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Passion for Kilkenny a family affair for the Farrells of Thomastown

Anna will captain the holders against Cork while three more sisters are on the panel

Kilkenny captain Anna Farrell: “You accept that once you win the All-Ireland, you’re the team to beat.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Anna Farrell can only smile whenever she’s asked if Kilkenny have the same hunger this year as they did going in to last year’s All-Ireland final.

Their first senior title since 1994 didn’t come close to sating their appetite for success, she says, it just left them ravenous for more.

That day in Croke Park, when they finally got their hands on the O’Duffy Cup after a 22-year wait, was sprinkled with special memories, but none stood out more for Farrell than the sight of her parents in the stand after the full-time whistle.

“I looked over to them just to see their faces, and that nearly meant more than anything else,” she says. “I’d say they were the happiest people in the world.”

It was triple joy, too, for Martin and Helen Farrell, who have been involved in the coaching and administrative side of the Thomastown club for the bulk of their lives.

Three of their daughters lined out for Kilkenny that day – along with Anna there was Meighan, Anna’s partner in midfield, and corner-forward Shelly, whose second half goal sent them on the way to victory over Cork.

And at just 17, Eimear was called up to the senior panel earlier this year. Add in Jonjo and his two All-Ireland hurling medals, to date, and you have a family steeped in the sport.

“They gave us everything, camogie, hurling, they had us down playing since we were five or six years old. It’s always been in our family. People say it must be in your blood, we haven’t known anything different. My mam and dad would watch any match, they’d travel to the far side of Kilkenny for an under-14 match. Just a pure love of the game,” says Farrell.

“They brought us all over the country, they’ve come to all of our matches. The last time we were playing Galway in Galway and Jonjo was playing down in Semple Stadium with Kilkenny on the same day, they travelled to both. They’ve given everything to us so every time we win something it just feels like we’re giving a little bit back. So yeah, their faces at the end of last year’s final, that meant everything.”

The sisters would argue that they haven’t given their mother, in particular, too much trouble along the way. It was Meighan, a while back, who recalled her first memory of going to a camogie game.

“My mother was playing and I heard people refer to her as a ‘hatchet woman’, which frightened the life out of me – needless to say we were well behaved children after hearing that.”

Huge competition

One of her parents’ tasks earlier this year was to keep Anna’s spirits up after a shoulder injury ruled her out of the National League campaign, injury also keeping Shelly sidelined for a spell.

“I missed the first five months of training, it was frustrating sitting there watching it, seeing everyone training so hard you’re left wondering if you can get your place back. The younger girls who came in did so well, it gave them the confidence to challenge the rest of us, so you knew you had to be better than before to make the team. There’s huge competition now, which we mightn’t have had before, so that’s driven us on.”

When she returned to action, Anna teamed up with Shelly, Meighan and Eimear to help Thomastown retain their county title against Mullinavat in July, a success that led her to being appointed Kilkenny captain for the championship.

And when she was back in her county colours, she could feel the impact of them having ended that drought the September before.

“The sense of relief was huge. It was like a weight lifted off us. We had come so close without doing it, so maybe people doubted we were capable. We were thinking about it so much instead of just going out and hurling. So once that was gone, we had a lot more freedom in the way that we were playing, there’s been more of an enjoyment to it instead of just slugging through it.

“So yeah, it was relief that we finally won one – and that we were able to give it back to Ann [Downey], Angela [Downey] and Breda [Holmes], for all the work that they do and the belief that they had in us. They’re winners, and they made us winners too.”

“And that’s the motivation now, that feeling of finally winning one last year. You’re standing there looking up at Michelle [Quilty] lifting the cup, there’s no feeling like it, ever. When you go on then playing club you’re using that to drive you one, you want that feeling to last as long as it possibly can. That’s what’s driving us on this year.”

Different position

The shoe, she concedes, is now on the other foot. Having beaten Cork last year and again in April’s League final, Kilkenny will have to bear the burden of the favourites’ tag this time around.

“And usually we’re the underdog coming in against Cork, so, yeah, it’s a different position to be in. We were able to use that as ammunition last year, they have it now. But you accept that once you win the All-Ireland, you’re the team to beat. But we’re just going to go out and play what’s in front of us, whatever’s there we’ll give absolutely everything.”

The Farrell sisters might well have to give it everything even before leaving home for Dublin this weekend. A year ago, as they headed out the door, their father called for their assistance when two of his bulls escaped from the farm on to the road. With an All-Ireland final to play, none of the sisters thought this wise, but they joined in the rounding-up effort any way.

“At least it took their minds off the match, so they were grand,” said Helen.

“The problem is,” says Anna, “Dad now seems to want to move them on match days – he thinks that it’s an omen, that we have to do it. I’m hoping they’ll stay in this year, but…..”.

Who’s scarier, the bulls or Cork?

“Oh, the bulls. If you can face them down, there’s no one going to intimidate you.”