The past few years have thrown up an almost unimaginable mix of highs and lows for Aisling Donoher, but the Laois footballer admitted last weekend was “really, really special”.
The Timahoe full-back made a triumphant return to the inter-county scene after a three-year break when Laois claimed the intermediate All-Ireland title in Croke Park on Sunday.
Seen as a rock-solid defender and inspirational leader, Donoher made her debut in 2005. Her absence from the Laois team was felt when she stepped away before the birth of her first child, Dan.
Donoher (32) and her husband, Niall, were already known for their inter-county exploits with Laois, but during the first Covid-19 lockdown Dan became a household name, thanks to a fundraiser for him.
The #DoItForDan campaign generated €3.3m to help the couple’s son – who has type one spinal muscular atrophy – receive an infusion of the gene therapy drug Zolgensma.
“I think, not just for us but for the whole country, the fundraiser was nearly a distraction – it brought people together,” Donoher said.
“It was described to us as a movement. It was just fabulous – the goodwill and the kindness from the whole country and beyond was remarkable.”
However, in the summer of 2020, the family received the devastating news that Dan had contracted a rare virus that caused him to develop antibodies that would prevent the Zolgensma treatment being successful.
Donoher described the news as “gut-wrenching and heart-breaking” and said the focus was now on keeping Dan “as healthy and as strong as possible” in the hope that one day a new treatment will be developed.
Last August, she and her husband welcomed their second child, a girl they named Sophie. Before the start of the 2022 season, Donoher got a call from the Laois ladies’ manager, Donie Brennan, asking if she wanted to come back.
For someone who knows the demands of county football all too well, she did not think she “would have the time” and admitted she “thought that day was well and truly over”.
“Niall said, ‘If it’s something you’d like to do, we’ll make it work’.,” she said. “He’s the most selfless person I’ve ever met, and I couldn’t have done it without him.
“He was the driving force behind me going back, along with my parents and Niall’s parents and our families.”
With a support structure in place, Donoher returned to training and was encouraged to “keep going” by her manager and teammates throughout her comeback.
How lucky I am that I get to run out on to a pitch and play football with my friends
She recalled how she was “at the back of the runs” and “could barely do a push-up” during pre-season.
However, fast-forward to last weekend, and the No 3 was named player of the match in the 1-13 to 1-11 victory over Wexford.
Donoher said she “could not wait” to hold her children after the final whistle, and the officials in Croke Park arranged for Dan, who uses a wheelchair, to meet her at the tunnel.
The day before, Dan and several other children with additional needs had their Little Blue Heroes Garda graduation ceremony. Donoher said their bravery is an endless source of inspiration.
“It was a really, really special weekend and so emotional,” she said. “You just sit back and watch all these kids and they’re just the bravest little children with what they go through.
“How lucky I am that I get to run out on to a pitch and play football with my friends. It was just a very special day to be there with them.”
Now the focus turns to the club scene, where she gets to play with her “life-long pals”.
On Tuesday night, the Laois ladies got together for dinner and drinks and looked back on the final, which Donoher said she could watch “10 times over”.