by Rena Buckley.
I was out on the pitch in Croke Park for the recent Royal visit. Got to meet Joe Canning. Also came across Donegal’s Michael Murphy and Dublin’s Lyndsey Davey.
I suppose I got to meet Harry and Meghan as well.
There was a special atmosphere as local children and their parents came to greet them. We could see snipers perched up on the Cusack stand. The Royal couple definitely did their homework; they knew the history of where they stood.
It ended up being a lovely day in a place where anyone even remotely attached to the GAA can be hugely proud of.
I remember all my games in the stadium. Eleven times the Cork footballers took to the field, eleven wins, each an All-Ireland final. That stat can’t last forever. Well, it will for me. I won’t be back unless the club makes it.
I’m retired from inter-county football and camogie. It was time. Still, memories from those big days linger.
The 2014 final, beating Dublin by a point, has to be the highlight simply because we shouldn’t have won, yet somehow we did. There’s a unique thrill after coming from behind to capture an All-Ireland. Cruel for Dublin, but they have recovered.
That was our Cork team. By then we had forgotten how to lose.
2005, my first football All-Ireland in Croke Park was an amazing experience. I’d just turned 18, a child really, moving about the place thinking I was a mature player but I definitely wasn’t. I got away with it because of the girls around me.
Most of us were star struck – just by the enormity of the place – but we managed to beat Galway in front of 23,000 people. That was the start of it for Cork. We were back every year besides a blip in 2010, which denied us the six in a row. Not to worry, we recovered to hit that milestone in 2016.
(I should point out I won 18 All-Ireland’s in my career, 11 football and 7 camogie).
It’s remarkable to think we were so successful for so long but it became our normality. Every year was about getting back to Croke Park. The commitment became all consuming. I know most sporting teams don’t win like we did.
From a camogie perspective our Cork team had highs and lows.
Again, 2005 proved the launch pad for success. This was my first All-Ireland medal on my second day in Croke Park having lost the 2004 final. We stopped a really good Tipperary side from winning three-in-a-row, beat them a year later as well, but Wexford took home four All-Ireland’s in this period as well. God, I remember 2012 against them being the longest hour on that field. Getting well beaten while playing fullback leaves you badly exposed!
In Cork going five years without an All-Ireland camogie title felt like a very long time but we came back in 2014 and 2015 while last year we got over the line against Kilkenny. I got to captain the team in my last season, so my last game happened to be the day I lifted the trophy in Croke Park.
But 2005 was the most remarkable season for Cork GAA because of who we were; a group of mostly kids journeying up to Dublin – 15, 16, 17 year olds – in search of an All-Ireland title.
Éamonn Ryan kept our feet firmly planted firmly on the ground. Éamonn was the perfect fit to manage us.
There were great characters on our football panel – there still is – but Éamonn drove a culture that sought to develop people first, athletes second. He valued everybody the same. He sought effort and honesty over the end product. Star players were on other teams. Now, we had Briege Corkery, among others, but that didn’t matter to Éamonn or any of us for that matter.
People make up the character of any team. We grew up together along with our young sport.
Social media wasn’t in full flow so it took a while for the Cork public to fully grasp what was happening. Camogie was long established but Ladies Gaelic football remains new enough. It was only around 2008 or 2009 that they began recognising us as the “Cork football team” when we were out and about. TG4 were showing the matches from once I started playing but they expanded greatly to cover National League and quarter and semi finals around 2008.
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It annoys me how women’s sport can be portrayed by the media. Take the 2016 camogie final against Kilkenny. We lost by four points. This was an All-Ireland – the biggest occasion imaginable – yet so much of the reporting focused on two women briefly pushing off each other during the pre-match handshake. As if this has never happened before! Hardly a big deal, just a silly incident that none of the other players noticed until afterwards. It had no impact on the contest but I remember the headlines: “Handshakes turn to handbags,” “Aggressive handshakes,” “Heated scenes at camogie final.”
That same year we played Dublin in the football final, winning by a point despite Dublin’s Carla Rowe kicking a perfectly legitimate score in the 22nd minute that was missed by the referee and umpires. They must have momentarily switched off, in an All-Ireland final no less. I couldn’t believe it happened and a lot of the media attention focused on the controversy, noting the lack of Hawk Eye technology, which is understandable, it could hardly be ignored, but coverage of that incident squeezed out most of the other events in an All-Ireland final. That was disappointing.
Media coverage of female Gaelic games is making genuine strides but it seems like controversy is required to create more attention. I think we are going in the right direction but I want to see the game itself given more attention than the subplots.
The same game that changes with your life. As you get older, to survive as an inter-county player, you need to become steadier, more reliable (learning to hand pass age 22 helped me). Your lifestyle also needs to evolve. Instead of lounging around all summer, maybe getting a job maybe not, but certainly training every night of the week, suddenly, you are 30 and the realities of a career bring added stress. For me it was about trying to run a physiotherapy business in Macroom along with keeping important relationships going strong. All the while you want to perform at a really high level.
I lived totally different lives when the early All-Irelands were being won to the last few. I’m not complaining – loved every minute of my time in a Cork jersey – but sport on that stage brings enormous strain.
It’s a constant struggle. Everything takes a back seat as you focus on your performance. Continual assessment is needed in order to improve. That’s what our Cork teams were all about. Now, I will say, transferring that mentality into other aspects of your life does bring plenty of positives.
But, eventually, sport had to give way. As a female you are not going to play forever. I’m still playing for the clubs – Inniscarra in camogie, Donoughmore in football – but I needed to focus on my actual career and personal life.
What do I mean by “as a female”?
I suppose family commitments loom larger for women. That’s not to say the modern father doesn’t have increased responsibilities but in the broader sense, like volunteerism, without which there is no GAA, women can be more attached to the family. It’s not the case in every household but generally speaking.
I gave a huge portion of my life to Cork. Fourteen winters and summers. Really, I knew nothing else so it was scary stepping away from that support system. You need to be brave to retire, especially when your mind and body are still willing.
Would I be happy to pull on the red jersey this summer?
God, I’d loved to. There was a double All-Ireland out there for us. Every second day it crosses my mind but you can’t be thinking like that forever.
The dream will always be there. And sure, I got to live it.
Before football and camogie properly took hold I wanted to be like Sonia O’Sullivan. I ran cross country and 1500 metres at a competitive level in my early teens.
Sonia was such a tangible hero. She was so Cork. And there she was beating all comers on the world stage. It really is important to be close to your role models. To be able to see them up close. That was Sonia for me. I was speechless the first time I met her. I still get a little jittery around her but in a good way.
I will definitely go into coaching, because I want to, but also because people have put plenty of time into me. It’s only right I put something back into my sports.
When I stop playing. Not finished yet. I owe my clubs a few good years.
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