Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport GAA

Ballygalget veteran inspired by his brave battling brother

Clarke still in love with hurling at 42 after MS sidelined sibling Declan

By Declan Bogue

Yeah, he's 42 now. And yeah, he's played senior hurling for Ballygalget over four different decades, making his debut in some long-forgotten league game at the tail-end of 1989.

Last month he collected his 12th - 12th! - Down senior hurling Championship with Ballygalget. Tomorrow, he faces all the bullets Loughgiel can fire at him in the Ulster semi-final in Maghera.

It's true, he is not the same animal as he was in his prime, when the author Christy O'Connor featured him in the seminal book on hurling custodians; 'Last Man Standing'.

But Graham Clarke has his reasons for still hurling.

He had already retired when his successor, Daniel McManus sustained a serious knee injury.

An approach was lodged by manager Barry Coulter, would he come back and fill the goals again?

He already knew the answer but still ran it by his brother, Declan. Along with a third brother Liam, the three all played together for Ballygalget many moons ago.

But at 16, Declan was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. He would no longer be a hurler. But Graham (right) kept playing away, and Liam kept playing away.


"Because, you are looking over at the brother and saying, 'this is a boy who is not able to do it, and he would kill to be able to do it'," answered Graham.

"And I know that's a personal thing but some people ask me, 'what are you doing, still playing at your age? Are you wise?'

"And I think, well, because I can, and because I enjoy it and because I have a brother that would love to be playing. And more than anything, he enjoys me playing! So I think it's about giving him a bit of enjoyment in life too."

For Clarke's 40th birthday, his wife Mary presented him with a mount for his county medals. Two hurling sticks cross and on three sides there were three medals. The balance was thrown off by two medals on the other section.

His daughter Lauren said, 'Wouldn't it be nice to make it even?'

And he recalled: "I said to Declan about me going back that time. And he said, 'Ah, maybe you should, maybe you should.'

"He doesn't say much, he is not able to, but it was as if to say, I should go on and try and get that 12th Championship medal. I don't think there are too many people in Down with 12 Championships!"

There is a question you want to ask any goalkeeper, but most especially a hurling goalkeeper.

Why goals?

The answer is that he went up to the field with his father as a child. Nobody could do goals, so he was thrown in, despite not being the tallest.

"Basically, if it had have been any other club, you might not have even got on to the pitch. But Ballygalget were able to fit me in somewhere and that's just the way it is, even to this day."

He knows he is lucky to have Mary on his side. She is a Doolin from Kilcummin, outside Killarney and the two met on a night out in Galway. He was there for a lad's weekend when they met.

They kept in touch and stole weekends together, before Mary took the plunge, moving up to the Peninsula.

Graham couldn't leave his job as an electrician and had already established his business. But he loved getting down to Kerry and in time, built strong relationships with Mary's family and connections.

But still, hurling always was a time vampire. Even if they went to Kerry on a Friday, he had a duty towards the red and black of Down, and the green and white of Ballygalget. The future in-laws would shake their heads with a mixture of bemusement and wonder at the northern madman climbing into his car at 3am to drive back for a Sunday morning training session with Down.

They had Lauren, who is now 12. Their son Cian (9) followed. In time, a sense of peace also came to the restless mind of the goalkeeper.

He started to train smarter, not just getting team mates to smash 300 shots a night at him from every angle.

He had to turn the dial down on the intensity too.

He explained: "Now, you are doing more puckouts, more match-related stuff and I am a wee bit wiser, a wee bit cuter. To be honest, I don't know if the reflexes are any better!

"I have learned about deliberate practise. I played in a couple of Christy Ring finals and didn't play well in them.

"Maybe when you sit back and think about it, a lot of people don't care.

"I am a lot calmer now that I am getting to the end of it. I am in bonus territory to be honest. I find myself a very lucky man that I am able to play a bit of hurley at the age of 42 and enjoy it."

He adds: "Declan is 40 now, this year. He was diagnosed at 16."

He has seen off many potential rivals for his place between the sticks. He took the role over from his cousin, Martin Clarke. With Kieran Taggart, who now runs most of the underage activity in the club, they pushed each other hard, Taggart getting the nod the odd time in the rivalry.

In the dressing room, the current senior team are managed by his life-long friends, Martin and Barry Coulter, along with Paddy Monan and Johnny McGrattan.

There are culture clashes. Playing for over 25 years provides them in spades.

He laughs at the younger generation, fellas like Danny Toner and Decky McManus, wearing 'recovery trousers', or as Clarke likes to call them, 'the tights'.

Though he is bitten by the benefits of sports science as much as anyone.

He knocks a laugh out of the boys going back and forth on their foam rollers: "But I would quietly be going home and getting on the roller at home in the garage for 10 minutes, before and after training!"

There will be no laughing tomorrow though, when he faces a forward line including Eddie McCloskey, Shay Casey and Liam Watson.

"There will be no enjoyment if you are conceding goals," he said ominously.

"When you are nervous a week before a match, I wouldn't be that way now. But come two o'clock on Sunday, you won't be wanting to concede.

"You will be saying to yourself, 'hold on, the wee bit of relaxing is over here. You are here to do a job for Ballygalget, Barry Coulter and the lads.'"

And, for the people on the line, like Declan, who aren't able to be out there.

  • Ballygalget v Loughgiel, Ulster SHC semi-final: Maghera, Sunday, 3.30pm

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph