Hurling and camogie

Shamrocks' Saffron star feeling right at home in Hilltown

After being part of the Antrim junior team that won the All-Ireland junior title in the summer, Claire Kearney is hoping for a winning return to Croke Park with Down club Clonduff Shamrocks in their All-Ireland Intermediate Club final this weekend Picture: Inpho
Séamas McAleenan

CLONDUFF'S Antrim recruit didn't think she would ever get to play in Croke Park. Now Claire Kearney realises that it is all about surviving marathon semi-finals to make it happen.

Cushendall native Kearney was close to hanging up her boots and hurl around two years ago. She credits Jackie Carson with realigning her main sporting interest.

“Jackie was taking Clonduff last year. He knew I was living in Downpatrick and rang me one day and suggested that I come along to a few training sessions and see what I thought. He was clear that if I wasn't interested that I could walk away," Kearney said.

“There is that Cushendall connection in the Clonduff squad anyway; Sara Louise is married to Aaron (Graffin) and Ursula (Kearney) is married to my cousin Ciarán. So it wasn't that I didn't know anyone when I arrived. I'm glad on a few counts that I bit the bullet and went to training with him that day.”

Having resurrected her club career last season, her father Brian then got involved with the establishment of an Antrim junior team at the start of 2022 and he obviously targeted his daughter for inclusion.

“Dad got a number of the Cushendall girls to come into the squad and I suppose we soon realised that we were not that far off the top teams in Junior. It turned out not a bad year at all.”

The Antrim Juniors clicked at the start of the championship and went all the way to Croke Park success in August with Kearney nailing down a place in midfield. But they had to endure a marathon semi-final with Clare to get there.

“That was a real experience. It was a very hot day and we went through normal time and then extra-time still level. Then there was a second session of extra-time and the heat and exhaustion really kicked in. But we managed to win it and I think that it gave us a huge lift going into Croke Park.”

The marketing executive who is involved in the construction industry is hoping to build on last Saturday's marathon club semi-final as she and the rest of the Clonduff squad prepare for this Saturday's outing in Croke Park.

“If the Clare game was about heat and exhaustion, Saturday's game with Clanmaurice was a different matter altogether. It was foggy and freezing cold. After a while you couldn't feel your hands on the stick. You were just numb with cold.

“It was all about keeping a mental focus especially when it went to extra time and then the second session of extra-time.

“I know from the Antrim-Clare game, that a single point lead at that stage is a big lead, but that you can easily lose that lead. It is all about staying mentally focused.

“It was important to get ahead in the first five minutes of that last period of extra time. But I can tell you that the second five minutes were the longest five minutes of all time. The relief we all felt when Ceallach and Beth got that goal.”

Loughgiel's success in the opening game was also welcomed by Kearney.

“I was delighted for them. I know there is club rivalry there in Antrim, but when you play alongside them in the county, you get to understand how much work they put in.”

And of course her father and Mark 'Duck' McFadden had worked together as managers of the county team. Duck is now on the Loughgiel management team.

“I saw Duck on Saturday when we arrived at the pitch. But he had his game face on, so it was a brief “good luck”. I am really pleased for him.

“Before we went on to the pitch for our game, I got a hug from Róisín McCormick. She just told me to make sure we made it an Ulster double in Croke Park on Saturday evening.”

And so the Clonduff defender finds herself back in Croke Park at Christmas, hoping to complete a treble for the family there in 2022.

“Yes, David started it off, I suppose, playing in the Joe McDonagh Cup final. Then dad and I were there with the camogie team. It has been a long season, but an unforgettable one and I am hoping to finish with an early Christmas present.”