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'Great role models, Clare are lucky to have them' - the twins starring on the All-Ireland stage

Eoin and Conor Cleary are central to Clare’s hopes in Croke Park over the next two weekends.

Eoin and Conor Cleary.
Eoin and Conor Cleary.
Image: INPHO

IN WEST CLARE, life is moving to rhythms both familiar and new.

On Saturday week a staple of the summer calendar returns, after a Covid-enforced two-year hiatus, with the Willie Clancy Summer School sparking the town of Miltown Malbay to life.

It is the same day that the Clare hurlers will bid to book a place in the All-Ireland final, Kilkenny the obstacle they must overcome to prolong their Liam MacCarthy Cup dream.

This Saturday there is another Clare visit to Croke Park with the footballers featuring on the last eight stage as they face off against Ulster champions Derry.

The twin Clare championship journeys have gripped the imagination of the county, from the hurling strongholds in the east that skirt the border with Limerick to the football heartlands in the west that hug the coast of the Atlantic.

David O’Brien is well placed to assess it all. He’s filled an array of roles in Clare, managing the ladies football team and serving as a selector alongside Colm Collins in 2016 and 2017.

He runs Michael A’s bar on the main street in Miltown Malbay, a perfect point to take the local sporting temperature.

The interest in the town and its environs is heightened by the exploits of two natives. Conor Cleary is full-back and defensive enforcer for Brian Lohan’s hurling team, his twin brother Eoin is the captain and key scoring forward for the Banner football setup.

Together the 28-year-olds fly the flag for their area.

“It’s unbelievable, the buzz around the county at the minute,” says O’Brien.

“We’d have always had a few with the football and we have again this year now with Eoin and Darragh (McDonagh).

“And even Jim Marrihan the kitman is there as well, so there’s a great old buzz. Then you have Conor with the hurling, something that’s totally unique but it’s great too.”

O’Brien has tracked the progress of the pair for years, well-acquainted with their back story.

“The bar that we have here, we bought it off the Clearys father. His family had it before us. They grew up in town, the family has always been in Miltown. They’re as local as any of the rest of us. It was Clearys Bar and then my father bought it off them, now it’s called Michael A’s.

“They were always excellent footballers. I didn’t really know much about their hurling exploits until Conor started making Clare minor teams. Then you started to realise we had a hurler here on our hands.

“They always stood out in the football, making Clare minors and Clare U21s.”

This is football country and the Clearys have helped put it back on the map. The St Joseph’s club occupy fifth place on the Clare senior football roll of honour, but after their 12th title win in 1990 they slipped into a considerable lull.

In 2012 they fell through the relegation trapdoor into the intermediate ranks. A boost was provided by the arrival of the twins from the minor ranks, allied to another crop of youngsters and the presence of stalwarts like the long-serving Clare defender Gordon Kelly.

“The lads were minors, they weren’t playing when we got relegated and they came in the following year,” recalls O’Brien.

“They played a massive part in Miltown getting promoted and going on to win championships since.”

eoin-cleary-and-shane-doolan Eoin Cleary in action in the 2018 Munster senior club final. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

In November 2013, the pair kicked 0-5 out of the team’s total of 0-7 as they lost a low-scoring Munster intermediate decider to Cork’s Clyda Rovers in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.

Their influence grew as they moved into the senior club game. St Joseph’s won the Jack Daly Cup in 2015, ending a 25-year wait to be crowned kingpins. Eoin chipped in with 0-4 for that final win but Conor was sidelined with a fractured ankle from club hurling game.

The pair were back in harness as the club won Clare senior titles in 2018 and 2019, reaching a Munster final against Dr Crokes the first year. Conor was a midfield powerhouse, Eoin the scorer-in-chief in attack.

The 2019 replay saw them defeat neighbours Kilmurry-Ibrickane, the first time the pair had contested a county final in 132 years, and in a game that was weighed down with significance, the 0-12 winning total featured five points from Eoin and two from Conor.

O’Brien, the manager for the 2013 intermediate and 2019 senior wins, is effusive in his praise for their contributions.

“They had a massive part to play in it. But even when they’re not training at the minute with the club season, they’d still be at sessions. They’re really a part of it. It’s not like we won’t see them until they’re finished, they touch base and they’re there.

“If it’s their turn to sell the club Lotto on a Saturday night, they’ll be there. There’s no airs or graces there with them.”

That explains why there is such pride extracted from their displays on the national stage. As is the custom for local youngsters with a hurling interest, both made the 20-minute trip to Kilmaley from an early age. Their parents facilitated the commitments and hurling took a hold of Conor. He was centre-back for the last leg of Clare’s All-Ireland U21 three-in-a-row in 2014 but then had to be patient before a senior breakthrough arrived.

“Conor was there with Davy in ’15, ’16. He wasn’t getting a look in and there was a lot of people saying to him like, ‘Maybe take the easier option, why don’t you just go and play for the footballers?’

“He’s one of the best footballers in the county. He maybe had a fallback option but he stuck with it. He’s getting his reward now. That’s the most pleasing thing of all. He really went for it and that makes it even more special.

conor-cleary-celebrates-after-the-game Conor Cleary after Clare's win over Wexford last summer. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Going back over the years you’d always be supporting the Clare hurlers, but you wouldn’t know too many of them where all of a sudden now there’s one lad walking down the street here. Everyone knows him.

“There’s a few Kilmaley lads play football with Miltown. It works really well between the two clubs. Aidan McGuane there who was in the Clare panel for a couple of years, he played football with Miltown. It overlaps. Conor Clancy is there with Kilmaley, himself and Colin Lynch, they work well.”

The split between the twins to travel down different sporting roads was natural. Eoin finished up hurling at minor level with Kilmaley, after going to school in Spanish Point, his passion for football intensified.

Conor went to St Flannan’s, hurling becoming central to his school days in Ennis. He is now a secondary school teacher in the town in Rice College. Eoin is a Garda stationed in Limerick.

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A determination to succeed is a common trait for both in their sporting endeavours.

“Both give the impression that if they set their mind to anything they’d be good at it,” says O’Brien.

“I think Eoin does himself a bit of a disservice when he says he wasn’t a good hurler. If he played it long enough, he would have been a good hurler.

eoin-cleary-and-ciaran-russell-celebrate-winning Eoin Cleary celebrating Clare's recent win over Roscommon with team-mate Ciaran Russell. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“Conor would be very serious, very driven. Eoin is a sort of happy-go-lucky character. We used to always talk about them when they were younger coming through. Eoin would be the kind of fella that could score nine frees in a row and when he was younger, he’d be worried that he’d miss the 10th one. Conor would be the kind of fella that could miss nine-in-a-row and be fully convinced he was going to score the 10th one.

“They’re both very genuine and driven. It’s the best of both worlds when you’re dealing with them. They’re approachable lads, very level-headed. They’re great role models, Clare are lucky to have them.”

The two campaigns he spent at the coalface with the Clare seniors offered O’Brien an insight into Eoin’s capabilities at the highest level.

His profile has continued to soar with a first All-Star nomination arriving last year. In a shortened season, he fired 0-35 across five games. Fourteen of those shots arrived from open play and one outrageous sideline effort against Laois drew widespread praise.

“We spent all the time telling him not to try them,” laughs O’Brien.

“When they work they’re brilliant and he has that in his locker in fairness. That kick over his right shoulder, he’d be doing an awful lot of the time. Once he shapes up for that, there’s a fair chance it’s going over. He’s a lot of shots mastered. When he does outrageous ones like that, you kind of know he didn’t just chance it, he’s practiced it.

“That time when Clare got to the quarter-final in ’16, he was playing wing-forward. His game has changed now, he’s more of a playmaker, while still doing the work rate. He wants to improve all the time. I live near enough to the field in Miltown and if there’s someone out practicing, there’s a fair chance it’d be him with a bag of footballs. Conor the same out in the ball alley, just practicing, practicing. It’s what they are. Professional in every aspect.”

The local stars shining on the national stage. Miltown Malbay is humming to a repetitive sporting tune.

“You’d notice it in town. People are just constantly talking about it. It’s a massive buzz. It’s a football stronghold but then eight buses went from the area to the Munster hurling final. There’s massive Clare support in football and everyone follows the hurling team as well. Once they put on a Clare jersey, they just follow them.

“You see it in the crazy demand for tickets for the football next weekend and they’re looking for the hurling as well. Cost and everything doesn’t seem to matter right now. Clare teams are going well, it’s just go to the games.

“People love the days out and seeing the teams putting in everything. At the minute we’re lucky that we have two teams not only putting in everything but getting rewards on the games as well.”

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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