Downey sisters drove their county to unprecedented success for two decades with complementary skills
When Angela and Ann Downey were at boarding school in Callan, their father Shem, an All-Ireland winner with Kilkenny in 1947, would drive from their home in Ballyragget in the evenings, pick them up and drop them to a makeshift pitch, complete with temporary goalposts devised by one of the other player’s fathers, on Kilkenny city’s Dunmore Road to train with their club St Paul’s.
Session complete, soup and sandwiches consumed, Shem would then whisk them back down to Callan and be back in Ballyragget without the girls’ mother Brigid knowing a thing about it.
With a father’s devotion, and with it the apparent requirement for a covert approach sometimes, and the girls’ own willingness to make the most of their natural talent, prosperous camogie careers would inevitably follow.
By 15, Angela had played her first championship game for Kilkenny, against Cork in 1972. Two years later, with Ann graduating to the squad, the twins, now 17, were both involved as the county won its first-ever All-Ireland senior camogie title.
Over the following 20 years, they would lay claim to the O’Duffy Cup 11 more times, their telepathy and understanding on the field the springboard for unprecedented Kilkenny dominance.
They rewrote the rules and pushed out the parameters of a game that had trouble making an impression on the wider sporting public’s psyche. But even if your interest in camogie was fleeting, there was still an awareness of who the Downeys were. They left that mark. To this day, with a new generation of stars in place, the Downey name remains instantly synonymous with the game.
Angela was the first real superstar, with her lightning speed and assassin’s instinct when the need was greatest. Her right to be considered camogie’s greatest ever player is undisputed.
In the successful 1977 All-Ireland campaign she was unplayable, landing 6-3 against Tipperary, four goals against Dublin and then 2-3 against Wexford in the final. She was just 20.
“When you were in trouble you could nearly always depend on her to rescue you, get the score that was needed, regardless of whether it was a league game or an All-Ireland. She always performed,” recalled Ann.
Ann herself brought steel and an engine as a midfielder that, in the words of her sister, often defied logic. Her work ethic and devotion to her sport were unimpeachable, complementing Angela’s dash and finesse.
Once a customer in her father’s butcher shop, at a time when their reputation was beginning to circulate around the county, asked Shem of Ann on her entrance as to whether she was ‘the good one or the bad one.’
The distinction was crude as good or bad didn’t come into the equation. They both elevated their games to different shades of greatness.
Yet, for all the success they enjoyed over those decades, for all the accolades they stockpiled, they both bring you back to a day in 1994, their careers ebbing towards the twilight zone, for a high point and the perfect encapsulation of their storybook careers. By this time, they were playing with Lisdowney, a few miles from Ballyragget, having spent most of their career with city club St Paul’s which drew players from all over the county who were unattached because their local parish didn’t have an outlet.
But Kilkenny’s success over two decades, driven by the Downeys, saw the club game in the county flourish, St Paul’s lost too many players, disbanded and the girls moved back closer to home.
In the ’94 final against Glen Rovers, the blue-riband Cork city team that had half-a-dozen county players to draw upon, was played in Ballyragget’s GAA grounds, not far from the Downey homeplace.
That made it extra special and with so many locals around the perimeter, increasing the pressure. With just over 10 minutes remaining, though, they were 10 points down. As Ann recalls, the crowd was streaming out the gates. But a remarkable comeback saw them win by six points, Angela hitting 3-5 in total on a day that she admits, years later, little went right for her!
“I had a nightmare,” she confessed. “I remember rounding Sandy Fitzgibbon, I was being marked by her, and taking a strike. It hit the crossbar and came back. I caught it again, went to handpass it and it was deflected out. And I remember saying to myself, ‘this is not my day, there is nothing going right here.’”
Ann, she recalls, was unbreakable throughout. “She had an engine on her, I’m not joking you, I don’t know how she kept going. That day she covered more ground.”
It was the year that they won their 12th and last All-Ireland title, marking the start of a 22-year spell without one for the county until 2016 when, with Ann back as manager and Angela a selector, they stamped their authority on the game again with the county’s 13th title.
Ann didn’t quit playing inter-county hurling until 1999, bowing out after an All-Ireland final that yielded Tipperary’s first-ever title. Then 42, she had outlasted Angela by a few years but they both played on with Lisdowney until 2004.
Their loyalty to each other has been unwavering through the years. To this day, nothing irks Ann more than the six-month suspension Angela was hit with after a club semi-final in 1998 that put her out of the subsequent final. St Paul’s won it, beating Glenamaddy and Ann summoned everything to make sure they did that day, with a late goal, but her twin sister’s absence lingered and has rankled since.
Even when we speak, she provides a reminder to prefix the word ‘suspended’ with ‘wrongly’.
Similarly, when Ann wasn’t even nominated for a position on camogie’s ‘Team of the Century’ in 2004, Angela – herself chosen at left corner-forward – took umbrage and didn’t attend the ceremony.
Given that Ann had won three Player of the Year awards, a feat surpassed only by her sister with five (twice they won it together, in 1986 and ’89), it was an unusual call, perhaps rooted in her capacity to speak her mind and point out flaws in the curation of the game.
Their lives remain intertwined. Ann works in Kilkenny city and every day she drops into Angela for lunch. The daily phone calls can get to five or six and when there was a Kilkenny team to manage, that could increase significantly.
“She’d be forever on the phone talking hurling and would have an insight into it that I would never have,” acknowledged Angela. “She’d be looking at the opposition, weighing up strength and weaknesses, whereas I would only be looking at our own team.”
They see the game in a different place now. Ann makes the case that the camogie final in which Kilkenny reclaimed the title – with a dramatic win over Galway – surpassed the other three finals (football, hurling and ladies football) for entertainment.
“The 2016 semi-finals were played before the hurling games and that brought more people to the games. Needless to say, television coverage has been brilliant.”
They have always pushed through glass ceilings, embracing gym work in their early years when many of their male counterparts had no inclination to squat or curl. Last year Ann took charge of the Ballyragget intermediate hurling team.
Thus, it is fitting that, in a year when Kilkenny were back on top in camogie and ladies sport thrived generally, they are recognised as the first-ever joint winners of the Irish Independent Hall of Fame award in association with the Croke Park Hotel.
Inseparable in life, inseparable in sport and inseparable now in recognition of two of the greatest careers camogie has known.