Thursday 15 November 2018

Comment: Rena Buckley helped change attitudes to women’s sport during a wonderful, astounding career

Rena Buckley is the only player to captain their county to All-Ireland success in both codes
Rena Buckley is the only player to captain their county to All-Ireland success in both codes

Eamonn Sweeney

Early in her inter-county career, Rena Buckley grabbed the headlines in spectacular fashion. She was just 19 when she won the player of the match award for a terrific performance at right half-back as Cork beat Tipperary in the 2006 All-Ireland senior camogie final. Yet the beginning of her career wasn’t typical of Buckley. She didn’t specialise in the spectacular.

Among her team-mates were some remarkably talented individuals, the likes of Valerie Mulcahy, Juliet Murphy, Gemma O’Connor, Anna Geary, Ashling Thompson and Briege Corkery, some of the country’s most high-profile sportswomen. Buckley, who plays camogie with Inniscarra and football with Donoughmore, always cut a more understated figure.

But she may be the player who perfectly epitomised the indomitable spirit which enabled Cork to dominate both ladies football and camogie in the past decade. No matter what happened, the Rebelettes kept going. And Rena Buckley kept going too, until last September when she won her 18th All-Ireland senior medal, a record unequalled by any Gaelic games player of either sex.

Over the years her remarkable diligence and efficiency, which often saw her direct opponents held scoreless and taken off, earned her 10 All Star awards, five in either sport. The first two of her medals arrived in 2005 when Cork were outsiders in both deciders but upset Tipperary in the camogie and Galway in the football.

At the time the camogie championship seemed the more prestigious competition, but that was about to change thanks to the football team which became a by-word for excellence in Irish sport as it won 11 out of 12 All-Irelands.

That Cork side contributed hugely to changing the way in which women’s GAA was covered in this country. Not just their talent but their obvious seriousness of purpose demanded respect. When they won that first All-Ireland in 2005, Valerie Mulcahy was referred to in one national newspaper’s main report as “the bubbly corner-forward”. The generation of Cork stars of whom Rena Buckley was the most durable helped ensure no-one writes about female footballers that way anymore.

That the last two All-Ireland ladies football finals have been the highest attended women’s sporting events in Europe also owes a great deal to Cork. Their dominance was total but not monotonous because they were pushed to the limit so often. Five of their final wins were by a single point and two by two points.

If you were supporting Cork there was massive comfort in seeing Rena Buckley at the heart of things when everything was on the line in the closing stages. In the latter years of Cork’s run she moved to midfield to partner her equally indestructible comrade Briege Corkery. At times the duo seemed to be able to turn the game their team’s way by sheer force of will.

In camogie, Cork had looked almost as invincible when winning four All-Irelands from 2005 to 2009. Yet the first half of the current decade was a fallow time for them as Wexford and Galway took over at the top of the game. The last four years have witnessed a remarkable renaissance with three titles. Buckley was at the heart of this and was a vital steadying presence in the 2015 win over Galway when so many players from the previous year’s team had dropped out that she admitted to being afraid to open any camogie-related text in case it brought news of another defection.

Yet it is last year which may stand as the crowning achievement of her career. Buckley was spectacular once more, a star rather than a supporting actor. She not only won the Player of the Year award but lifted the O’Duffy Cup in Croke Park, becoming the first player to captain All-Ireland senior winning teams in both codes. It couldn’t get much better than that.

And it won’t. Because last week Rena Buckley announced that at the age of 31 she’s calling it a day. It has been a wonderful, astounding career. It was also a career during which the great teams she played on did not get to grace Páirc Uí Chaoimh. If ever a player deserved a monument it’s Rena Buckley. The best would be to let Cork camogie and ladies football teams play in the county ground and emulate Kerry who have put their men’s and women’s Munster football championship games on a double bill in Killarney next Sunday.

As Buckley commented recently, “The girls are no longer put on the back field. And it’s not just in sport, it’s in all walks of life.”

Times have changed for Irish women. By overcoming public indifference, challenging male condescension and providing a generation of girls with wonderful role models, the great Rena Buckley and her remarkable team-mates played their part too.

When Buckley started playing football with Donoughmore she’d cycle the dozen or so miles from Inniscarra, do 16 laps of the pitch before a full training session and then cycle home again. That kind of attitude never left her. As a child she idolised Sonia O’Sullivan. Now she belongs alongside O’Sullivan in not just the Cork, but the Irish sporting pantheon.

Phenomenal woman, that’s her.

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