In the days after Ireland played the Czech Republic in the European championship qualifiers, people began to tell Claire Melia how much their daughters had enjoyed watching the team on television. The sight of an Irish women's basketball team live on television – it was a novel experience for a new generation of basketball players.
The Czech Republic, composed of full-time professional players scattered around Europe, won 70-54. It was a steep gradient for a young Irish team revolving around the exceptional generation which claimed a European silver medal place at the U-18 championships in 2017.
Melia is not yet a household name in Irish sport but within basketball circles she has long been recognised as a phenomenon. She grew up in Monasterevin when the town had no basketball court and was primarily a Gaelic footballer until the age of 16. Over the next six years, her startling potential in basketball brought her from an over-achieving schools team in Rathangan ("we got to All-Ireland finals every year, I think, even though most of the girls were footballers playing for enjoyment and the craic") to a division-one scholarship with St Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
Now she is back in Ireland, studying in Carlow IT and playing with Glanmire, the Cork Super League club crowded with prestige players. It's been a hectic few years for a player who is as laconic as it gets off the court. She was Ireland's top scorer in both qualifying games, against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Melia is listed as 6ft 3in and has a strong inside game, but was nonetheless dwarfed alongside Julia Resingerova, Czech's imposing centre.
“Yeah. And her strength is her main thing – she didn’t dribble much or do anything fancy. That’s what you want too – you don’t need someone showing off when they can just do the job,” says Melia. “I’d rather play games like that against better teams. We are such a young team and if the right players are picked over the next three or four years we can get up to a higher standard.”
Everything about Melia’s sports life is underlined by a vitally independent spirit. Had she persevered along expected lines, she would be in her sophomore year with St Joseph’s now. She left after her first or freshman year but not for the usual reasons.
“That is the thing, people probably said, ‘oh, she probably wasn’t able for the workload or was homesick.’ I certainly wasn’t homesick because my family was over every couple of weeks. And I thought myself that if I did come home it would have been for that because I am a complete homebird. I was getting court time and I was treated grand. But I just hated seeing friends being upset over the game.”
It was what she felt to be an emotionally bruising culture that prompted her to leave. Melia’s first year was a personal triumph – she scored 18 points in her debut game and wasn’t remotely fazed by the scale of American college sport. But as the season progressed, she could see that several of her team-mates were enduring an intensely miserable experience.
“It was just seeing how upset they were after training or after games. I used to hate that. I hate to see people being treated badly. I wouldn’t care if it was me. I’d nearly take it instead of them, like. But the way they were so upset over a game of basketball at the age they are at, 19 and 20, those are the years in your life that you make memories, not crying after every training over a sport.
“Just the different treatment of players – if you didn’t get court time, you had to get up early the next morning for extra work and then go training with the rest of the team. I don’t know. It just didn’t sit well with me. And I understand they had to stay because it is so expensive to go to college there. But I had something to come back to here. I talk to the girls now still and they are saying some things have changed.
“Hopefully it has made a bit of a difference. I said what I thought at that time. And it was hard saying it all out in front of the coaches that had given so much. But just the way the players were treated . . . all the good stuff up on social media but people didn’t see the real side of it.”
All of this is delivered in easygoing midlands-ese so it’s easy to glide over the essence of what she did: at 21 years old and as a scholarship student, she called the coaching system out – and then left. She has no regrets. From the beginning, sport was about enjoyment as much as intense competition. She credits her early years playing Gaelic football on what was ostensibly a boys’ team for giving her an edge in toughness and physical strength.
“There were three girls on our team but we were the full-back, the midfielder and full-forward,” she says.
A few other small towns in the midlands had a similarly mixed system. She delighted in watching the boys who marked her for the first time get over their reservations about “hurting” her once she clattered into them.
“You’d know at the start they’d nearly be afraid to go in – until they realised we were going in full force. Even at training, the lads didn’t care that we were girls. They just laid into us. But that’s what you wanted. You didn’t want to be treated any differently. I think it was one of the best times in my sporting career. You can give a good belt of whatever. I wouldn’t be that big into strength and conditioning but that experience felt like a natural way of building up strength. The physicality in football and basketball helped me to get strong.”
Her sisters Sharon and Sinead both played football with Kildare. Claire played up to minor, when her involvement with Ireland underage teams deepened her dedication to basketball. She pauses for a second when asked about the sportspeople she looked up to. She realises that she had no obvious reference points in women's sports. She never saw them.
"You ask that and the first person that comes into my head is Kieran Donaghy, " she says. "If there was a women's football match on television I'd watch it but I probably didn't know the players. My sisters would have. In basketball, the likes of Rachael Vanderwal . . . I remember seeing her play at the arena with UL. And then Claire Rockall and Aine O'Connor [both international and Glanmire team-mates] – I know they are not much older but I looked up to them because they were such natural players."
She had heard of Susan Moran, the Tullamore woman who made Irish basketball history by playing in the NBA. But Moran left Ireland in 1999 – the year Melia was born. Her parents were habitual spectators at all games involving their daughters and ceaseless fundraisers for the Ireland underage teams for which she played. When US opportunities began to present themselves to Melia, the advice was simple. The brochures and images were of basketball on a grand scale: sleek, polished gymnasiums, state of the art facilities – the real deal.
“Daddy always said to me that it is still a wooden floor and a basket at either end. And you are still playing a girl with two arms and two legs. I always keep that in my head.”
And it didn’t take her long to recognise that despite the glossy facilities, women’s sport in the US is automatically relegated to second class.
“It was always hard to get a ticket for the men’s games even though they mightn’t have been doing as well as us.”
She sometimes wonders – wishes – that more people would just show up to see women’s sport in general. When her Ireland underage team went on a roll, the arena gradually became more and more full. It was thrilling and felt like they had achieved a kind of visibility. The challenge now is to remain visible on a more consistent basis. One of the vexing aspects of the recent Ireland senior games is that the national women’s team must wait a full year until their next schedule of games.
For now, she keeps busy. Melia has vague plans to turn professional at some stage. But the family was dealt a terrible blow when their mother, Shirley, passed away in September. It made her decision to return home from the US seem all for the better. Basketball – her team-mates, her friends, the games – have been a distraction. The domestic basketball season is in full throttle and that’s enough for Melia just now.
“My plan was to finish college this year and then see. I’m a bit laid-back about things like that,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason, so we’ll see.”