How Clare won Jamesie's heart, after all those Galway dreams
From 1997 to 2001, Jamesie O'Connor was out on his own in a land of hurling glory.
In the space of five years, O'Connor won almost every honour there was to win in hurling, with Clare at the top table and with St Joseph's Doora-Barefield illuminating the club scene.
Hurler of the Year in Clare's All-Ireland winning season of 1997, O'Connor also won All-Stars in '98 and in 2001. All the while, something special was brewing on the outskirts of Ennis as the St Joseph's club put county and Munster championships back to back, before their crowning glory of an All-Ireland club title on St Patrick's day, 1999.
By the time the stylish O'Connor had landed his fourth and final All-Star in 2001, he was one of Clare's most decorated hurlers and a role model, for hurlers all over the country to aspire to.
Jamesie reflects just now.
"Those were fantastic days," he says in that calm, understated tone of his.
"We had a few great summers, with club and with county.
"That said, you look back on 98 and there's regrets about the one that got away..." his voice trailing off as he recalls the infamous All-Ireland semi-final of 1998, when Clare were leading and the game was blown up early.
Offaly got their way, and out-lasted a jaded Banner side in the replay.
"We probably still feel that we left one after us, but as time goes on, you really appreciate that time, a great part of our lives, Clare supporters had endured their fair share of disappointments, so people really appreciated it."
Only for fate's intervention, the tale of disappointment may have continued. Jamesie may not have been there to lift the Banner.
Just a decade earlier you see, O'Connor's heroes wore maroon and white and Galway were the team he supported. Then, as a ten-year-old, the family travelled the west of Ireland back-roads from rural Ballinakill to move to lively Ennis, where his father had a business and his mother was a native. Clare had inherited a future hurling star.
"We lived in Galway until '82. I'd have had Galway heroes, the three Connollys - then when we moved to Clare, Clare were going through a fallow period, so that loyalty to Galway was still there. Joe Cooney and Eanna Ryan were probably my two favourite growing up..."
As the Tribesmen put All-Irelands back-to-back in '87 and '88, that affinity with his home county only grew.
But on the edge of Ennis, sport, in all its wonderful forms, helped the O'Connors to settle and it wasn't long before Jamesie and his brothers were an integral part of a budding young bunch.
"It was a culture shock, moving from a two teacher, 40 pupil school to the edge of Ennis, where suddenly there's 41 in your class. It was a bit of a change, but sport settled us down - playing soccer in the yard, we played every sport you could imagine in Roslevan there on the edge of Ennis."
Roslevan, was within the St Joseph's Doora-Barefield cachement and soon a golden bunch emerged. Just behind Jamesie was the great Seanie McMahon and a year younger again, was the brilliant Ollie Baker.
"There was a real tight-knit group there, and some great hurlers. A group of us from when we were young would have been coaching underage teams and there was a great spirit and bond built-up in the club..."
At under-12, 14 and 16, they knocked on the door. At minor and under-21, they landed 'A' titles which set them up for the years to come. All the while, the Doora-Barefield bunch were attending the hurling academy at St Flannan's, where their grá for the game grew even more and where they dreamed alongside the stars of Clare's future.
"We won two Hartys, lost two All-Irelands to Kieran's but there was a great bunch there in St Flannan's. Lads like Davy Fitz, Conor Clancy, Ger Moroney were a year ahead of me. I remember when I was young, dad brought us out of school to a Harty game that my cousin was playing in and just the whole occasion that it was, you just knew you wanted more of this..."
"It was a great bridge between club and county. The 'A' College's standard is a great standard and it definitely brought us all on as hurlers.
2 Chraobh Uile Éireann,
3 Chraobh na Mumhan
1 Craobh Club
Clare's most prolific scorer during their reign in the 90's Jamesie O'Connor was key to the Banner's success in '95 & '97💯
📺@GaaClare V @Galway_GAA 1995
⏰19/04 ar @TG4TV#AllirelandGold@ballsdotie pic.twitter.com/J5We5t2Qgf
— Spórt TG4 (@SportTG4) April 17, 2020
By then the seeds were sewn and despite some learning years in the saffron and blue, Clare eventually broke through in '95 under Ger Loughnane and the rest as they say, is history.
"Len Gaynor had restored our pride and got us back to a particular level. We had good players coming through, young, ambitious and hungry. We knew we weren't that far off.
"'95 was brilliant, but '97 to win the second one was, if anything better because we set out with the aim to win it after the disappointment of '96."
Eventually, injuries caught up with the sprightly speedster who called time on his career in 2004. But that love for the club lived on and as Jamesie's brother Christie brilliantly documents in The Club, he even came out of retirement five years later at 36, to try and arrest Doora Barefield's slide.
"His leadership on and off the field was one of his greatest strengths. A week after we won our first county title in 1998, he told us that we were going to win the All-Ireland club title," read an extract from the iconic book.
For now, it's coaching the camógs of Doora-Barefield, the youngsters of Ennis. In St Flannan's, where he's been teaching since '94, he's taken a team every single yar.
"My wife is the chairperson of the camogie club. I've two daughters playing, so I'm coaching them now. My youngest lad is under-14 so been involved with them! In Flannan's it comes with the territory I suppose," he laughs.
"There's no rest usually so for the first time in 25 years, you have a bit of time to take stock now and take a bit of a breather from hurling..."
You can still sense he misses it though. Just like hurling misses those dazzling runs and inspirational scores...