JAMES O'CONNOR: Reached The Holy Grail

Hurling Category:

Jamsie O'Connor - One Of Loughnane's Leading Lights In Quest For All Ireland Honours

 

On Friday 13th January 2017 in an interview with former Clare sharpshooter and wing forward, Jamsie O’Connor, who played his club hurling with St. Josephs, Doora-Barefield, I got an insight into the mindset of Clare hurling during the halcyon days of Ger Loughnane’s 1990's reign.

 

From obscurity to national sporting headlines, Clare’s ascendency under Loughnane during the period of their two historic All Ireland triumphs of 1995 and 1997, was achieved against a background that most hurling judges were unable to comprehend.

 

Where did Loughnane pluck this squad from – they were not mushrooms that blossomed overnight and they were not a squad with a bundle of minor or under 21 titles under their belts.

The simple - but not obvious answer is - that along came a messiah from within Clare’s own hurling community and former star player – a new coach with a totally new approach to confidence building and a man who would bring his team to a level of fitness unheard of in Clare’s hurling history.

 

Many, many thousands of words received an enormous amount of printers ink during the hectic days of Clare’s rise to the top table and in my meeting with James and the following day with Brian Lohan, I was left in no doubt that the name of Clare would not have been inserted as All Ireland Champions for 1995 and 1997 without the inspiration of Ger Loughnane.

 

The man from Feakle did not win the two All Irelands on his own but he built a squad of players who bought in to his personal belief that Clare hurlers were every bit as good as all the current and great hurlers of Tipperary, Kilkenny and Cork.

They needed to believe that factor themselves and Ger Loughnane inserted that belief in all his men and fortunately for all involved, the Clare County Board most importantly also bought in to Ger Loughnane’s ideals.

 

James O’Connor and his parents and family took the emigrant roads from Ballinakill in Co. Galway to set up a new life in the neighbouring county of Clare and the Banner county inherited a future hurling star aged just ten years old in 1982. Prior to arriving in Clare, Galway were the team supported by James during his early school days and in the 1980's Galway won three All Ireland titles.

 

The O'Connor family set up home on the Tulla Road stretching out of Ennis town and fortunately for the St. Josephs G.A.A. club, the O’Connor's residence was within their geographical catchment areas.

The upcoming Clare legend attended Ennis National School and progressed to the legendary St. Flannan’s College, where hurling was in a category every bit as important as the daily subjects taught by the teachers.

 

At the hurling academy at Flannans, James would discover how important hurling would be in his life and with a natural talent and interest in hurling, the Galway native was poised to master the skills of hurling that would lead him to become one of Clare’s greatest ever forwards.

A Harty Cup success of 1989 set the tone for many achievements and in 1990 the famed Clare nursery retained the Harty Cup. St. Kierans of Kilkenny denied James outright All Ireland success in both years.

 

St. Josephs were entering a golden era of minor and under 21 county championships successes in 1990 and ’93 and James became one of the clubs real prospects. The club at this time were playing in the intermediate grade and James and his colleagues made their mark by winning the 1993 intermediate title that propelled St. Josephs into senior ranks.

 

Clare minor selectors were aware of James rising star and in 1989 the county achieved a remarkable Munster minor hurling title, but Offaly as a hurling county, were also making statements of future intent and beat the Banner in the All Ireland final.

Natural follow on success at under 21 with Clare did not harvest any provincial or national titles but by now James was a player earmarked by the Clare senior selectors.

 

Meantime at club level, James with St. Josephs, had claimed a minor ‘A’ grade hurling county title and a real stepping stone was further successes at county under 21 hurling grade in 1993 and ’94. These under age achievements would lead his club to inherit a panel of players who would take Clare senior club hurling by storm but the mettle of St. Josephs was severely tested as Clarecastle ran out victors on two successive years in county deciders.

 

By 1998 St. Josephs had a team backboned by James, Seánie McMahon and the lion hearted Ollie Baker. With the wind at their backs, St. Josephs came out of Munster as provincial champions following victory over the Toomevara Greyhounds of Tipperary and the road to national acclaim was now about to be achieved.

 

Rathnure of Wexford fame had their own share of defeats at Croke Park and in March 1999 St. Josephs of Clare were crowned All Ireland Club Hurling Champions for the first time ever and James O’Connor had another national hurling title.

Winning the county of 1998 set in motion a purple period of club glory as the county title was retained in 1999 by James and colleagues and the club retained their provincial title.

 

The All Ireland Club title for 1999/2000 eluded St. Josephs as Athenry proved convincing champions

0- 16 to 0 – 12. The march for a hat trick of Clare senior kings of hurling came unstuck in the 2000 county championship.

 

James O’Connor would claim his third Clare senior county title in 2001 and this brought the curtain down on his collection of county senior medals. However the intervening years in the life of the St. Joseph's clubman were the years that Ger Loughnane masterminded the Clare hurling resurrection for a county without an All Ireland senior title since 1914. Nobody anticipated such shock waves to emerge and Clare fans had no reason to believe the dark days were coming to an end.

 

At the tender age of twenty in 1992, James O’Connor pulled on a Clare senior hurling jersey to make his maiden voyage against Dublin at Tulla, a ground frequently used by Clare for National Hurling League home games.

Interestingly James went for Cork’s Pairc Ui Chaoimh as his No.1 hurling venue, citing atmosphere and tension as unrivalled. In surveying players of his own era, James made special mention of Tony O’Sullivan of Cork fame (another wing forward); the legendary Joe Cooney of Sarsfields and Galway fame and Eanna Ryan also of Galway, a player whose career was ravaged by a serious injury. Many more players came into the radar and all were household names.

 

James is now in his 23rd year teaching Business Studies at St. Flannans, Ennis, and once again he is embroiled in the quest for Harty Cup honours as one of the college’s coaches and in recent years the Ennis college have achieved great success.

 

The Clare hurling uprising, similar to the Offaly uprisng of the 1980’s, was proof positive that counties with a good sprinkling of traditional hurling, even at club level, can invent their own hurling revolution. They need a Ger Loughnane and a County Board willing to stand by their man.

 

The period 1995 to 1998 is nationally regarded as the dominant era of Loughnane and Clare. The Clare squad in that glorious year of 1995 who claimed the Liam McCarthy Cup, were destined for the history books. However to consolidate their greatness, they also needed to convince hurling fans all over Ireland by winning a second title with more or less the same group. And nowhere was that better known than within their own camp.

 

In 1996 a Limerick team inspired by Ciarán Carey halted the Clare juggernaut in Munster but come 1997 Loughnane and Clare proved to themselves the magnificence of their squad. James O’Connor garnered his second Munster medal following victory over Tipperary in the Munster final.

 

The back door beckoned for Tipperary who battled through to another meeting with Clare, this time in a much anticipated all Munster All Ireland final of 1997.The stakes couldn’t have been higher for Clare and in a classic final the laurels went to the Banner county.

 

This title had a very special relevance for the St. Josephs hurler. Named ‘Man Of The Match’ in the final, James year was superbly crowned when he became ‘Hurler Of The Year For 1997’. He also claimed his second All Star award following on from his award in 1985.

 

1998 took its toll on Clare hurlers from a situation outside their own control. Defeating Waterford after a replay in the Munster final, Clare were again caught up in another replay V Offaly in the All Ireland semi final.

Calamity struck when Galway referee, Jimmy Cooney, made a human but tragic mistake with two minutes left on the clock plus injury time, when he blew for full time as favourites Clare were well on their way to another All Ireland final.

 

Offaly fans responded by invading Croke Park in protest and succeeded in persuading the Croke Park hierarchy to replay the game, which Offaly duly won against all odds. And to compound the result even more, Offaly bamboozled Kilkenny in the 1998 All Ireland final.

Some measure of compensation fell to James O’Connor when he won his third All Star.

 

In 2002 Clare and James again made the journey to Croke Park on All Ireland final day but on this occasion, the combined might of Henry Sheflin and D.J. Carey put 2 -13 on the Kilkenny scoreboard and the Cats strolled to a seven point triumph over Clare.

 

In a glorious hurling career that James could not have predicted in his teens, the name James O’Connor is inscribed in the giants of hurling and unlike the giants of international sports codes, the financial rewards for gaelic games legends are, by decree, very secondary.

 

Obtaining a well paid job with security, prospects and a good pension, is very often outside the realms of many hurling legends. Players need academic qualifications of a high degree to profitably maximise their life in the workplace and these qualifications must be achieved during the course of the players early career in the county jersey.

 

James O’Connor maximised his educational studies at St. Flannan’s College and at U.C.G. and set the bar at a very high level for upcoming legends of gaelic games.

 

His induction to our All Ireland Hall Of Fame Online Gallery @ www.scoreboardmemories.com reflects the outstanding qualities of a truly memorable hurler of recent vintage and a player who rarely missed when presented with an opportunity, in sport or business, to convert his striking powers to great advantage. James has been a breath of fresh air on Sky TV since 2014 and has been greatly impressive on the BigScreen as a pundit and co-commentator.

 

In conclusion James O’Connor is our very first All Ireland Hall Of Fame Inductee from that magic era of Clare hurling, period 1995 to 1998. Other Clare giants are way up our radar also and we will follow on with many more profiles of Clare hurlers throughout 2017.

 

Summary Of Hurling Honours:

Clare Club Titles Won:

Senior x 3 (1998; 1999; 2001)

Intermediate x 1 (1993)

Under 21 x 2 (1993; 1994)

Minor ‘A’ X 1 (1990)

Munster Senior Club x 2 (1998/19; 1999/2000)

All Ireland Senior Club x 1 (1998/99)

 

Inter County Hurling:

All Ireland Senior x 2 (1995; 1997)

Munster Senior x 3 (1995;1997; 2002)

Munster Minor x 1 (1989)

All Star Awards x 3 (1995; 1997; 2001)

County Appearances 1992 – 2004 x 42

Scoring Achievement  2 goals 148 points

 

Céad Míle Fáil Séamus ÓConchubhair

 

Derry JF Doody

Editor