Camógie like a religion for Kilkenny's great sister act
The Farrell sisters are full of fun but take their chosen sport very seriously
Whether religious conviction or mere rites of passage are the motivation, most Irish families celebrate Holy Communions and Confirmation, when every child is licked spick and span and on their best behaviour.
Those days just usually ended less decorously on the Farrell dairy farm in Thomastown.
"Whenever we were having family gatherings with all the cousins - like Communions or Confirmations - everyone was just told to bring their hurls with them," reveals Kilkenny senior camogie captain Anna Farrell.
"We'd have proper games out in the garden afterwards and they weren't friendly because we were all so competitive. There was no holding back!"
Wexford hurlers Diarmuid and Ciarán Lyng were usually in the thick of them. "They were a fair bit bigger than us," she grins, the twinkle in her eye hinting that the Farrell sisters relished any chance they got to clatter into their famous first cousins from across the hurling border. They've found fame themselves since and three of them will start when Kilkenny hope to retain their All-Ireland senior title against Cork tomorrow.
Their only brother Jonjo (29) also plays senior for Kilkenny and, like most GAA dynasties, there's another one coming up fast on the rails. Eimear is still only 17 but starred off the bench when Thomastown won their first Leinster senior club camogie title last winter. Their father won a Kilkenny senior title with Thomastown and their mother, from Bennettsbridge, also played underage for the county. Their parents are still immersed in the club and supporting them, even on those crazy days when their talented brood tips the family petrol-tank into the red.
"In the last two years a lot of our matches have been on the same day," Shelly says. "They travelled from one of our games in Galway this year straight down to Semple Stadium to watch Jonjo."
Their daughters suffered a heap of heartbreak before Kilkenny broke their 22-year-old All-Ireland senior duck a year ago.
Shelly lost back-to-back senior finals in 2013-'14 and the three of them lost two All-Irelands in one day in 2014, though defeat to Limerick in that intermediate final pushed Anna and Meighan on to the next level. Anna and Shelly shared a house with county team-mates Katie Power and Denise Gaule for two years but the girls are living back home at present.
Anna is a fraud analyst with Bank of Ireland in Loughboy, Shelly is an accounts technician with local accountancy firm Cullinane O'Neill Duncan and Meighan has just finished a degree in early childhood studies at WIT. Meg and Jonjo are more likely to volunteer on the farm. "Myself and Anna sometimes have to step into the gaps if they need to move the cows," Shelly chirps.
"Or cover the silage," interrupts Anna in mock-horror. "Dad always finds us for that. I think he deliberately waits until we come home to do it. You'd be trying to say you're injured or something!"
They are the best of friends barring one small area of contention. "Clothes. That's the only thing we fight over," Shelly says. "That's because everyone's wearing mine and won't buy their own!" "It's true," Anna giggles. "She's half the size of us but we still do it. I just don't like buying clothes whereas she loves it."
On-pitch they do completely different jobs for Kilkenny.
Anna (26) is the wiry midfield general, Shelly (25) is the zippy corner-forward and half-back Meighan (22) is unshakeable, in every sense of the word. "Meg is pretty laid-back but when she's playing she is just dogged, a terrier," Anna says. "It's impossible to get away from her. No one ever wants to mark her in training."
Of herself she concedes: "I don't think any of us likes to lose, we're all very competitive, but I'd probably be the worst loser."
Does being siblings help them click on a pitch? "I think we link up well together," Shelly reckons."One of the girls would always be running off my shoulder and I'd know I'm getting the ball inside.
"But I give out a few harsh words to them," she confesses ruefully."I'm the worst for that, even with the club. "Yes!" Anna chuckles. "Shelly doesn't suffer fools gladly, though when it's your sister you don't take it to heart."
They're bubbly and great fun off the pitch but all three have the sort of relentless drive and work ethic on it that mirrors doughty Cats manager Ann Downey in her prime. "Shelly's best characteristc is her absolute determination in everything she does," Anna remarks."If she's only on one leg she'll still drive on." And hers?
"She gets on with everyone wherever she goes and especially now she's captain," Shelly remarks."The new girls on the team would always say Anna is so nice and approachable."
They felt the public tide turning last summer, and not just because they rose as the county's hurlers sank. "Having the semi-finals before the men's replay with Waterford was the change," adds Anna. "Both went to extra-time, lots of people saw our second half and I think that opened people's eyes to camogie in Kilkenny.
And Shelly's favourite moment? The photo hangs on the wall at home: three sisters lifting the O'Duffy Cup together. A special moment for the Farrells and all the hurling cousins who loved those Holy Communion games.