Tuesday 22 August 2017

Comment: Let's hear it for Camogie - Ireland's unsung sport

Declan Bogue

IT was the smell of a buttery French sponge Madeleine cake that triggered a series of involuntary memories in the author Marcel Proust.

It took him back to a Sunday morning in the bedroom of his aunt Léonie. His state of reverie prompted him to start a seven-volume novel; 'In Search of Lost Time' that he worked on for 18 years.

As he wrote; 'this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?'

I hear ya, Marcel. Oxtail soup does it for me.

I cannot hear the word Oxtail, or see it in a packet on a supermarket shelf without being transported back to the dizzying upper tier of the old Cusack Stand, Croke Park, in the late 80's.

I am there with my cousin Patrick Moran. Hardy footballer in the parish league. Gruff. Cool.

He is on his fourth cup and I am feeling queasy at the richness of the gloop at half-time of a Kilkenny-Cork All-Ireland camogie final. Always, Kilkenny and Cork.

Home entertainment systems were not seductive enough to tether you to the couch. Not when there was the chance of a bus, Croke Park, oxtail soup and an All-Ireland camogie final. Not to mention the chippy pit-stop in Kells on the way home, while the adults got good country feeding across the road in The Headfort Arms.

It was an annual pilgrimage. Some members of St Matthew's camogie club - for whom my mother played for - would double up with others that sang in the Chapel choir. The driving force was Fr Marron, the parish priest, who was also the trainer of St Matthew's and 'Camogie Pat', the name given to distinguish this Pat Cox from 'Plumber Pat' and Politician Pat' in the parish. 

150 yards from my homeplace is Mullanaskea Primary School, where Fr Marron made St Matthew's run laps of the pitch, grumbling all the while for them to stop the idle chat of where they were dancing at the weekend.

The wins of Slaughtneil and Eglish at the weekend delighted me far more than had any right to. They acted as a Madeleine cake that spilled a thousand memories.

So too did a wonderful essay in the Irish Examiner last week by Eimear Ryan on what it is to be a camogie player.

'Team sport does something to a girl,' she explained.

'You get to think about your body in terms of what it can do, rather than how it looks. You become more engine than ornament. It is the only context in which I have ever been praised for aggression.

'Team sport confers on women opportunities usually only given to men: the chance to face fears, take risks, and get hurt without serious consequences.'

The essay was published in the same week as Aisling Daly announced her retirement from the world of Mixed Martial Arts, a 29-year-old woman left with a brain scan telling her there were remnants of a brain haemorrhage.

And still, while camogie can't get a look in with the media, the ghastly world of UFC is exploited by those without scruples, chasing the click-bait numbers.

In our house, there were numerous hurls lying around the place, stamped with the name 'Finian Baker', a Newtownbutler hurley-maker who was another Fermanagh camogie diehard.

My mother was a player of some renown. Her parents hadn't much, but they had enough to sponsor the Fermanagh camogie Championship; 'The O'Connor Cup.'

One time she brought her then four children along to a final played in Lisnaskea against Newtownbutler. She was forced out of retirement to play full-forward. Her father Eddie labelled her 'The Bomber' as she plundered a couple of goals in the win, her timing impeccable as she doubled on a rolling ball.

In her working life, she was employed as a camogie and hurling coach for the Fermanagh District Council, travelling around schools in a Yellow Datsun, opening the boot and letting the children fight over the least mouldy ashplants.

Like the world, the GAA was a very different place. There was no talk of 'the fixtures crisis', because carnivals, sports days and club tournaments kept players in more games than they knew what to do with, prior to the infestation of insurance policy and claim culture.

A few years back, she and her sister-in-law arranged a camogie reunion in memory of the recently deceased Camogie Pat. I was pressed into being referee.

Old habits die hard. After whistling for a free I heard one woman mutter, 'ye bitch ye' under her breath to her assailant. They all threw a few pound in afterwards and presented it to a former team mate who was in poor health.

Today is the first day of February; 'Imbolc' (which means 'in the belly', referring to the pregnancy of ewes in old Irish Neolithic language), signifying the start of the Celtic spring and perhaps, an inspiration in the making among the camogie tribes of Slaughtneil and Eglish.

It's otherwise known as the Feast of Brigid; who my mother (Veronica Bridget) was named after.

Happy birthday, mum.

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