Battling against the odds to spread the camogie gospel
When the Kerry camogie team take to the pitch today for the All-Ireland Premier Junior final, it will be a unique occasion: there is only one senior club represented, meaning they are essentially a club team stepping up to represent their county.
Caoimhe Shanahan, from the Causeway club, is the only player not from Clanmaurice in the starting 15 for the Kingdom today as they face Dublin, the county with the largest population in the country.
It is only just over a decade since Kerry camogie really started to develop with Mary O'Connor, now CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport, at the helm.
"I did some research and drove down to Kerry. I called to primary schools with notices about meetings," explained O'Connor who was working for the Camogie Association at the time. "I went to parishes, I put notices in newsletters, I got it called out from the altar at Mass, all old-school methods, things were different back then.
"I went around to different people like chairpersons of GAA clubs to see if they would be amenable to camogie clubs using their facilities. They agreed to welcome them, so that was a big thing.
"Essentially I organised nights in community halls and hoped and prayed that they would turn up and they did. It's quite an equipment-heavy sport so we created a bank of hurleys and helmets so parents wouldn't have to worry about that.
"There was a lot of coaching going in from the Kerry County Board for hurling that girls could avail of too, but we needed something for them for after school.
"So I went down and gave a presentation, asked the people at the meetings if they were interested in setting up the club and asked them to volunteer for roles and that was the start of it. The Limerick County Board were very helpful and they facilitated the Kerry clubs playing in their competitions."
At that time, Patrice Diggin took up the sport. Prior to that she had hurled with the boys but she never had a team of her own to play with. Now Diggin isn't just the best player in Kerry, she is one of the best in the country and her three Ashbourne Cup medals are a testament to that. Throw in a Player of the Match award in the 2016 final, as well as her captaining the team, and there is no doubting that she can mix it with the best.
"It was great playing camogie in college, the girls made it so easy," said Diggin. "They weren't looking down on you because you were from Kerry or anything, they were so helpful and really enabled me to play to my potential.
"There was two of us from Kerry and the first two or three sessions we were so nervous we just stood back from everyone, but once we got into the swing of it we were happy out. We were still only coming with Kerry at that point, and when I was in UL I was able to learn things that I could bring back to the club and the county."
Last year Diggin was named Munster GAA's Camogie Player of the Year after leading her club Clanmaurice to an All-Ireland final and replay.
Although it was a great achievement it also means that with the club and the county being one, the players pretty much train all year round. Diggin would love to see her team win today and move up to the next grade, but it won't be easy for them, even if that happens. They no longer play in Limerick so there is a lack of opportunity and games for the girls in the county.
"Our problem is that we don't have the competitions and therefore the numbers underage coming through the ranks are limited. There is always going to be just one senior team. At the moment there won't be two club teams because we don't have the competition here, and because there are no competitions we are losing girls at 15 and 16 and we are not getting them back.
"They are trying their best but it's the lack of competition, we were playing in Limerick up along, but that's gone. I know girls who this year have played no camogie, there are a few of them playing with the county - once they leave under-14 there is nothing until they play senior again.
"Ideally I'd like to be playing in Limerick still but that's not what they want, they think we should be standing on our own feet. Our club had got up to senior there. We weren't winning much but every girl was getting a match, whereas now a girl sitting on the sideline today might have got very little game time this year because of that."
Diggin feels very strongly about the future of the sport in her county, but today she is focused on one thing and one thing only - winning an All-Ireland.
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