‘GAA players lining out with broken hand or foot? It happens all the time’

Ignoring pain is a characteristic shared by many highly motivated athletes

Mayo’s Martha Carter, who played a Connacht final with a broken hand, tackles Cork’s Valerie Mulcahy. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Less than two weeks out from this year's Leinster intermediate football final, Kildare goalkeeper Mary Hulgraine was cleaning up in a local gym when she dropped a 20kg iron plate on her foot. Unfortunately for the 27 year-old, she was shoeless at the time.

Discolouration of the foot ensued, all leading up to the dreaded conclusion – her foot was broken. An X-ray confirmed as much, and even included a few toes for added misery. She was prescribed a custom-made boot to kick off her rehab.

“I was told to wear it for six weeks but I was just going to training and popping the boot off. I just wanted to be around without the girls knowing, I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. People were asking me why I wasn’t training and I just said ‘ah, my foot is at me,’” she recalls.

Manager Alan Barry made the rational decision to bench her for the Leinster final. But Mary protested that she should start the game, although she admits she "probably didn't tell him the whole extent of it".


Her plea was successful and injections were arranged to dial down the pain, just before the team bus departed for the final. But Hulgraine also had something non medicinal to help stave off the agony.


“Once you’re adrenaline is going, you don’t really care. If it was any other game, I probably wouldn’t have played but it was the Leinster final and I had never won anything big with Kildare. I just wanted to bring the title home.”

Mayo footballer Martha Carter has also experienced the effectiveness of adrenaline. Ten minutes into this year's senior Connacht final against Galway, Carter broke her hand. She "knew by the hand and the glove" that something was wrong but she played on without much fuss.

Her manager Frank Browne and fellow stalwart Cora Staunton were full of praise afterwards, and her story went viral. What caused the injury is unknown, the pain never fully registered and she doesn't look back on it as a moment of perseverance. Her focus was solely invested in breaking Galway's stride towards five consecutive Connacht titles.

“I don’t know if many of the girls would have been aware of what happened,” she says. “I was probably the only one who knew myself that something wasn’t right. It’s not something that I went in at half-time and there was a big discussion about it. We had a game to win and it takes more than me to make up the team. It’s not something I’d consider to be a big thing. When you’re in that position all you want to do is win.”

She continues: “I wouldn’t make too big of a deal out of it. There’s loads of people in the same situation that would do the exact same thing.

“There’s plenty of hurlers out there who break their hand and play on.”

Carter's theory is supported by the recent heroics of Tipperary footballer Peter Acheson, who played the All-Ireland semi-final with a broken hand.

And Dr Eanna Falvey says he encounters similar cases on a weekly basis at the Santry Sports Clinic.


“In my practice,” he says, “I probably see about five people a week who have run themselves into a fracture by training so hard that their bone eventually fractures because it’s overloaded.

“You’d regularly see players who have played whole matches with a broken finger, or a broken hand or a broken foot. It happens all the time.”

Dr Falvey points out that the nature and location of a fracture largely determines whether or not the body can withstand the trauma. And if a player has a passionate mentality, that increases their chances.

“They’re somebody who is use to training and preparing, a lot of the time in a good deal of pain and discomfort.The pain they get from injury is just another step up and they can tolerate more pain than ‘normal people’ will. They’re almost conditioned to do it.”

But while Martha Carter was able to play the rest of the game with her fracture, Kildare’s Mary Hulgraine was substituted in the Leinster final. And her performance up to that point was unsurprisingly hampered by her foot.

“It was probably my worst game of the year. I broke the outside of my foot so I was using the inside of my foot [to kick the ball]. I didn’t have much to do though, in fairness to the girls in the back.”

With about 90 seconds to go, she was forced to surrender.

“I went to save a ball and I pushed off that foot and it just gave in. I planted myself into the floor and that was it. I just went to the dressing-room and put my foot on ice. The next day the foot was inflamed from playing. It eased after a few days though. I’ve been through worse.”

It’s not the first time she’s endured a fracture to play for her county. After returning home from a four-year basketball scholarship in America, Hulgraine was asked to give goalkeeping a shot with Kildare, who were a senior outfit at the time.

She agreed to the switch but an accident at training left her with one unpleasant memory from her debut year between the sticks.


“We were playing Dublin in the championship. Someone kicked the ball at me in training and the wrist snapped back so I played against Dublin with a broken wrist.

“I knew I’d have to get surgery on it so it wouldn’t have made any difference whether I played or not.”

Carter made her debut back in 2003 – the last time Mayo ladies won an All-Ireland, having previously captured the Brendan Martin Cup three times between 1999 and 2002.

They’ve made it to one All-Ireland final since then and this weekend marks their first semi-final appearance in seven years.

Defeating last year’s finalists Dublin and getting back to an All-Ireland final is Carter’s priority right now. Reflecting on the time she played with an injured hand can be postponed until another time.

“It’s in the past now and I want to just focus on what’s ahead of me. When you’re relaxing in a couple of years and you’re not able to play football maybe then you might consider that it wasn’t the right thing to do. But at this moment in time, it’s certainly far from my thoughts.

“I’m back training properly now for the first time in a while so I’ve a lot to work on.”

For medics like Dr Falvey who routinely work with sports teams, the health of the athletes eclipses everything else. But they also understand why those athletes sometimes disregard pain in the pursuit of their goals.

13-year ache

Carter is hoping to end a 13-year ache this weekend at Kingspan Breffni Park, while Hulgraine is hoping to take another step towards unlocking the gates to senior football again, when Kildare play their All-Ireland semi-final at the same venue.

Broken bones are weightless baggage.

“That’s what makes athletes great,” says Dr Falvey, “and makes them the amazing people that they are. If they didn’t have that mentality, they probably wouldn’t have succeeded in the first place.”