Clare team of the century status beckons for Cratloe
Following their senior hurling final win last week, club bid to add football title to complete a feat last achieved in 1914
Clare All Star Conor McGrath and Sean Collins celebrate after last week’s hurling final victory over Crusheen. Both players will be in action in the football final against Éire Óg as Cratloe aim to complet the double. Photo: James Crombie /Inpho
The village doesn’t feature all that highly on county Clare’s famous archive of ballads and traditional tunes and for many decades its GAA teams were eclipsed by nearby Sixmilebridge.
But if Clare has enjoyed a nationwide revival in the hurling championship, then Cratloe are now flying the flag for the club game. Tomorrow, they will meet Éire Óg in the county senior football final, having secured the hurling title a week ago. Eleven players are expected to feature in both finals. The bell may be tolling for that most romantic figure in Gaelic games, the elite intercounty dual-player. But Cratloe provide the most vivid proof that it is still possible to thrive in both games at club level.
If they win tomorrow, they will achieve a significant piece of history. No club has won the Clare hurling and football double since Ennis Delcassians, a club which was big on the Clare scene in the early part of the last century but has since had several transformations and has links with tomorrow’s opposition, Éire Óg. Dalcassians’ win came back when Eamon de Valera was a young man with ambition.
“They won it in 1929 but they were awarded the hurling final because of some rumpus with Newmarket. So the last team to achieve a double on the field of play was Ennis Dals’ in 1914. And here we are a hundred years later,” says John Ryan, the Cratloe chairman, who has witnessed the slow-burning revolution within his club over a period of 30 years. Ryan was elected secretary in 1974. “And it has taken me this long to make chairman,” he laughs.
From the outside, Cratloe’s steady rise to prominence is mystifying. It helps, of course, that the hurling team which defeated Crusheen 0-14 to 0-6 a week ago is backboned by some of the brightest names in Clare’s resurgence at national level.
Eight of their players have already won 16 All-Ireland medals between senior and U-21 honours. Conor Ryan, Podge Collins and Conor McGrath are all current All Stars. So they are hardly, as the saying goes, your bog-standard club side. Nonetheless, they have been pressing hard to translate that talent into titles.
“We are noted for our hurling, especially in our forward line we can play with a bit of flair but sometimes when the gun is put to our head we don’t knuckle down. But this time, it was our defence and midfield that held ground and the forwards just did enough. So it was great to see hard work getting us there.”
McGrath grew up in Toomevara and the years since he moved to Cratloe have flown by so quickly that he concedes he is virtually a naturalised Clare man at this stage; that his son Conor has been an incandescently exciting attacking player in saffron and blue has, of course, strengthened the bind. But the McGrath family’s arrival in the parish is common to the source of Cratloe’s emergence as a GAA force.
When John Ryan became a board member in 1974, Cratloe fielded just one senior outfit: a junior A hurling team. Sometimes it was a struggle just to get the 15 players together and Cratloe’s main boast was that they had an excellent record in not conceding walkovers. They turned up.
The club was further disadvantaged by the fact the Cratloe parish borders ran as far as the square in Sixmilebridge; some people, although notionally part of Cratloe, inevitably gravitated towards the bigger town. But over the past three decades, Cratloe began to experience the opposite of the problems facing small, inland west of Ireland villages. Instead of people leaving, they began to arrive.
“We are a rural parish on the outskirts of Limerick and near Shannon Airport and it is a desirable location for a lot of people to come from all over to live in,” John Ryan explains.
“We call them newcomers which creates discussion . . . newcomers are coming here for 40 years and more. Some came as football people, some came as hurling people and some were not GAA people at all. To come to Cratloe was a conscious and rather pricey decision to make. Sites were expensive. So the club had a policy of trying to facilitate interests. It contested as a football club in 1888, it changed to hurling in 1901 and it was a hurling club until recent times. Now, it is both.”
That makes it sound simple. On the surface, Cratloe’s success is down to an excellent relationship between McGrath and his counterpart Colm Collins, the Cratloe and Clare senior football manager. But both men say the harmony precedes them.
“The senior teams are just a mirror of what is happening right through the club,” says Collins. “This was something that was normal in the past and it has suddenly become something that people are saying can’t be done. The fact that people are asking questions about it has made me think about why it works so well here.
“And it is not as simple as just the hurling and football managements getting along well. It has helped that we are fathers of people on the teams and we see how important it is to them. But this is a product of the attitude of the club. It is about the whole ethos and culture of the club. People like Jack Chaplin and Patrick O’Gorman and John Ryan who promoted this.”
Jack Chaplin is the name which Joe McGrath references in trying to explain the hidden work that had led to a handsome return in silverware for Cratloe in the past few years. He describes Chaplin as a sort of one-man committee, a whirling dervish of volunteerism who was chairman, selector, county board delegate and also the man who cut the grass. About 15 years ago, he met McGrath and asked him to take a minor team and that was that.
“It was an unwritten rule of openness and inclusivity,” says John Ryan. He reckons the Cratloe club has a potential base of about 2,000 people. It fields underage teams at every grade in hurling and football as well as three senior hurling hurling teams and two senior football teams. But it is only now that two decades of patient, steady work is beginning to show up in the trophy cabinet.
Cratloe’s first senior hurling championship was won in 2009. Last year was their first ever senior football championship. Although they contested a first senior final in football in 1888 – Cratloe is a brand new club in terms of the honour roll. After the hurling team won last week, McGrath dedicated victory to a young Cratloe player named Michael Murphy.
“In 2001 we played an U-21B match and Michael died on the field of play. Some of his team-mates are still playing today and others are still involved in the background. But that was a make or break time for the club and we went forwards rather than backwards in the years after. His family have been hugely supportive within the club since.
“It just happened during the match and it was very traumatic for everyone and some of his team-mates went on to prosper as players. Michael was only 19 years of age. And we said we would dedicate it to him this time around.”
On the Sunday evening, while general celebrations reigned in Cratloe, the players quickly switched their focus to tomorrow’s final. They are becoming accustomed to celebrations deferred: last autumn, after winning the club’s first football title on Sunday, they lined out in the Munster club championship a day later. And they have been used to the rhythm of alternating football and hurling throughout the championship. Splitting the training regime has been no major problem.
“Early in the year we probably concentrate on hurling because there is more touch required,” says McGrath. “But at the business end of it there is an equal split between hurling and football. We don’t train any more than an ordinary team would do. We train twice a week and then a match. The co-operation between the managements is exemplary. There is no fall-out. There is no tension and we have the same group of players involved in both teams. The atmosphere is good.
“There is a buzz around the place since both teams got on a bit of a roll. When you are winning it is great and hopefully our luck will hold out for one more week.”
Colm Collins hopes and believes Clare can make the same strides in football as Cratloe have achieved locally. He acknowledges that Clare’s performance against Kerry in the Munster championship has acquired a healthy glow given the Kingdom’s march to All-Ireland glory afterwards.
“Kerry were at a certain stage in their development then and I’m not deluded enough to think they didn’t improve significantly after that. But fair play, they reinvented themselves a couple of times to go on and win it and it was a fantastic achievement. In Clare, we are just going to keep working and try to progress further because I feel we have some marvellous footballers in Clare.”
He has brought some of those players through the Cratloe system. But Collins believes the team’s success is a community effort. He tells this story about how a pitch belonging to the club was constantly unplayable because of flooding. The cost of a proper drainage system was estimated at €100,000.
“About ten guys who had retired took it on as a kind of project and did it for about a third of the cost and it is like a lawn now. These are the kind of people who are involved and that means there is an absence of bickering and jealousy.”
“It doesn’t. A lot of clubs put in a lot of hard work and it doesn’t happen. We are blessed with some really talented players. Lads like Conor McGrath don’t come around too often. So we are lucky.”
They know this is a golden age. As John Ryan says: “I can’t see us being able to produce players of this standard indefinitely.”
They are trying to make the most of it. Matching the Delcassians famed ‘double’ of 100 years ago would be some feat but it is not something Colm Collins is going to concern himself with prematurely.
“Éire Óg are a good side. We had a tough battle with them the first round and I said afterwards that whoever beats them is going to win it. Listen, we are up for it and we will be out there to give our best performance. If we win, we win. And if we don’t, we just shake hands and congratulate them and no more about it.”