BY TOM LYONS
THEY buried two large slices of GAA history in Clonakilty in recent weeks when they laid to rest Nealie (Con) O’Neill and John Lyons.
Nealie O’Neill was in his early 90s and his lamented death was the end of an era, bringing to a close the great era of senior football in the club in the 1930s and 1940s.
Nealie was the last surviving member of the great Clon teams that brought five county senior titles to the town in the 1940s.
Having made his debut with Clon seniors in 1942, Nealie shared in the three-in-a-row in 1942, 1943 and 1944 when Tadhgo Crowley led the red and green against arch-rivals, Fermoy, a rivalry that led to the All-Ireland senior football title being won in 1945. It was the first time the Sam Maguire came to Cork, in the safe arms of Tadhgo Crowley, the first title since 1911, with nine Clon players on the winning panel.
Clon surprisingly lost the county final to Fermoy that year, but they were back in 1946, Dessie Cullinane captaining them against Fermoy, and 1947, Mick Finn being captain against St Nick’s, as two more titles were won.
Holding down the demanding midfield positions in those five winning finals was Nealie O’Neill.
Nealie always preferred hurling to football and the Clon junior hurling team was highly successful in the forties, winning six South West titles and unlucky to be beaten by Newtownshandrum in the replayed 1946 county final. Nealie was the star on the hurling team and in 1950 won an All-Ireland junior hurling medal with Cork.
Nealie retired, some say prematurely, in 1951 and refused an invitation to play in 1952 when Clon won their seventh senior title, drawing every round bar one. His love of greyhounds took over after that.
Nealie was older brother of the late Humphrey ‘Small’ O’Neill who won an All-Ireland senior in 1945 with Cork and had a great career in the Cork and Clonakilty jerseys. He was uncle of Dave McCarthy, Clon’s All-Star footballer of 1976 and winner of an All-Ireland senior medal in 1973.
Nealie’s passing was indeed the end of an era, bringing down the final curtain on the golden forties in the Clonakilty club.
John Lyons arrived on the scene for Clon footballers just as Nealie finished his career in the early 1950s. Still a teenager, he was a sub on the Clon team that won the 1952 title, captained by the legendary Kerry footballer Tom Moriarty, but that win brought down the curtain on Clon’s golden era and the club wasn’t to win the title again for 44 years, in 1996.
John was one of the many players who soldiered on during the fifties and sixties in the shadow of the golden forties, without winning another senior title, but they came very close on a few occasions.
John captained the 1953 Cork junior football team that won the All-Ireland title and played in the unusual position for him of goalkeeper on that team. It was as a swashbuckling forward that John made his name as a player and he had GAA blood in his veins, his father ‘Dick’ Lyons being a prominent member of the famed 1914 Clonakilty Railway Shields’ winning teams. John’s brothers, Pato, Dan and Mickey also wore the red and green with distinction, as did his sons, Finbarr and Seán.
John was on the Clon team that lost the county senior final to St Nick’s in 1954 and in hard recessionary times in the 1950s, he emigrated to England like many more young Irish men and women, and so missed out on the declining years of Clon football in the late fifties.
He was back in his native Clonakilty for the infamous 1961 county final against Avondhu when Clon missed two penalties and lost by two points. John scored a cracking goal in that final, with a rocket of a drop kick from about 30 yards out but it was in vain.
He never won another county medal to go with his 1952 medal but he left a host of great memories of a swashbuckling full-forward, built like a tank, who would prefer to go straight through a stonewall rather than round it and he was adored by the Clon supporters. He captained the senior team in his last year of action in 1962.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh Nealie agus John.