From around mid 1999, a common enough sight at hockey games around Dublin was Una McCarthy on the sideline with her double buggy containing twins Michelle and Niamh.
Inevitably enough, after all the cooing and ah-ing, there were declarations along the lines of: “Two future Irish players!”
Fast forward to last Thursday in Pisa and there was some more cooing and ah-ing when the pace of Michelle and Niamh Carey would have left the French defence feeling like they were up against a pair with afterburners in their shoes.
It was the first time they were on the same pitch together in an official senior international, the twins going on to play no small part in Ireland qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
We never really knew which way we were going to go, we loved them all
For those who try to convince themselves they’re still young-ish but remembered the twins in their buggy, it was a chastening experience.
“It was a lovely for our family,” says Michelle, “and it was great that we had a lot of our aunties and uncles there too, to be able to celebrate with us.”
One uncle who was missing, mind, was Larry McCarthy.
“He had a lot on,” Niamh laughs, the GAA president a bit busy with votes on reform of the GAA football championship, and such like.
Anyone who has tracked the twins’ progress through their 22 years wouldn’t have been too surprised to see them reaching the sporting heights. The only challenge was in trying to figure out on which sport they’d focus. Because they’re pretty useful at a heap of them.
Gaelic football and camogie occupied the bulk of their time when they were students at Booterstown’s Coláiste Íosagáin, the pair going on to play for Ballinteer St Johns and the Dublin footballers up to under-16 level. Then there was athletics, Niamh winning the All Ireland Under-19 Cross Country title along the way, and a bit of basketball in their earlier days. Oh, and golf too.
At some point, though, something had to give.
“We would have been juggling everything, we were trying to do it all,” says Michelle. “I liked that, but there does come a time when a choice has to be made.”
“We never really knew which way we were going to go, we loved them all,” says Niamh. “But then a few summers ago the trials for the Dublin minor team and for the Irish under-18s were on the same weekend. We just ended up choosing hockey because the Europeans were coming up and we thought they’d be cool to play in.”
Since then, the focus has been largely on hockey, although when lockdown played havoc with the sporting calendar last year, they had the chance to pull on their Ballinteer shirts again, helping the club to defeat St Jude’s in the Dublin Junior A final.
That was August. A month later they were winning hockey’s Irish Senior Cup with UCD, Michelle making good use of her camogie skills to score one of her team’s goals against Pegasus, lifting the ball on to her stick and juggling it before striking it past the goalkeeper. She wouldn’t have looked out of place in Croke Park.
Unusually enough for senior internationals, the twins never played schools hockey, only taking up the sport as juniors at Railway Union where their mother played and coached.
They proved to be rather useful at it too, working their way through the Irish underage set-up until receiving their senior call-ups.
They both played in several challenge games, but it was Michelle's official debut that came first, in last June's European Championships, the midfielder impressing coach Sean Dancer sufficiently to make it in to the squad for the Olympics where she played against the Netherlands, the eventual champions, and Germany, ranked five in the world.
Niamh, a forward, made her official debut against France last Thursday, marking the occasion with a goal, adding another, that proved to be the winning score, in her second outing against Belarus, a remarkable effort that saw her spinning and scooping the ball home from ground level after being floored by the Belarus goalkeeper.
“I have no idea how that went in,” she laughs.
The French game, she concedes, was the first time she felt she really belonged at this level after being full of doubt after she played Britain and Spain in challenge games earlier in the year.
“I felt so out of my depth, it was such a huge step up, the speed of it especially. With UCD, I’m able to read where players are going to pass the ball, I’m able to intercept and get my stick to it, but playing against GB and Spain, I was always just a split second too slow.”
We're very different players in everything that we do, we've always played different positions
“I was just left wondering if I was good enough for that level. But it’s a question of getting used to it, training your brain to think and react quickly. Athletically, I’d put myself on a par with most of the girls we’d play against, but it’s how quick they think and how they read the game, that’s what you have to train yourself to do too.”
Michelle’s experience was similar.
“I found it very challenging at first, it’s a massive step up, you don’t have any time to make decisions. It’s just what you can do in that moment before the ball is taken off you. But once you play a few games, you adapt to that, and it has gotten easier.”
They’re both in their third year in UCD, Michelle studying biomedical engineering, Niamh going down the chemistry route. They’ve followed identical sporting routes along the way, though, but never worried about being compared.
“We’re very different players in everything that we do, we’ve always played different positions,” says Niamh. “If you went to a Gaelic match we were playing in, you’d definitely say Michelle was the best player on the pitch – I just do the hard work in the background,” she laughs.
“I was never as good as Niamh,” says Michelle, “she’d be winning the race and I’d be back in 50th position.”
So who’s older?
“Me – by two minutes,” says Niamh.
Does that mean Niamh is the boss?
“No, I’d say I am,” says Michelle.
Are you quite different?
“Yeah, Niamh is faster – but I’d be more chilled.”
Niamh, Michelle says she’s more chilled?
“She likes to give that impression ... but I live with her.”
The twins are well past the stage of wearing the same clothes, but after their performances in Pisa, you suspect they’ll both be kitted out in green for some time to come.