Donegal trio’s return proves worthwhile
The devotion to the county by returning emigrants has been enriching
Donegal’s captain Aoife McDonnell after defeating Waterford in the 2010 All-Ireland Intermediate final at Croke Park. McDonnell has returned to the squad after management changes. Photograph: Inpho/James Crombie
It’s almost three years to the day when the headline on LadiesGaelic.ie understated it just a touch: “Cork Prove Too Strong for Donegal”. How strong? Well, the Munster women prevailed by a scoreline of . . . ready? . . . 8-27 to 0-2 in the All-Ireland football quarter-final at Dr Hyde Park in Roscommon.
Just the 49-point margin of victory, then.
The decision of several of the Donegal players to attend a wedding that weekend, instead of turning up for footballing duty, didn’t exactly help the cause, their level of commitment somewhat lacking, but still, even with those mitigating circumstances, it was the mother of all humiliations.
Aoife McDonnell, who had captained her county to the All-Ireland Intermediate title in 2010, probably wished she had attended the nuptials too instead of pulling on the shirt that day. For such a fierce competitor, the embarrassment would have burned.
And all those nights making her way back home for training from Belfast, during her Sports Studies spell at the University of Ulster, would have felt like a waste of valuable time, not least because, as the Glenties native told the Donegal News, finding “maybe half-a-dozen people at training” was “just demoralising”.
When she set sail for Australia soon afterwards, McDonnell’s Donegal career appeared to have ended on that dismal day in Roscommon. She began making a new life, though, teaching in a Sydney school and taking up Aussie Rules with the Sydney University Bombers.
She took to it rather handily too, being named in the Australian Football League Team of the Year in one of the “Forward Pocket” slots.
But she also resumed playing her first sporting love, turning out for Cormac McAnallen’s GFC in Sydney alongside two of her comrades and fellow emigrants, Yvonne McMonagle and Niamh Hegarty, who had been Donegal team-mates going back to when they won the 2003 Junior All-Ireland title.
A big loss to their native county who return to the All-Ireland quarter-finals today against Armagh in Clones (live on TG4 at 12.30, followed by Monaghan v Dublin at 2.15) with no thoughts of enduring what the team suffered three years ago at the same stage of the Championship.
Wait . . . check today’s line-out:
Yvonne McMonagle at right half-forward, Niamh Hegarty at centre half-forward and Aoife McDonnell at left corner-forward. Yep, they’re back. The shirt came calling again.
Word from back home last year about the new regime under manager Davy McLaughlin persuaded them that better days were ahead – and they wanted to be part of it.
“When I was in touch with the girls, they were telling me about how good the new set-up was and I trusted them. They know what they’re talking about,” said McDonnell. And once McLaughlin got wind that the three were interested in coming home, he sent them a strength and conditioning programme. They knew then he meant business, and they liked it.
And already the flight home has been worth it, the trio helping their county to its first ever Ulster title last month. McDonnell, now teaching PE in St Columba’s Comprehensive in Glenties, was named player of the match when they beat reigning champions Monaghan in Clones, the ever-prolific Geraldine McLaughlin scoring 2-7 of their 2-12 tally.
(Get thee to YouTube – From Australia to Clones – to see the celebrations at the final whistle, it’ll give you a hint of just how much the victory, after years of trying, meant to the players).
They might well all have to leave their beloved Donegal yet, maybe even return to Australia, job opportunities in Ireland’s forgotten county remaining grim, but that day will live with them forever.
“I keep saying it means everything, but it does – everything,” McDonnell said to Jerome Quinn after the game. “Words can’t actually express how happy I am right now . . . I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the world today . . . this is why I came back.”
Armagh, though, captained by the brilliant midfielder and 2014 Player of the Year Caroline O’Hanlon, are more than capable of ending the returnees’ All-Ireland dreams – Donegal won by a point when they squared up in the league, but Armagh cruised to a 12-point victory when they met again in the Division Two final.
That’s a heck of a superiority to overturn and, even if they manage it, it’s Dublin or Monaghan in the semi-finals, and, if that hurdle is overcome, Kerry or their old friends Cork in the final. Odds stacked against them, then, but even if the journey ends today, it’s been enriching, McDonnell, McMonagle and Hegarty’s devotion to their home place a very lovely thing.