Cork’s camogie corporal hoping to keep county on the march

Gemma O’Connor seeking seventh winners’ medal but wants more support from GAA

In her 14 years playing for Cork, Gemma O’Connor has seen plenty of players come and go, but the changes since the county won last year’s All-Ireland final have been particularly sizeable. It does, though, say something of the strength in depth of Cork camogie that the county began the defence of its title this year without 10 of the players who made appearances in the 2014 campaign – yet they’re still through to the final where victory over Galway would see them draw level with Dublin on a record 26 titles.

Some of those absences have been down to personal commitments, travel or injury, but the retirements of Anna Geary, last year's captain, Joanne O'Callaghan and Jenny O'Leary, with 18 All-Ireland medals between them, robbed the team of a core of immeasurable experience.

"They're players who are irreplaceable, really," says O'Connor, who shares the record for the most All Star awards with O'Leary (eight). Her decision, though, to play on, alongside other trusty warriors like goalkeeper Aoife Murray and dual stars Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley, meant the team still had plenty of stalwarts to help the new blood find its feet. And after a few hiccups along the way this year – twice at the hands of Galway – they're getting there.

“There’s no doubt that we lost some vital players and there’s been lots of talk about us being a team in transition, but the new people who came in, like Amy O’Connor [also a soccer international] who is a fabulous forward, have brought different things to the team. And that gives you a sense of hope that when the likes of Aoife and myself step down these are the people who are going to carry the torch.”


Dreaded R word

It’s the plight of most sports competitors that once they hit the 30 mark they start getting asked about the dreaded R word too, but despite 10 All-Ireland final appearances, six winners medals, eight All Stars, a player of the year award, not to mention too-many-to-count league and club honours, O’Connor had nowhere near enough after last year.

“I just absolutely love the game, I adore it, and I’ve always put camogie first, it’s always been my priority. I play it for my family, my club, my county and myself. I tried other sports before and nothing really compares, camogie is just something special. And to play it at the top level, for Cork, is an honour.

“My family is steeped in the GAA tradition, my brother Glen played hurling for Cork, so it’s in the blood. I’ve been fortunate to be on teams through the years that have had a lot of success and I’ll keep going as long as I can. I just love being pushed to the limits.”

After watching RTÉ's Recruits, you wonder if playing in All-Ireland finals is a walk in the park next to army life. "Ah no, it's very different," laughs the army corporal who is based at Collins Barracks in Cork. "You expect people in the army to be super fit, but it's a different fitness, the army is about slogging it out in rough conditions, not so much running as fast as you can! But I suppose there's a mental toughness that you might have over others, the ability to drive on no matter what, not to give up, you feel you might have that bit more heart, and that you're more driven."

She’s over 10 years with the Defence Forces now, with stints in Liberia, Chad and Lebanon along the way, and has always received the support she has needed to maintain her intercounty career.

“They’ve been super. The Defence Forces and sport, especially GAA, go hand in hand, they are very supportive leading up to the games – they look after you and make sure you’re given enough time to train. I suppose it’s great PR for them too, they take massive pride in having intercounty players and have had plenty through the years.”


Less supportive, though, and a continuing source of frustration for her, has been the element of the Gaelic games-loving Cork public who don’t extend their enthusiasm to the camogie team, last year’s attendance of just over 12,000 at the All-Ireland final when they beat Kilkenny, compared to over 33,000 when they got the better of Wexford seven years before, a bitter blow.

“You’re doing it for your family and friends, the people who are always there, the same faces, you do it for yourself and for each other. But while you say you do it for Cork too – of course you do – sometimes you’re left disappointed that you don’t have a bigger support.

“You get the phone calls, the text messages, the media, the interviews, the hype before a final, but we want the support just as much as the lads do. It means a lot.

“When you’re playing in Croke Park you want to do it for the people who have made the effort to come to Dublin. Sometimes I feel disappointed, it’s a big county, but you just don’t feel you’re getting the support. I hope a big crowd would turn up for us, but I think there’s still that sense that ‘it’s just the girls’, ‘it doesn’t mean as much’.”

There’s some frustration on her part, too, in the pace of progress being made by the sport, in how it promotes itself and how its players are looked after. “I mean, it certainly has progressed in terms of advertising and PR, and the launch of the WGPA (Women’s Gaelic Players Association), which I think is fantastic, so things have got a bit better. But it’s small steps, there’s still a massive gap – say between how the Cork lads and ladies are looked after – to what it should be. I probably won’t see it in my time, but I hope that in the next five to 10 years it will change dramatically.

"Ultimately I think the GAA and the Camogie Association should be under the one umbrella, that would do nothing but benefit us. Our association struggles at times by itself, we need the support of the GAA to progress and I think as long as we're a standalone association it's going to be very slow. I just think from the female sports perspective, coming under the umbrella of the GAA would be absolutely massive with the likes of player welfare, PR and media coverage; there'd be a big turnaround, I'm convinced.

“The player welfare issue is huge. You go to work, then you’re trying to make training, then there are injuries – it’s too much at times. There should be better facilities, better services for the players. It’s there to some extent for the lads. Women are still left in the shadows.

“I don’t think players should be paid or anything, but all expenses, certainly all medical expenses, should definitely be covered. You should be left wanting for nothing, instead of being left out of pocket. People go to all lengths to be the best that they can be. Sometimes that’s putting your hand in your own pocket, and you get no thanks at the end of it. That’s what it’s about, it’s about fairness and equality. It is getting better, but it’s slow. It’s a long way to go to where it needs to be.”


Come the final, though, those frustrations will be set aside, O’Connor eying that seventh All-Ireland medal. But Cork lost to Galway by three points in the league back in May, and again, by two points in the group stage of the championship. Are the defending champions the underdogs, then?

“Well, they’ve beaten us twice this year, they’re the form team, probably the best team Galway has produced in a long time, but we’ve been underdogs many times in finals before and have come through. We’re certainly in a different place now than we were when we played them. We still feel we haven’t produced that performance that we’re capable of – that might or might not happen on Sunday. If it does, we have a chance.”

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times