Three brothers aiming to honour their tragic father in Kilkenny final
If Clara win today's Kilkenny senior hurling final, they may dedicate it to the late Johnny Ryan, whose three sons will be in action against O'Loughlin Gaels at Nowlan Park. Of the three, Lester, Kilkenny's All-Ireland-winning captain last year, is most widely known. Tom, who plays corner-back, is regarded as being most like his father in style. The third son, Liam, plays in the full-forward line.
It was in January that Johnny Ryan lost his life in a tragic farm accident, news that shook the rural parish of Clara and spread quickly through Kilkenny and beyond. He is remembered from the Clara team that won the club's first senior championship in 1986, along with his brothers Harry and Lester.
Johnny was a tough and uncompromising back man, what one local judged a "strong, hardy player; no matter how big a man would go in on him, he'd bring him down to his own size. He'd never pull back from a big fella".
His life ended at 61 but not before he saw his son captain Kilkenny to last year's All-Ireland and also the return of the county championship to the parish two years ago when Clara defeated the favourites Carrickshock in the final. Though outsiders, and two points down with four minutes left, they struck the decisive blow in an exciting finish. Lester Ryan stepped up to a 20-metre free and rifled the ball to the net. The celebrations that followed left little time to prepare for their Leinster Championship opener against Oulart-The Ballagh a week later and they fell at the first fence.
They reached the county final again last year, losing to Ballyhale Shamrocks, Clara aggrieved that they didn't do themselves justice. As one follower said, "We sat back and admired the Shamrocks".
O'Loughlin Gaels were less willing to admire the Shamrocks when defeating them in the semi-finals, paving the way for new champions.
Shamrocks have dominated local hurling over the last ten years, having been in eight of the last ten finals and winning six. Clara have demonstrated staying power of their own, this is their third county final in succession, in contrast to the Carrickshock side they beat in the 2013 county final and who were relegated this year.
Clara also succumbed to relegation before winning back senior status at the first attempt in 2012, later going on to win the All-Ireland intermediate title. They will miss the power and experience of the retired Conor Phelan and Austin Murphy but the bookies have them favourites to win.
The most peculiar aspect of today's final is the split that sees brothers on opposite sides, with Brian Hogan in direct opposition to his younger sibling Keith, the Clara free-taker. Their father Richie moved out of the city to Clara, a journey of just a few miles, over 20 years ago.
Brian had already started national school in the city, and the family decided to have him remain there, but Keith went to St Colman's where all the current Clara squad have been educated. The school principal is Richie Mulrooney who successfully managed a number of Kilkenny minor and under 21 sides.
Keith grew up 100 yards from the Ryan household so it seemed natural that he would carry on playing there. Brian formed similar connections with O'Loughlin Gaels. They met on opposite sides in last year's championship quarter-finals, won by Clara, but this is an unusual day for the family, with them in open conflict in a county final.
Clara are managed by Mick Purcell, who helped Mount Leinster Rangers to a shock Leinster senior hurling title in 2013. Tom Mullally, also part of that expedition, is another member of the backroom team, as are his brother Paddy, Nicky Cashin and Conor Phelan.
The Mullallys will be supporting their younger brother Richie who represents Glenmore against Kilmacow in the junior final, the day's curtain-raiser.
A special feature of today's bill will be a presentation to the crowd of the Rower-Inistioge team that won the club's only senior hurling championship in 1968, powered by Eddie Keher.
For the Ryan family of Clara, those on the field, and the family members looking on, this will be an emotional afternoon. They are immersed in the club, with the late Johnny's father, Liam, having been one of its founding members.
He would have been proud to see how far they've come.
Sunday Indo Sport