Lismore camogie star, Aoife Hannon, recalls how she went from being an All-Ireland champion to one of her toughest days in Croke Park in the 2015 AIB All-Ireland Intermediate Camogie Club Final and how, soon after, she was forced into early retirement due to Crohn’s disease.
It wasn’t until the morning after the match when I woke up that that crushing agony of defeat hit me like a ton of bricks.
It was bitterly cold the day of the 2015 AIB All-Ireland Intermediate Club Final. We were the reigning champions, going for back to back titles.
”I remember running out onto the pitch, seeing the snow and having the freezing cold hitting our bodies.
Even to get warm in the warm up was a challenge. But that’s something both teams have to deal with. It’s not an excuse. When you’re there you just have to get on with it and give it your best shot.
The nerves were high. In my experience, the best way to treat an All-Ireland Final is to treat it the same as any other match but it’s only natural to feel a little nervous.
It was a shaky start. We were fumbling the ball and doing some really uncharacteristic things. It took us a good while to get into it. We had the scoring opportunities; we just didn’t take them.
We knew they had class players, some of them Kilkenny players but you try to focus on your own game. Chloe Blackmore got on the end of a great Piltown move from midfield and struck a goal midway through the first half. It gave them momentum.
Coming up to half time we were five points down. Gráinne Kennelly won a 21-yard free, so I stepped up to take it and I just said to myself, “It’s almost half time. Just pick a spot and go for it.” I always back myself in those situations. They had six players on the line but, standing over the ball, I knew that a goal would bring us right back into it. I rose the ball and just hit it as hard as I could, and it flew into the back of the net.
It was the lift that we needed. All of a sudden, we were going in two points down as opposed to five and we hadn’t really started to play camogie yet. The dressing room was calm and relaxed. We’d another half to play, it was far from over.
As anyone knows, Kilkenny camogie is very strong. We knew it was going to be a battle. It was back and forth, ebb and flow, no one giving an inch. Then they found another gear.
Katie Power got an unbelievable score for Piltown around 18 minutes into the second half. That really gave them a push to drive on. We never gave up though.
I did not think for one second that the game was getting away from us. I backed the players on the pitch with me. I knew if we got the break something would happen for us.
Then, Aisling O’Brien collected a lovely ball, turned her player and belted it into Nicola Morrissey in on goal. Nicola put it into the back of the net. We all started celebrating.
Then, another blast of the whistle. The umpire was signaling for a square ball. Looking back now, it was the right call, it just felt like we were going to have no luck that day. I missed a free soon after that was in my range.
Time ticked on. We were relentless in going on the attack. We scored three points without reply. We really put our bodies on the line in those dying minutes.
I stood over the ball for another free in injury time and put it over to bring us to within a single point. I fully believed, the way we were playing, we’d get a final chance to level it up and push on.
I believed we had it in us to win right up to that moment when the final whistle blew.
”Heartbreak doesn’t even touch on what that feels like. It’s just sheer devastation.
To know at that moment that all your training and sacrifices have come to nothing. There’s literally nothing more you can do, it’s an indescribable feeling. It’s so hard to take.
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After that match I was really low spirited for a long time. Trying to deal with the emotion of it all and process what happened isn’t easy. To put your life into a game, into a season and then to lose by a point. It is still so raw; I find it hard watching it back because it’s like you’re reliving the that horrible empty feeling.
Lismore camogie was part of my life for as long as I can remember. My older sister Jennifer was playing with the seniors when I was four and she gave me a hurley. I used to beg her to bring me to training. I looked up to her so much.
I was so interested in the game. I was really eager to learn it. We’d Dan and Maurice Shanahan in our club so growing up I was in awe of them. To see them win what they did with the club and then be so successful with the county, that commitment and dedication they showed was always inspiring to me.
So, I started playing for the Under-6s and I played at every level then right up to senior. In my first year with the seniors, I was only 16 so I was quite young. Luckily, I got to play alongside Jennifer which was a dream come true for me. Without her there it would have been quite daunting, but she was a great cushion to have and really encouraged me to never give up.
”We won the club’s first county title after a nine-year drought. Sharing that experience with my sister will remain one of my most treasured memories.
It takes more than the players to achieve success like that. There are so many people behind the scenes that contribute to it. The late Liam Kirby was a founder of this club in the 1970s and he got the ball rolling for the current club that is there. We were delighted for him to be able to see our success and experience those happy days with us.
The pinnacle was when we won the AIB All-Ireland Intermediate Club Final in 2014. Winning an All-Ireland in club colours is just a complete honour and privilege. All the hard work over the years came together. We instilled huge belief in ourselves and there was a tremendous sense of team spirit.
Croke Park is an incredible stadium to play in. I can distinctly remember running out onto the pitch and being in complete awe.
We had to settle for a draw that day, but we made no mistake in the replay. To be there at the end, as All-Ireland champions with your teammates, and the whole community of Lismore in celebration. It doesn’t get any better.
Like everything, you come back down to earth fairly quickly. 2015 rolled around and it’s a whole new year. You’re back to the grindstone.
Every year you start out to win. We really had to just put 2014 behind us and start fresh. We knew what we needed to do to get back to the All-Ireland Final. We won the county title and then went on to win Munster but there was nothing easy.
We put the head down after Munster and tried to get through the winter. You dedicate all your time over the winter months to get back to that level. You know that you have an All-Ireland semifinal waiting for you at the end of January. That takes a huge amount of commitment, sacrifices and hard training but that has to be done in order to give it your best shot. Then it comes down to the puck of a ball. That’s sport, it’s cruel sometimes. Highs and lows.
Then, towards the end of 2016 I wasn’t feeling myself. I didn’t have that “go” that I had before.
I knew there was something wrong.
I went through all of 2017 without a diagnosis. It wasn’t until 2018 and I was admitted into hospital that I found out what was wrong.
”I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. That was the end of my camogie days.
It’s been very hard to take. It was such a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember and to be told to give that up has been very, very hard. I miss going out and playing a game I loved. I miss my friends, my teammates. I miss it so, so much.
The chronic fatigue never really leaves me. It’s hard to describe that to someone who has never experienced a chronic illness. You have to live it to understand.
Of course, if I got my health back to a stage where I could see myself being able to train then I would definitely consider going back. I have great memories. I’m very lucky that I have achieved all that I have with my club. Not everyone gets those days.
Like sport, life can be cruel, but it can also give such joy. It’s all part of the ebb and flow of things.
I was too young to retire, but I also consider myself very fortunate to have played camogie and had those special days with the girls. Those are memories I’ll have forever.