By Richard Commins
First Published in the Kildare Nationalist 11 January 2023
Is there any man whose impact on Kildare GAA was as diverse and widespread as that of Jim Clarke, the Ballymore Eustace man and long-time Naas resident who sadly passed away last week, a couple of days before another of the great 1956 Leinster Championship winning Kildare team, Miko Doyle of Sarsfields? The two men manned the left side of the Kildare defence that day against Wexford.
He will be cherished mostly, one imagines, for training that talented county under-21 team of Dunney, Mangan, Donnelly & Co. to the All-Ireland title in 1965, our first national crown for 37 years. It would be another 53 years before that itch would be scratched again by Davy Burke. Not for a want of trying on Clarke’s part it has to be said.
Off the field he proved himself a dynamic county board official with his interests far broader than the big ball game. He was a passionate devotee of handball and was instrumental in developing Ballymore into the leading handball club in the county.
He became Chairman of the Handball Board and of the Scór Committee. He was an advocate for hurling, despite being from a football background, and attempted to get hurling off the ground in his home club, although struggled to get enough players to make it stick.
He served as Kildare’s Leinster Council and Central Council delegate and both within and outside the county, Jim earned a reputation as a man with firm opinions and one who devoted much of his time holding the powers-that-be in the Executive to account on behalf of the county’s Gaels. It was a role he clearly relished and rarely did a Convention go by without his input, welcomed or otherwise.
Above all that of course, he was a devoted family man who, along with wife Nancy, who pre-deceased him, raised six children in Kingsfurze, Naas, and the many condolence messages on rip.ie from former neighbours are testament to his influence on the community there. Somehow Clarke also found time to run his construction business and was regarded as a skilled and conscientious tradesman.
Jim the player first came to prominence with the history-making Ballymore team of the early 1950’s. They were Junior B status as late as 1949 but from 1951 to 1953 they incredibly won the Junior, Intermediate and Senior Championships in succession, a feat never repeated since and unlikely perhaps to ever be.
With the great Larry Stanley, Clarke’s uncle, training them, the Wicklow border side kept on winning at Senior level and reached the 1953 final against Carbury at the first time of asking.
This wasn’t Clarke’s first final, though at that level. Two years earlier he was chosen along with clubmates Kevin Burke and Myles Doyle on the Northern Division side that went down to the three-in-a-row Sarsfields team, with Miko Doyle on board, in the decider.
Against hot favourites Carbury in front of 6,000 supporters, the Ballymore men trailed by four points at the interval (1-5 to 0-4) but they held their opponents scoreless in the second half. Points by Peter Mooney and Finbarr Gallagher brought the gap down to two before our man Jim came upfield to pounce on a loose ball and fire the winning goal. Ten of that team had been on the Junior B side four years previously, a testament to Stanley’s training.
They arrived back in the final three years later with Clarke now at full-back rather than the corner, but Military College proved too strong on a 1-6 to 0-4 scoreline.
That 1956 year of course proved to be a red-letter one for Clarke at county level. He had made his debut against Longford in 1952 but had been out of the team for two years when drafted back in for the championship opener against the Wee County in Navan and although he missed out against Longford, he was back for the semi-final against Offaly, the Leinster Final against Wexford and the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork.
With Clarke “more than equal to all demands” according to Mitchell Cogley in the Irish Independent, Kildare outscored Wexford by six points after a poor start to take the title before they came up disappointingly short against Cork. Clarke played two O’Byrne Cup ties that autumn but that was the end of his playing career with the Lilywhite seniors after just seventeen appearances.
In his second coming as a trainer, Kildare called upon him to prepare both the Junior and Under-21 teams and he quickly proved himself among the best in the land, taking both teams to All-Ireland Finals in 1965. Famously, the under-21 side beat Cork to land the title in Croke Park, while the Juniors succumbed to Galway.
The following year he was handed the Seniors as well, with many of the young “Golden Generation” moving up to that level. The Under-21 provincial crown was retained but a Dermot Earley-led Roscommon narrowly beat them in the national final.
His Senior side reached their first Leinster Final since his own final appearance in 1956 but a controversial decision by referee John Dowling to blow full-time before Kildare could take a late, scoreable, free, saw Meath home by a single point.
That December, it was announced that Peter O’Reilly, who had coached his native Dublin to an All-Ireland title and Offaly to two finals, would take over as trainer of the Kildare seniors. Clarke, however added a third Leinster title with the Under-21’s in 1967 before their colours were lowered by Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final.
By 1973 Clarke, who by now had become one of Kildare’s Leinster Council delegates, was in charge of the county minor team and he brought them their first Leinster title at the grade with a talented team that went on to meet Tyrone in the All-Ireland final. The Red Hands got the better of them, as they did in the semi-final two years later when Clarke added a fifth provincial title to his coaching CV.
In the eighties he acted as a selector for the Kildare seniors and remained an active participant in Committee affairs, often proving to be a sword in the side of senior executives. Clarke was thoroughly honest and forthright in his views and expected the highest standards from those serving the county. It was a trait that got him into disciplinary bother a few times and depending on who tells the tale, he was said to have been banned for life at least two if not three times.
As the man who brought Kildare their first five Leinster underage titles (3 under-21 and 2 minor) he retained the winning habit later in life when he and wife Nancy scooped a lotto jacket of over £640,000 (€812,000 in new money).
Jim is survived by his six children, one of whom, Shay, was a stalwart for Naas footballers for many years and a member of the 1990 county title winning side.
We’ll leave the final words to County Chairman Mick Gorman who wrote the following on rip.ie
“He had a lifelong passion for the GAA, for his Club, his County and for Kildare handball. Whether on the field of play, in the dressing room or in the committee room, Jim was always an engaging, influential and when necessary, a formidable presence. He will also be remembered for his good-natured personality. His memory will live on in Kildare GAA.” – Mick Gorman, Kildare GAA Chairman.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.