*John Conlon celebrates at the final whistle. Photograph: Gerard O’Neill
IN ITS UNIQUE way, The Clare Echo sporting awards are the pinnacle of accolades that all athletes and coaches aspire to win.
Over 1,000 elite players have been honoured with All Star Awards since 1971 but only the unique few can call themselves a recipient of a Clare Echo sporting award.
Now in its fourth year, the sporting awards aim to take a novel approach when reflecting on the highs and lows both on and off the field. Whatever the game, it is not possible without players or athletes, referees or match officials, managers, coaches, supporters and committed parents so we salute you all for your efforts.
What a year 2023 was on the sporting front, there’s plenty of medals that made their way back to Co Clare meaning the task in choosing award winners was once again, far from easy.
Let’s get on with it, shall we. The Clare Echo sporting awards go to…..
Sportsperson of the year: John Conlon
A fine season for both club and county saw John Conlon toasted among the best in the country.
Centre-back for Clare’s senior hurlers, John was a pivotal figure in their run to the Munster Final and All-Ireland semi-final for the second year in a row.
At club level, he was hugely influential as Clonlara won a third-ever Clare SHC. The primary school teacher was part of the team to win their second title in 2008 but fifteen years on remained an inspiring figure when they beat Crusheen 3-18 2-16 to lift the Canon Hamilton in October.
Indeed his contribution to the community of Clonlara and to hurling across the county has always been exemplary so in a way it is fitting that he stands alone as the only Clonlara man to have won two Clare senior championships.
On top of this all, he was coach of the Truagh/Clonlara senior camogie team crowned county champions for the first time. Put simply, Conlon excels on all fronts.
Following the conclusion of the inter-county season, he and Shane O’Donnell were honoured with All Star awards. John became the fourth Clare man to win an All Star at centre back following in the footsteps of Newmarket-on-Fergus’ Jim ‘Puddin’ Cullinan, Sixmilebridge’s Sean Stack and two-time All-Ireland winner of St Joseph’s Doora/Barefield Seanie McMahon.
He joins an elite group of Offaly’s Brian Whelahan, Brian Corcoran of Cork, Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh and four-time All-Ireland winner of Limerick, Kyle Hayes as hurlers to have won All Stars in defence and attack.
We’ll presume that recognition as Clare Echo’s sportsperson of 2023 blows all these awards out of the water!!
Moment of the year: Conor Ryan’s return
GAA followers across the country were thrilled to see Conor Ryan return to the Cratloe colours this summer. Man of the match in Clare’s drawn All-Ireland final against Cork in 2013, he earned an All Star in his breakthrough inter-county season and a coveted All-Ireland SHC medal.
Three years on and issues with his pituitary gland began to emerge which kept him sidelined for the entire 2016 championship season. At the beginning of 2018, at the age of 26 Conor was told his days of playing sport were finished.
So when he was back on the field with Cratloe’s senior footballers and hurlers in the summer of 2023 it was a sight to behold. Missing out on the opportunity to play with his younger brother, Diarmuid was that big regret for Conor over recent years so the fact that he partnered him at midfield for the second half on county final day as Cratloe’s footballers won the Clare SFC was quite simply a special and emotional sight.
Unsung sporting hero: Leana Liddane
Ennis’s Leana Liddane has created ripples of success and is viewed as a potential Olympian in 2028.
She became a double European champion at the 2023 European Youth Surf Lifesaving Championships when representing Team Ireland in Poland this August. She reached the A finals in multiple pool events and also broke three national junior and senior records.
On top of this, Leane a past pupil of Ennis NS became the youngest ever Irish female athlete to secure double European gold and claim three silver medals in beach competitions.
In July, she showcased her talents at the Division 1 Swimming Championships held at Dublin’s NAC. The Limerick Swimming Club swimmer clinched gold in the 50m freestyle and the 4x200m relay, along with securing silver in the 100m freestyle and bronze in the 200m and 400m freestyle events.
Team of the year: Clare’s minor hurlers
It started in the wind and rain of Shannon and ended in the sunshine of Semple Stadium and my what a journey it was to follow the bright sparks of the Clare minor hurling team. No weakness could be found throughout Brian O’Connell’s side as they overcame the challenges of Tipperary, Waterford, Limerick, Cork on the double, Kilkenny and Galway to be crowned Munster and All-Ireland champions.
Clare may have won the 1997 All-Ireland title but the class of 2023 ensured they claimed provincial and national honours to certainly make the county’s supporters optimistic on what the future holds.
Captained by Broadford’s Eoghan Gunning, every player that was afforded the opportunity to line out in the county colours grabbed it with both hands and they were certainly aided by having a wide spread of talent to ensure the burden didn’t fall to a few.
Former Clare minor hurling manager, PJ Fitzpatrick put it well at County Convention with the remarks, “this year we won a minor championship which in my own opinion was the greatest championship ever won because we beat every hurling county in the country”.
What does the future hold for the talented minors, we can’t wait to find out!
Breakthrough of the year: Áine Donegan
Ennis golfer Áine Donegan made her professional debut when teeing off at Pebble Beach for the US Open.
By God, did she make her mark here, a storming opening round where she fired a score of three-under 69 had her in second place. This was all the more impressive given that her driver was smashed and her golf clubs lost while en route to California. At one stage, Áine who is a member of Woodstock and Lahinch, was tied for the lead in the US Open.
A talented underage soccer player, she represented Ireland at schoolgirls level before focusing on golf where she obtained a scholarship at Indiana University where she was the standout performer before a bold transfer to Louisiana State University where she rubs shoulders with world no.1 amateur Lindblad and often beats her.
Competing in the US Open was “definitely at the top” of what she has done in her career but she took to it like a duck to water with her interview on the course showcasing Áine as a breath of fresh air.
Player/manager of the year: Diarmaid Nash
In the world of handball, although you may have a coach the elite are in a way their own manager.
Tuamgraney’s DIarmaid Nash is certainly among the cream of the crop in the modern game. In April, he and Colin Crehan secured a third senior doubles title in the O’Neill’s All-Ireland 4-Wall Senior Championships.
This November, he won the Irish Men’s Open 4-Wall Handball crown played in his home court after Westmeath’s Robbie McCarthy had to withdraw.
Diarmaid’s father Jim has been a huge influence in his career and has always been in his corner. How Diarmaid has managed to maintain his place at the top table of elite Irish handballers is certainly worth applauding.
The Tuamgraney clubman prevailed on his home court to beat Westmeaths Robbie McCarthy in the decider.
Foot in mouth award: Derek Dormer
As he’d write himself “winning breeds confidence” so it comes as no surprise that freelance reporter Derek Dormer is not afraid to make a prediction.
Why you ask, well back in 2022 he had a knack of just about predicting the way things would go for Scariff/Ogonnelloe’s side when appearing on Scariff Bay Community Radio, so much so that Leo Doyle would suggest Mr Dormer was the man to talk to before picking the lotto numbers.
Predictions tend to be a lose-lose task and the Clarecastle man found out the hard way this year. On the podcast, ‘Champion Chatter’ the glorious prediction streak fell to pieces, firstly when he suggested St Joseph’s Miltown were leading contenders for relegation (they went on to reach the Clare SFC semi-finals) and secondly when Crusheen were described as “lambs to the slaughter” prior to both their quarter-final and semi-final wins over Newmarket-on-Fergus and Scariff. His bad luck wasn’t confined to the podcast but on Scariff Bay he suggested before the Clare SFC quarter-finals that there was no need to finish the senior championship as he adamantly backed Éire Óg to win a three in a row, fortunately for Colm Collins and Cratloe the championship continued and they not Éire Óg claimed the Jack Daly.
Make no mistake, Dormer who was part of the Doon senior hurling management this year, will be back in 2024 and won’t be afraid to call it as he sees it and that’s why he is a valued member of the local media scene.
Quick Thinking Award: Anne Hayes Clare GAA PRO
A technical glitch in October meant the recorded version of Amhrán na bhFiann was not working in Cusack Park prior to the Clare SHC semi-final between Clonlara and Feakle. Fortunately, Clare GAA PRO was in close proximity to the microphone and there was better luck that she’s able to hold as the Lissycasey native proceeded to sing the national anthem on the spot and she gave an excellent version at that.
Achievement of the year: Newmarket Celtic winning the FAI Junior Cup
Many Clare clubs have dreamed about but no side from the Banner County had claimed the FAI Junior Cup, that was until April.
Newmarket Celtic defeated St Michael’s AFC on penalties 5-4 in Jackman Park to be crowned national champions and winning a competition which is at the peak of junior soccer in Ireland.
There was an attendance of 2,537 at the final, some of whom were attending a soccer game for the first time and others who made a beeline for the Limerick venue straight from their First Holy Communion.
Paddy Purcell’s side had players from Newmarket-on-Fergus, Ennis, Shannon, Meelick, Kilrush and one from Donegal in their side but they had the support of the entire county behind them.
It was 1-1 following extra time, ex Sheffield Utd youths player Harvey Cullinan scoring a penalty for Celtic in the opening half.
When it came to the shootout, Newmarket scored five from five, Shane Cusack, Eoin Hayes, Garry Higgins, Ronan McCormack and Stephen Kelly all hit the target while Cusack saved the opposing side’s third penalty from Shane Ryan.
Special scenes unfolded after Kelly’s goal hit the net, though it was only seconds later the magnitude of the achievement was not lost on the Celtic faithful who flocked onto the field.
Special service award: Colm Collins
Colm Collins called time on his tenure as Clare senior football manager on June 17th. He was the longest-serving inter-county manager at the time of his resignation.
Appointed in September 2013, Colm led Clare to promotion from the bottom tier of the Allianz National Football League to Division 2 where they kept their status for seven years and matched some of the best teams in the country on a consistent basis.
Collins was also the first manager to guide Clare to appearances in the All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals, reaching the stage in 2016 and 2022 where they came up short against Kerry and Derry in Croke Park.
Division 2 was a case of living on the tight-rope, Clare could have won promotion in years gone by while they could have also dropped down, this year unfortunately they suffered relegation.
An almighty response followed from Clare in the championship, beating Cork for the first time since 1997 and then edging past Limerick to advance to a first Munster final since 2012. A heavy defeat to Kerry put a dampener on this progress with losses to Monaghan, Donegal and Derry ending their championship bid but also prompting Collins to announce his departure.
Heading to Pearse Park for their clash with Derry, there was a feeling that it was the end of an era, that’s why retired greats such as David Tubridy, Gordon Kelly, Francis McInerney, Ger Keane and Brendan Rouine were among the flood of people rushing to Collins after the final whistle to pay their respects, a rare sight for a losing manager in championship but a sense of the respect which was held for him.
“You gave us hope. You made us dream. You filled us with confidence. The ultimate players manager. Thank you for everything Colm, you are a special man. As the old saying goes, we were never playing for Clare we were playing for Colm Collins,” was the statement from captain Eoin Cleary, never have such truer or more beautiful words been said about a Clare manager.
To Colm, his family, management and backroom teams over the years, thanks for everything!
Comeback queens: Clare’s Junior All-Ireland champions
Clare were crowned All-Ireland Junior camogie champions for the fifth time in their history when they overcame Tipperary 3-7 1-8 in Croke Park this August.
At different stages in the year, Clare’s ability to forge a comeback was clear. On the day of the final, they didn’t score for the whole first quarter and conceded 1-2 but they did enough to get back on level terms by the half-time whistle.
Their title was won in the third quarter when they had two spells of scoring 1-1 without reply. Kilmaley’s Caoimhe Cahill produced a player of the match performance with Labhaoise O’Donnell also playing a leading role in attack while the half-back line platform of Ellen Casey who would be named junior player of the year flanked by captain Sinead O’Keeffe and the experienced Laura McMahon were central to the win.
Ashbourne was the setting for their semi-final win where they prevailed over Armagh 0-22 2-15. With 47 minutes played, Armagh were leading 2-14 0-15 but Clare led by midfield duo Grace Carmody and Niamh Mulqueen plus freetaker Sarah Loughnane turned the tide to see John Carmody’s charges advance to the All-Ireland final.
Sporting venue of the year: Dromoland Castle
For the second year in a row, Dromoland Golf Club hosted the €400,000 KPMG Women’s Irish Open.
Over 31,000 people attended the 2023 event at the five-star Newmarket-on-Fergus venue, an increase on the 25,000 in 2022.
A new spectator village was matched by further investment on the course by Dromoland Castle which helped with the feel-good atmosphere that remained ever-present. It teed off an exciting two weeks of professional golf in Ireland with the Men’s Irish Open taking place in The K Club a week after.
To coincide with the Women’s Irish Open, a community festival was held in the village of Newmarket-on-Fergus.
Leona Maguire led the field of Irish golfers which included Clare duo Áine Donegan and Aideen Walsh.
Smilla Tarning Soenderby from Denmark won the tournament, overcoming Anne Van Dam and Lisa Petterson in a nail-biting playoff
Social media maestros: St Senan’s RFC
Keeping track of all goings-on from the sporting front is made much easier with active social media club accounts. There’s many outstanding examples to point to but sticking out in how they do their business are St Senan’s RFC.
Kudos is deserved to Dylan O’Connor who through behind the scenes footage of the Shannon rugby club has given the impression that we’re getting a glimpse into a Netflix documentary.
Professional graphics with team announcements and match updates are par for the course, their Instagram following is a modest 1,151 but the quality of their work is sublime, so much so that we won’t deduct marks for not having a big promotional video announcing the signing of well-known Dave Flynn.
Their social media is a sign of how they are doing things right. The return of the excellent Ged McNamara to their coaching ranks has prompted the additions of Flynn, Evan O’Gorman and Jamie McNamara to their first team. Ged and Ethan Coughlan were the Clare representatives in a coaching and playing perspective as Munster won the URC title in July.
Off the field, Senans’ headgear protection initiative in the underage ranks shows how they are a step ahead of the curve.
An honourable mention goes to Clonlara GAA Club who through their social media espouse bundles of positive that it is easy to row in behind their teams and community.
Both these clubs are an example for others to follow, particularly those who have club officers who hijack the club accounts for their own gain.
Too hot to handle aka the Chilli Con Kearney award: Adrian Kearney
Darts may not be considered the biggest sport in the county but there is a fierce rivalry in the Ennis Town Darts League.
One of the most colourful players in this local darts scene is Ennis chef Adrian Kearney. While rounding up some of the best players to complete alongside him on the Halfway House’s team has been a challenge on occasion for Adrian, it hasn’t dented his motivation in any way.
Earlier this month, Adrian had an outrageous score of 170 against Steele’s B as the Halfway look to claim some silverware. Last year, they were the winners of the C Trophy in the Town Darts League.
Trendsetter of the year: Fidelma Marrinan
An outstanding year in saffron and blue saw Querrin’s Fidelma Marrinan set the way as Clare’s intermediate ladies football side reached the All-Ireland final.
She did so in style, a unique style it is fair to say by wearing two different boots on either foot. It certainly didn’t impact on her performances. She made the intermediate team of the championship for the second year in a row, she was nominated for the players’ player of the year and won the ZuCar Golden Boot award, the prize on offer for the leading scorer in the All-Ireland Championships.
Her haul of 5-38 across six games was so impressive that it helped her to earn a nomination for the All-Star awards. The twenty three year old has recently began her induction into the Garda Training College in Templemore.
Fidelma’s trend seems to be catching on. Whether Avenue Utd’s Philip Talty was inspired by Marrinan or just had the wrong boots, he sported a similar look when lining out for David Russell’s side in the CDSL Premier Division.
Rising star of the year: Louis Griffin
Ennistymon boxer Louis Griffin claimed sporting titles on different fronts this year.
In April, he was crowned All-Ireland U16 boxing champion. A member of the Kilfenora Boxing Club, he won the 54kg title beating Ulster champion, Nojas Samatakas from Portadown.
Louis previously fought in the Carpathian Cup in Poland, claimed gold at the Eger Box Cup in Hungary and has won All-Ireland titles in successive years.
Closer to home in Cusack Park, he was corner back on the football field as part of the Ennistymon team to win the Minor A football championship beating Cooraclare 5-7 0-8 in October.
Multi-taskers of the year: Laurie Ryan & Chloe Moloney
Not alone were Laurie Ryan and Chloe Moloney both central figures on Clare’s run to the TG4 All-Ireland intermediate ladies football final but they were leading the way in another sport with different clubs.
Laurie captained Athlone Town to win the FAI Cup final in November but she is also a ladies footballer with the Banner Ladies (winning her fourteenth senior title this year) and Clare, manager of the women’s soccer team with TUS, an ambassador with the LGFA and on top of it all, a full-time university lecturer in science.
Chloe was part of the Peamount Utd side crowned Women’s Premier Division champions, she lines out at club level with Kilmurry Ibrickane and Clare in ladies football while she is a factory worker at Wild Irish Seaweeds in Quilty. On seven different times this year, Peamount and Clare both had games on the same weekend in what was a true test for Chloe.
Moment of magic: Shane O’Donnell’s goal versus Kilkenny
To be fair to him, Shane O’Donnell is no stranger to producing a moment of magic by Hill 16 in Croke Park.
Need we mention his unforgettable exploits in 2013 when he carved out his name as a Clare great by helping the county to win a fourth All-Ireland senior hurling title.
This July as Clare went toe to toe with Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-finals, Shane demonstrated a sublime piece of skill, he controlled the sliotar and brushed Tommy Walsh aside like a rag doll before unleashing a bullet to the roof of Eoin Murphy’s net.
Sadly not all pieces of brilliance result in success as Kilkenny prevailed on a score of 1-25 1-22.