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Saturday 18 January 2020

'It takes a toll - I'm wrecked a lot of the time' - how GAA and farming no longer work

Lorraine Keena juggles dairy and sheep farming with playing football and camogie for Offaly. Photo: James Flynn
Lorraine Keena juggles dairy and sheep farming with playing football and camogie for Offaly. Photo: James Flynn
John Galvin played senior football for Limerick for over 15 years from 1999 to 2014, but says such a career would no longer be possible for a full-time farmer

Juggling life as a farmer with a top inter-county football, hurling or camoige career has become "almost impossible" for players of the modern game, Limerick legend John Galvin has warned.

After spending 15 years sprinting from farmyard to pitch, the retired footballer says "how I ever managed it I don't know".

He says the extreme level of commitment involved at county level today is unattractive and unrealistic to young farmers - even those who may be hugely talented.

It's a sentiment Lorraine Keena, an Offaly football and camoige star, who milks 126 cows twice a day, on her own, can identify with.

She also manages a flock of 90 Suffolk cross, Belclare cross and pedigree Charollais rams on her family farm in Ballycumber, and combines all this farming activity with county training five nights a week.

Speaking to the Farming Independent the 27-year-old captain of the Offaly's senior ladies football team admits it is difficult to manage it all. "I won't lie, it's tough. Time management is key, especially during peak season when the ewes are lambing and the cows were calving," she said.

Lorraine, who studied agricultural science at Waterford IT, says in order to make training and matches on time "everything has to run like clock-work".

"On a typical day I'm up and gone by 6am, I've the cows milked on my neighbours farm that I manage by 10 and be back up for breakfast. Then, depending on what's going on at home I might have to weigh lambs for the factory, then I go back to milk the cows around 3pm.

"I can't go any later because I'd be late for training. I'd be home around 6.30/7pm, everything running smoothly, get something quick to eat and be out the door and gone training for 7.30pm and I'd be home around 9.30/10pm, get something to eat, shower and go to bed," she said.

She believes her farming experience has contributed to her sporting ability and success. Offaly recently reached the preliminary round of the All-Ireland qualifiers in football and All-Ireland quarter finals in the Camoige Championship,.

"I've a slim build but I'm physically strong. It helps carrying bags of meal around, I'm that bit stronger than most girls," she said.

However, she is considering dropping one sport next year due to the pressures of farming and playing at the highest level.

"Right now, it's crazy I don't have any time to myself, every evening I'm going somewhere and it's taking it's toll, I'm just wrecked and fatigued a lot of the time," she said.

John Galvin believes the demise of GAA players with strong farming backgrounds is a great disadvantage to the GAA as "natural strength" has been replaced by "gym strength".

Looking back, the full-time beef and tillage farmer from Croom, Limerick, says sharing the work load with his father John, and brother Shay was vital to his sporting success which led him to captain Limerick's under-21 side to Munster championship glory in 2000 and All-Star nominations in 2004, 2009 and 2010.

Although he cherishes every minute he donned his county colours, John vividly remembers the hardship involved.

"If I was farming on my own there is no possible way I could have ever played county football, that's straight up, I wouldn't have been able to manage it.

I was always under pressure, training was at 7.30, but it was always half past by the time I got there with buckets of sweat pouring off you trying to get there on time. I suppose the only thing about the earlier years is that we didn't train as often," said John who joined the Limerick senior panel when he was 18.

"Before training I was always feeding cattle, fencing, spreading fertilisers, spreading slurry, cutting corn, cutting silage it depends on the time of year but as the day goes on with farming things crop up and things go wrong, machines break down and that changes your plan," he said.

Energy was an issue.

During peak season, John was often at silage or corn until 3am, would get back up at 7am, work all day and go to training at 7pm that evening.

"When I'd arrive out onto the field I'd barely have the energy to do the warm up never mind go through a whole session, I always did it but I'd just collapse into the bed when I got home. I've often been on the farm on Sunday morning from 7am to 11 and gone away to play a match then," he said.

In the early years, he says county teams, on average, trained two evenings a week and once over the weekend, either a session or a game. Although he was training less, he was always trying to fit farming around matches.

"Trying to get away for training or a match when you're at silage or corn was very tricky throughout my entire career.

"You'd be trying to fit the farming and matches in around training. If we had a match on a Saturday or Sunday you'd try to work it so that if you were going at silage it would be put off until the Monday," he said.

Although John, who retired last year, rarely missed training or a match, if he did it was due to farming.

He also found the natural strength he could build from hard manual labour on his 400 acres of tillage, 200 acres of grass and a cattle herd of up 500 much more beneficial than spending hours in the gym.

"Gym got bigger and bigger as the years went on and I didn't attend a whole pile of sessions because I am naturally fairly strong. I am in a physical job so I didn't need the gym work as much as other people, that's one thing I never had the time to do," he said.

"You see footballers now and they get their strength from going to the gym but the old style naturally strong footballer is a different kind of strength and it's a stronger strength really in my opinion," he says.

John believes many managers would rather have 20 naturally strong footballers than have to create strength in the gym.

He says it's unfortunate for the GAA that potential star players are being lost due to the high level of commitment in farming.

"As the years went on in my career, training started earlier -we started training at 11am on a Saturday right bang in the middle of my working day. Current systems of training at inter-county only suits someone working 9-5.

"It's not based on someone working longer hours or someone working Saturdays or in the mornings, that is not taken into account at all because there are so few players at it," he said.

John, who praises the patience of his wife Liane, says if he was to start again today he wouldn't be able for it.

"Farming is a massive commitment in itself and GAA is another massive commitment and at the end of the day your income comes from your farm and that has to be number one," he said.

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