Etna Flanagan still loving the game that brought her smile back
‘Once you’re able to and enjoy it, why not? If I can still play when I’m 50 I’ll be there’
It is a bit of an understatement to say that Etna Flanagan bucks some sporting trends.
One recent Irish survey threw up the startling statistic that 35 per cent of women aged 25 to 34 who were not involved in team sport believed they were too old to participate in it.
Yet there is Sligo corner-back Flanagan, aged 41 and playing Division 2 and intermediate championship football this season.
Motherhood is often quoted as another obstacle to women staying in team sport yet it hasn’t stopped this mother of four, even if it’s sometimes meant accidentally educating her younger teammates.
“I remember being in Cooraclare at a match once and I had to express before I went out on the pitch,” she recalls laughing. “Cría (her first-born) wasn’t with me but I was still breastfeeding her so I just had to do it. Most of the girls were stood looking at me, hadn’t a notion!”
Flanagan, nee McGovern, first played gaelic at 11, initially with the Under-12 and Under-14 boys in her native Glenfarne (Co.Leitrim). Back then there weren’t even Under-16 or minor girls’ squads so she made her senior inter-county debut at 16.
When she transferred her allegiance to Sligo in 2005, three years after herself and Conor settled there, she joined a county in the midst of three All-Ireland junior finals in a-row (2004-2006).
She missed their 2005 bid because she was pregnant and Cría (now 12) wasn’t even a year old when her mum was part of the Sligo team that eventually got across the line, ironically against her native Leitrim.
Sadhbh (8) was born in September 2008 and her mam was back training with the county before Christmas. Ríoghnán arrived in July 2011 and Odhrán, their youngest, came in October 2014.
“The only time I’ve stopped playing really is when I was pregnant. With all of the kids I was back playing, at least with the club (St Nathys), within two months. I did hang up my inter-county boots at the end of 2013 but got roped back in. They’re very persuasive,” she jokes.
Before it was as popular as today, Flanagan also took up rugby back in 2001, and plays it in gaelic’s off-season. She was travelling up and down to play with Ashbourne when they first moved West but now plays fullback for Enniskillen.
So why is she still successfully immersed in team sport when so many other younger women have quit?
An ultra-supportive husband, she stresses, and the fact that she doesn’t work outside the home.
“Plus I’m a fierce competitive person in anything I do. I don’t know if I’d ever get into road running or anything, there’s not the same competitive buzz.
“It’s the team thing as well. With a team there’s always the banter and camaraderie.
“You’d be under pressure the days you’re training,” she admits. “The kids are into everything themselves; gymnastics and football and piano. I wouldn’t say it’s easy but you make it as hard as you want to. If it was too difficult I wouldn’t be doing it.
“You just have to be organised and it helps that I’m here with them all the time. Football’s like my break to go away training. If I didn’t have that I’d go mad.”
Yet not even football helped two and a half years ago when the Flanagans’ world suddenly crumbled.
Ríoghnán, as his name suggests, was their ‘Little King’; a particularly precious child after being born with a missing ventricle.
Within hours of the discovery they were rushed to Crumlin and told he would need three major operations to re-plumb his heart.
He was just eight days old for the first, and had the second within three months. He dipped terrifyingly after each yet pulled through and was a happy three and a half year-old when he had the third surgery.
Unlike the others it went like a dream.
He was running again within seven days but, five weeks later, suddenly faltered and was diagnosed with complete heart failure.
A full transplant - which could only be done in Great Ormond Street Hospital - was his only hope.
Their youngest Odhrán was only three months old when herself and Conor flew to London for the preparatory consultation, and then every waking moment of every day was spent waiting for that phone call.
Ríoghnán went into hospital on November 19th 2014 and went on the transplant list on December 18th but they lost him on January 22nd. A suitable donor wasn’t found in time.
Family, friends and the staff in Crumlin gave them every support: “Dr Orla Franklin and her cardiology team were just unreal. They couldn’t have done more for us.”
But nothing prepares or inures you from that kind of grief.
“Someone asked me the other day when Odhrán crawled and I couldn’t remember. I don’t remember so much that happened at that time,” Flanagan reveals.
Football, eventually, provided a little respite but it was far from easy.
“The club started back in March, Mam was here with the kids so I went but there were nights I cried all the way up the road and back.
“It took all my energy to get in and train but it was an hour of your mind being turned to something else rather than thinking you were going to go mad.”
Not even a woman of Flanagan’s application and fortitude could face inter-county at first.
When Sligo boss Paddy Henry persuaded her back in 2015 she lasted just one session.
“County is not just about physical effort, it’s emotional too, there’s a lot to it and I just wasn’t able. I just couldn’t put my head into it.”
Henry eventually got her back last summer, just before Sligo faced Kildare in an All-Ireland semi-final that was an extra-time thriller, but the Connacht county lost to the eventual champions.
“I was in a different head-space then, it was a year and a half later and I really enjoyed it,” Flanagan reflects. “I’m not saying it was down to county football but it did help. Some of my friends said to me ‘you’ve got your smile back.’ I was enjoying it and there was a good buzz in the squad.
“People often say ‘you’re so strong’ but you don’t feel strong,” she says honestly. “We had a Communion recently and those days are very bad. He’s always missing.
“I often feel just as bad as I did in the beginning. It doesn’t ever go away but you probably don’t stay in it as long as you did before. Grief changes.”
A donor card carrier since her college days, she’d like to raise organ donation awareness and feels Ireland should embrace the ‘opt out’ model.
Crumlin always asks families to consider donation and also offers counselling to bereaved parents and siblings. She’s also keen to highlight the great work done in this area by children’s charity Barretstown in Kildare.
“They have a family bereavement service – three weekend camps, spread over 18 months. It’s tough. You might be with 25 families who’ve all lost a child, all on different journeys.
“But there’s counselling and lots of activities and our kids absolutely loved it. All these amazing volunteers come in to run it and it’s just brilliant.
“Obviously we got referred to Barretstown from Crumlin but not everyone who loses a child is in the hospital system so they might not even know it exists,” she points out.
Life for all the Flanagans has changed irrevocably since losing Ríoghnán but she found her way back to sport and it has been some help.
“I just don’t understand that attitude of giving up football when you get older,” she says. “Once you’re able to keep playing and enjoy it, then why not? If I can still play when I’m 50 I’ll be there.”