The last sighting of Briege Corkery in her county shirt had been when she was celebrating with her team-mates on the Croke Park pitch after Cork had completed their six-in-a-row by beating Dublin in the 2016 All-Ireland football final.
That victory brought her tally of senior All-Ireland medals to 11 in football and six in camogie, making her and her good friend Rena Buckley the most successful players in the history of Gaelic Games.
Her sporting life, then, you might have imagined, couldn’t have been any more satisfying. Not so.
“I just didn’t enjoy intercounty at all in 2016. It was a strange year. Coming home from matches, I’d be scrutinising myself about how I’d played. I’d be looking at the papers to see how they said I played, which was just so out of character for me. I never even looked at the papers before. I’d be cranky coming home from training and matches, and I’d never been like that before either, where I’d be annoyed about so many things. In the end I just felt it wasn’t worth that crankiness, so I slipped away from it all.”
There were, says the 31-year-old, many factors that contributed to that loss of enjoyment, the chief one being that she was just worn out from it all. She was running a dairy farm with her husband, Diarmuid, getting up at the crack of dawn and working a 12-hour day, then at the peak of the Championship season heading off to training with the camogie and football panels five, six nights a week, with a match, sometimes two, at the weekend. It all finally caught up with her.
“My days were long and I just felt I had no time to myself. And I didn’t miss it at all last year. I definitely didn’t miss travelling in and out for training. I loved playing with my club and giving them my time, and on the days of Cork games I enjoyed sitting in the stand and just watching. At that stage my plan was to have a good year with the club, spend more time with my husband, a bit more time on the farming and then maybe start a family.”
Pulled back in
Things changed, though, when she took up a job with the Bank of Ireland last year and Cork’s camogie manager Paudie Murray began to call, asking if she had any interest in returning to the panel.
“I honestly didn’t think I’d be coming back, and I suppose at that stage I wouldn’t have thought that they’d ask me back. But Paudie would ring me and he put it in to my mind. Come January, when the girls played their first league game, it was kind of weird. I just felt it would be nice to be back out there. By then I’d taken a break from the farming, Bank of Ireland offered me a job, so the hours were easier: nine to five or six compared to being up at six or seven and still going 12 hours later. Maybe it was just when I had more time to myself that that’s when I missed it.”
The best-laid plans: “I finally told Paudie that I’d go back … and two days later I found out I was pregnant,” she laughs. Plans placed on the backburner? “They were, yeah.”
By the time Tadhg arrived in April, Corkery wasn’t too sure there would be much space in her life for camogie, but it was feeling out of shape that prompted a rethink.
“After having Tadhg I was so unfit and I’d a lot of weight put on. I had a bet with my brother when I was around 14 that I would never go over a … certain weight. And I went well over that certain weight. He was telling me that he’d never seen me that heavy, and I was like, ‘Oh God’. It was the first time I ever put myself on a diet.”
“I missed the level of fitness that I had before, and I started missing the intensity of it all, too. Paudie just said to go on the fitness programme with Cork back in June and see how it went, see how I was feeling and we’d take it from there. It gave me a good challenge. The only way of knowing where you are is when you go back training. They didn’t drop me, so I suppose they were happy enough with my progress.
“It was a bit strange at first going back, I felt a little out of place. The one thing I’d said to Paudie was that I didn’t want to put anybody out, I wasn’t going to go back if any of the girls felt that way. It took me a week or two to feel comfortable, but the girls have been great, they put me at ease. It was nice when they’d come up to you after or send you a text and say ‘It’s good to have you back’. Once I knew they were happy, I was happy too.”
Something else Corkery didn’t want was anyone believing that she had only returned in an effort to draw level on 18 All-Ireland medals with Buckley, who moved one ahead on the roll of honour when she captained the camogie team to victory over Kilkenny last year, before announcing her retirement.
“That was one of my biggest fears, that people would think I was only coming back to get the medal to be equal with Rena. That’s not the case at all. If I had wanted to stay level-pegging with Rena, I’d have played last year. And this time last year, if you asked me would I be playing again I’d probably have said no, but again, different factors came together to make it happen. Life has definitely changed since Tadhg arrived, I can’t run out the door as fast as I used to. A lot of the time I forget that I have to organise a babysitter, all that,” she laughs, “but I’m very lucky, Diarmuid and myself have great parents and families.”
So, it was in the 58th minute of last Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final win over Tipperary in Thurles that Corkery made her return for the county, almost two years after she last appeared for the camogie team when they lost the All-Ireland final to Kilkenny. On September 9th? She’ll be in the panel that takes on the very same opponents in Croke Park.
“It’s the rest of the girls that have got us there,” she says, “they’ve been brilliant. If I can contribute in some way if I get on in the final, then I’ll be happy, but they’ve done all the work. But it’s good to be back, I’ve really enjoyed it. It was all just about feeling I wanted to give it a last hurrah.”