Chris Flanagan was not far away from that level in the 2000s – an excellent club hurler, his scoring stats were very impressive, while Conor Doyle was outstanding for Offaly minor hurlers as they went so close against Tipperary in the All-Ireland final this year.
One of their best known hurling men is Brian Gavin. A brilliant referee, he refereed All-Ireland senior hurling finals in the 2010s. He was goalkeeper when Clara lost to St Rynagh's in that 2004 senior hurling quarter-final and he is now the Clara senior “B” manager. He was also at the helm when they won the intermediate three years ago and is still there along with Enda Stones, Keith Handy and Jim McGrath – Wesley Coyne was a selector then but is not there now.
He spoke last week with great passion about hurling in Clara. He talked about their huge tradition of hurling, stating that a lot of families had a great record of keeping hurling alive in Clara. He remembered their 2003 intermediate success with fondness and them staying in senior for three years. “They were great times,” he said, recalling that they also won the senior football title in 2003.
“I think we have come with a nice pool of hurlers in the last 8-9 years and this has been shown with Conor Doyle and Liam Flynn breaking through to the Offaly minor set-up. There is always pockets of hurling in Clara and it is strong in areas. We are delighted to be in the final.”
They found the initial step up to senior “B” a big one three years ago but beat Carrig-Riverstown in their last game to hold their senior status. That was a huge result from them and they turned a corner last year, beating Clodiagh Gaels, only losing to Tullamore by a point and then losing by a few to them in the semi-final.
“We showed signs last year. We stayed with Tullamore for long periods in the semi-final and they got a goal late on. We said at the start of the year, we had a right good chance of improving on last year and thankfully we have made another step. Every year, we have gradually made slow steps.”
This year, they have played consistently well. They lost to Kilcormac-Killoughey, beat Birr and Lusmagh, and most significantly Tullamore, though Gavin pointed out that Shane Dooley was sent off in the first half. “That threw us as well. We were hurling well at the time and we got a little bit complacent with the extra man. Every game we finished very strong and kept going to the end. The team is improving in every game.”
They had their best performance against Birr in the semi-final and now approach the final in a confident mood. “Birr had beaten Tullamore and Kilcormac-Killoughey. We knew this would be a huge challenge. They were in the U-20 final and had five or six players from that. We were under no illusions but the one thing we focused on was to keep cool. We knew our fitness levels would be good and we would get our chances. We were very disappointed in the first half when we had fourteen wides. I had a word with the boys at half time and said, it looks like we are the better team. Keep chipping away and taking the scores. They did in fairness and our back line was very solid. I was very pleased with it but we have a lot of work to do yet.”
Gavin was asked about the challenges of getting players through at the right standard from underage where they compete at “B” level and have the use of Brosna Gaels players, who can't play at adult level with them.
“It is difficult. It is hard to get so many selectors for football and hurling. You will get them no problem for football but it is hard for hurling. We have some very good lads promoting underage hurling. William Flynn is the director of hurling and he has good lads all the way down a long. It is difficult competing B but if you can get four or five lads every year, it will feed through into an adult team.”
He has been proud of the level William Flynn, Chris Flanagan and Conor Doyle reached while he pointed out that Darragh and Ronan Scully were also very good hurlers, and his own brother Adrian. “Every so often we have the ability of producing really good hurlers. Cathal O'Meara was on the senior panel this year with Offaly. Barry Egan and young Patrick Phelan were on the U-20 panel. We have lads coming through the whole time which is great to see.”
His own GAA path shows the hold hurling has on some hurling people. He was a young child at the 1984 and 1985 All-Ireland finals and old enough to savour every bit of the 1990s successes. They drew him in, while way back he inherited a great love from one of Clara's great hurling families, the Geoghegans – the Geoghegan blood is on his mother's side and Gavin and his siblings were all attracted to hurling.
“There is a group in Clara that really love hurling. We used to get buses to matches in Birr and county finals. Going to matches in Croke Park and Leinster matches. There was just that tradition of getting on a bus and going to a match.”
In recent years, football has slipped a bit in Clara though it is on the way back. They were relegated out of senior but bounced back immediately last year and almost beat Ferbane in the quarter-final this year.
“Going down was a huge blow for our club. It was a shock for a lot of people. It wasn't a shock for some people outside Clara but it was a shock for people in Clara because every year we would have given ourselves a chance of winning senior football.”
Once in senior B football, the two managements co-operated very well to make sure they got out, managing training to ensure players weren't over worked. “Clubs need to do that. If you have a very strong manager in football, it will affect the hurling and vice versa.” That working relationship continued between Gavin and football boss Kevin Meehan this year – sometimes only doing a bit of pucking around in the week of a football game and getting similar co-operation on a hurling week.
“I was delighted that the football bounced back this year and stablised themselves in senior. I know it is very difficult but they can work hand in hand if you have the right people over both.”
What would it mean to Clara to get back to senior hurling level? “This final has taken on its own life. Tullamore were very disappointed when we beat them in the group stages. It would not be normal for Clara to beat Tullamore in hurling, especially as Tullamore were up senior for a number of years and won a title recently (2009). It is a north Offaly final, it is a traditional final. We are really looking forward to it. It would mean a lot to people in Clara and underage hurling. I have seen it in the past few weeks with a lot of young lads up pucking back sliotars.”
He agreed that it is a 50-50 final, pointing out that Tullamore's preparations will have been disrupted by big football games last weekend. “I would say last year Tullamore were well odds on to beat us but I would say we have narrowed the gap. I still think Tullamore are favourites and the pressure is on them because they have that tradition of winning the senior A in recent years. They have a huge pool of talent and they are used to winning at the moment. They nearly win any football or hurling game they play. I think Tullamore are playing with huge confidence but we are going in under the radar a little bit. A lot of people outside of Clara would say Tullamore are favourites but we are looking forward to it and will leave no stone unturned to try and get back up senior “A”.
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