Wednesday 21 March 2018

'We're all kind of collectively stubborn'

Hopper’s daughters: Galway’s Orlaith, Clodagh and Niamh McGrath
Hopper’s daughters: Galway’s Orlaith, Clodagh and Niamh McGrath
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

Hopper's daughters. It is an understandable label given that three McGrath sisters play camogie for Sarsfields and Galway, a club and a county where their dad Michael is such a local hurling legend. But it only tells half the story and not just because three younger ones - Siobhan (15), Ciara (9) and Laoise (8) - have still to come through the ranks.

For a start it doesn't acknowledge their mother's equally powerful sporting genes. Geraldine Kilkelly (from Kinvara) was a talented runner and an Irish hockey international. She is now the county camogie chairperson and her sister Emma plays for Galway too, alongside her three nieces.

And it doesn't remotely capture the breadth of the McGraths' talents - sporting and academic - and what a hoot they are collectively, finishing each others' sentences and constantly dissolving into peals of laughter.

Niamh (22), the eldest, needs least introduction as she is Galway's centre-forward and free-taker, the top-scorer when they won their first senior All-Ireland in 17 years in 2013.

Deep into injury-time in this summer's potboiler of a semi-final with Wexford, a replay looked inevitable. Yet while everyone else was peeping through their fingertips she coolly strolled up and slotted the winning '45, less than 24 hours after the death of their grandfather.

Two years ago, a fortnight after the semi-final, Niamh moved to a French university for her Erasmus year. She got back a week before the final but had to return to Aix-en-Provence just two days after the victory, missing much of the hoopla after Galway's famous double victory.

A graduate in Law/French from NUIG and a fluent French speaker, she has been studying all summer for the FE-1s to get into Blackhall Place and sits the first set of those exams in a few weeks.

Next comes Orlaith (20), a talented runner until camogie took over in her mid-teens. She completed a remarkable feat in 2013, playing in and winning two All-Ireland finals in one afternoon. She starred for the intermediates and then came off the bench late in the senior decider.

She's a third-year PE/Irish student in UL but this has been a tough year. A broken finger kept her out of the Ashbourne Cup weekend and then, just two games back, she ruptured her cruciate in the National League final and is now in post-surgery rehab, forced to sit out today.

Then there's Clodagh (19), also at UL where she's studying journalism. She was an unused sub with the seniors in 2013 and was hit badly with injury herself last season. She was just back fit when her own Erasmus studies brought her to Sweden - "not a hurling stronghold!" - in January, yet five feet of snow could not derail her.

"If I hadn't been injured the year before I don't know if I'd have been so self-motivated but I found an indoor ball-alley kind of thing underground and that was what I used for most of January. Then there was like a hill where I used to train on my own."

Like many of their club team-mates they can all play a musical instrument too (violin or viola) after training with Maura McLoughlin's renowned 'Music Matters' group in New Inn.

"We played for a good 10 years," explains Niamh, insisting they had nothing of the natural talent of their grandfather who was "unreal at the melodion".

"We were probably her worst students ever," Orlaith says candidly and, while they're being honest, Clodagh confesses to telling a little porkie to get home from Sweden in time for the league semi-finals.

"I wouldn't have been back until the middle of June otherwise so I doubled up on modules in the last month. I told them there was, eh, 'a family emergency!'" she grins sheepishly. Missing training in their house probably counts as a family emergency.

Orlaith (a corner-forward): "Since we were walking we had a hurl in our hand. I remember Sunday mornings going to watch mam play when we were very young. We hated going to the hockey. We used to bring our hurls to her matches and she'd be trying to switch them."

Niamh: "She tried to get us to play hockey for years but we wouldn't and daddy'd be like 'you're holding the hurl wrong!'"

Clodagh (a midfielder): "There was no option with camogie. You had to go outside and practise. He'd be like, 'You can't come in until you've learned how to solo' and I'd be like (sulky face), 'Fine!'"

Orlaith: 'And if you lost a sliotar you'd be out there until it was dark!"

Has the 'Hopper's daughters' tag been a burden?

Niamh: "No. I think it's just such an advantage because daddy's so enthusiastic for training teams and making the best out of you. Hurling and camogie are his life like!"

Orlaith: "When you'd get home from a match he'd always have five or six pointers for you. You wouldn't improve without that."

Clodagh: "It's always like 'in the 13th minute, when you side-stepped left, you actually should have gone right!' The post-match analysis is not even funny. But people who have been there and done that are actually more grounded. Some people might think their children are better than they are. We'd never think that."

Orlaith: "He's probably our biggest critic but he'd always praise you if praise is due."

Clodagh: "And if you got praise you'd be going around smiling for a week!"

They reckon Siobhán is the most skilful of all while the youngest two are already "like terriers in matches," with Laoise "a dinger at cross-country" too.

Hopper may be the only man in the house - "God help him," they laugh - but has always treated them as equals.

He enlists them to bring home the turf every year ("Ah God nooooo! Don't mention the bog," they plead in mock-horror) but understand "he did that stuff because he wouldn't treat us differently. It's like, 'You're a girl but why wouldn't you be able to do that?'

"We're all kind of collectively stubborn," Orlaith explains. "Like, in school, we were those girls, with the lads, (saying) 'If you can do that I can do that better!' We're ridiculously competitive - academic and sports-wise."

Niamh: "That comes from daddy, he's very bad, so competitive! We'd be very sore losers."

Really? Who's the worst?

Clodagh and Orlaith: "Niamh!"

Niamh: "Thanks!"

Orlaith: "Sure you'd admit it yourself!"

Niamh: "Clodagh's probably the most stubborn. Like, you'd never give up, whereas I'd be just pure thick if we lost."

The eldest is also the family chocolate fiend.

Clodagh: "Ha ha! That's the best question you've asked. The rest of her diet is disgustingly perfect bar chocolate."

"Clodagh plays depressing music all the time!" Niamh retorts. "I've never heard of any of the people she's playing, it's mental like." And Orlaith? She eats a full pizza on her own!"

Orlaith: "I do. It probably doesn't help that I work in Supermac's, they're mighty."

Beating Cork today to win a second senior All-Ireland in three years would be especially precious after losing to Kilkenny in last year's semi-finals.

"I dunno were we still relishing the 2013 double?" Clodagh muses. "There was such a famine in Galway camogie for so long but it was like there wasn't the same hunger last year."

Ever since Sarsfields beat Milford to win a Division 1 Féile title in 2007, days like this have been their destiny.

Orlaith may be injured but still goes to every training session, sustained by a bond that extends far beyond their own family.

Clodagh: "Our team is like a sisterhood. I know that sounds cringey but when I was out (injured) last year I realised the social element you take from it, it's like a support system."

Orlaith: "You make your best friends on the county panel without realising it. You have such a natural connection with them."

Niamh: "There's no drama with this team, no divas or anything. Every one of us is the same."

The same maybe but few GAA households provide such an injection of talent as Hopper and Geraldine's.

Mighty athletes, mighty hurlers and mighty crack . . . until you try beating them at anything.

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