By Daragh Ó Conchúir
Spring is all about rebirth and renewal, and rural dwellers in particular can revel in all sorts of neophytes attacking life with playful vigour and fearlessness.
Foals, chicks, lambs, calves. You name it, the instincts are the same. A complete lack of inhibition comes to the fore, based on an ignorance of dangers, threats and the myriad of things that can go wrong. Everywhere you look, the newcomers are expressing themselves with glee.
To that end, the National Leagues always feel like they feature at the right time of the year, with managers happily giving youth its head. Many fail to progress, of course, but the stars of the future are born in this environment.
Clíona Healy is among a cohort that has infused Cork with fresh momentum, having been a star of the underage ranks, sharing an All-Ireland minor triumph with Laura Hayes and Saoirse McCarthy in 2018 and going on to complete a rare double with the duo by adding intermediate honours in Croke Park just a few months later.
All three were fast-tracked to the senior squad by Paudie Murray. Hayes made the most immediate impact and McCarthy established herself on the opposite wing of the half-back line as the Rebels reached last year’s All-Ireland senior final.
Healy produced many strong cameos in that period but this season, she looks to have finally cemented a starting role.
Such was the confidence new boss Matthew Twomey and coach Davy Fitzgerald placed in the Aghabullogue tyro that she was placed on free-taking duty and she has delivered in spades.
A third year teaching student in Mary I College, she has been doing a bit of subbing at Coachford College, the camogie nursery she attended herself and in whose colours she played in an All-Ireland junior final. She smiles at the enthusiasm she sees now as training is ramping up for this year’s schools’ competitions.
Healy’s horizons have expanded of course and now, the focus is on the Littlewoods Ireland Camogie League Division 1 final back at Croke Park (throw-in 7pm – live on RTÉ 2). Galway, the team that broke their hearts on Jones’ Road last September when three points separated them, bar their way to a first title since 2013.
But she recalls her wide-eyed reaction to making the senior set-up.
“When I was growing up and younger, I would have looked up to Orla Cotter and Briege Cotter and the Mackey’s (Katrina and Pamela) and Gemma O’Connor, Ashling Thompson and people like them. When I got the call-up, I was going in to play with them. It’s a bit surreal. You are used to looking at them on TV and now all of a sudden you are inside in the dressing room with them.
“They were so good to us younger ones. They would be telling us things and giving us advice. It was just really cool to be inside there with them. When you are small you looked up to them and then you are playing with them so it’s brilliant.”
Of course they wouldn’t give an inch on the pitch so the battle for a starting berth was hot. It still is, so Healy certainly isn’t taking anything for granted, despite her consistently high scoring return as well as the general brio with which she is operating.
“We are working so hard at training. When there is a lot of competition for places it pushes you and everyone is pushing. I am just so lucky to get the chance to be on the starting 15 for the games that I have gotten on for them.”
Healy’s pride in Aghabullogue is evident. The north west Cork parish has overachieved since the dawn of Gaelic games, providing the county with its first All-Ireland hurling title in 1890, when Dan Drew and Pat Buckley were to the fore.
The Healy’s have been “steeped” in the club over the years.
“It’s a long standing tradition in our family. I would have no choice but to play growing up. I was dragged along to all of the matches in the back of the car but I wasn’t complaining and I love it.
“The club are so supportive. We have three girls with the seniors. There is myself, Emma (Flanagan) and Méadhbh (Ring) in this year. Aoife Barrett was playing full-back with the Cork minors that won the All-Ireland. Our club would be fierce supportive of the Cork players in football as well like with Ciara McCarthy. Ciara was on the camogie panel and so was Katie McCarthy but she did her cruciate last year. So it’s brilliant for a small club. But they are putting in fierce work at the underage so it’s going from strength to strength.”
But it isn’t all about the environment, or indeed DNA from one side. Healy’s mother, Eileen starred when Cork won the All-Ireland junior title at Croke Park in 1996 and added a senior medal to her collection two years later.
“Mam played in the backs and Dad played in the forwards. I think Mam won player of the match in the junior but she wouldn’t be telling you anything like that. But we are steeped in it.”
She is forever thankful to Murray for bringing her through and hails his huge impact on not just Cork but the game of camogie. Now, Twomey and Fitzgerald are in situ. Twomey is the steady hand on the rudder, having served as a selector with Murray last year. It says a lot for his lack of ego that he was willing to bring someone of Fitzgerald’s profile. A stronger message on the primacy of the unit could not be delivered.
Healy admits to a feeling of excitement when hearing that the former Clare, Waterford and Wexford hurling manager was going to be working with them.
“We couldn’t believe that he was coming down. It’s really good in terms of camogie as a whole to have someone as established like that getting involved. I don’t know if a lot of people know it, but he has actually trained a good few camogie teams. He was training Clare.
“We are delighted with him. He is really good. Obviously, he is a great coach and he has loads of experience. He has won everything that he can as a manager and a player so he is bringing a wealth of knowledge to it. We are learning new things. And he is bringing in different ideas and he is always open to look if we have ideas. We are just delighted to have him down with us and are enjoying it.”
It needed a Chloe Sigerson point from a long-distance free to secure a draw with defending champions Kilkenny in the group stages and edge a spot in the final on score difference. It was nice to come through a dogfight of that nature with plenty at stake but Galway present an even tougher challenge.
“Obviously when you lose an All-Ireland final it’s awful because no one wants to be on the losing side of an All-Ireland. I think we took learnings from it. It’s a new year now and that is in the past. We are just concentrating on ourselves and working hard.
“Any day you get to play in Croke Park it’s brilliant. We don’t get to play there too often. Cork haven’t won a league title in a good few years so it would be great to do it. Galway are All-Ireland champions and they are brilliant. We are just looking forward to it.”