Thursday 17 January 2019

Ní Chasaide looks to family roots for final inspiration

Slaughtneil star will have her late father's memory close to her heart as they bid for back-to-back titles

Slaughtneil's Eílís Ní Chaiside
Slaughtneil's Eílís Ní Chaiside

Declan Bogue

This time last year, Slaughtneil camogie player Eilis Ní Chasaide was preparing for the biggest game of her life - an All-Ireland final against Sarsfields of Galway - but her personal preparations were below par.

The reason behind that was the loss of her father, Thomas, some months before. As the main man in the revival of hurling and camogie in the club, his shadow cast long over the build-up.

Reminders were everywhere. Even their joint-manager, Antrim's hurling manager Dominic 'Woody' McKinley, was an old friend of Thomas' and got involved with the club camogs on his request.

"Even the week before the match, I was really, really feeling it due to the fact he wasn't there and the amount of work and effort he put in, but I think that is a reflection of the work that went before that," she says.

"I didn't know why but I felt really weak in the lead up to the match and the day of the match, I was fine. Felt really strong."

Strong enough to put in a big performance, as they edged out a narrow tussle and became the first club from Derry, and only the second in Ulster after Antrim's O'Donovan Rossa, to land a club senior All-Ireland title.

Yet, there wouldn't have been a camogie team to represent the club if it hadn't have been for Thomas Cassidy's efforts in reviving the small ball codes.

Eilis achieved an All-Ireland with sisters, team captain Aoife, and Brona, while brothers Sean and Eanna have been prominent hurlers in the club in their recent rise.

"I know all my life, we would have been encouraged to play hurling as well, because he (Thomas) would have been the manager," is her reflection on how she started playing camogie.

"There are a lot of the players that would have played under him in one way or another, so he would have been heavily involved."

That journey comes into sharp focus on weeks like these, when the prospect of playing for it all beckons as the Ulster queenpins face Sarsfields in Clones tomorrow for their second consecutive club final.

The wing-forward says: "You think, you go out to play at the highest level and you win a county championship and last year, going on to win Ulster, which was a massive win on our behalf.

"We would have been beaten before in finals and we just couldn't get over that line of the Ulster final.

"We went on to win the All-Ireland and it was the Holy Grail really. It's something you dream of but never actually think you will actually get there."

The germ of the dream began out on the back garden. Growing up, the Cassidys needed plenty of room for their seven children and so their lawn was fashioned to become a mini-hurling field.

Mother Anne Marie had been a player of some renown in her youth for Slaughtneil and taught the basics to her children.

In time, local children in the area could be found up at the Cassidy homestead, where puck-arounds were transformed into epics of their time, preserved in stories and memories and the odd window pane replaced.

Camogie has been steadily gaining mainstream respect over the last few years.

Last week, the ever-popular TG4 series 'Laochra Gael' featured Cork icon Ashling Thompson and the reaction on social media was phenomenal.

It has been through those mediums, believes Ní Chasaide, that camogie, and ladies football, have made strides in promoting their games rather than fighting for space in traditional forms.

"Social media and that side of promotion has really done its job in that people are talking about it more often," she points out.

"It is publicised in a way that affects everybody and so people are aware of when and where matches are on, who is playing.

"Whereas in the past, people would have been relying on the press or club notes, either of the match just played or a forthcoming match.

"So I think anybody who lives in the 21st Century, everything is accessible at the touch of a screen. But yes, the likes of the sponsorship at county level, ladies football and camogie, has done wonders for the game and it is helping the promotion at grassroots level.

"The highest ever attendance was held there for the ladies football finals in Croke Park, the biggest attendance in Europe, even bigger than the (women's) World Cup that was held so I think that is a massive reflection of the work that is ongoing."

If camogie is getting more respect, it reflects the work that the players are doing.

In getting themselves right for this game, the Slaughtneil players have been touring round Ulster, training at venues such as Magherafelt and the Dunloy Centre of Excellence as their own pitch had become over-burdened.

Just like the hurling fraternity, they had their weekends away to play challenge matches against suitable opponents in the heartlands of the game.

They are training three times weekly on the pitch and, on top of that, there is an expectation that they would fit in two gym sessions, concentrating on body weight exercises in order to avoid injury.

The margins between the top teams in club camogie are wafer-thin. All four All-Ireland semi-finalists this year were the same as last year.

Slaughtneil were brought to extra-time by Kilkenny's Thomastown and there was a mere point in it between Sarsfields and Tipperary's Burgess-Durrha.

They say it is easier to chase than to set the pace, but Slaughtneil are fuelled by the desire of what a back-to-back title might mean; universal respect.

"I think we are definitely in a very strong position at the minute," adds Ní Chasaide. "For a long number of years, the time, the input from others, has allowed this to come to fruition now.

"Last year was amazing. I just think to come back this year has been unbelievable, you couldn't have imagined it. So we will be out there with all our might and strength to win it back to back."

Irish Independent

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