BRIAN DILLON’S Niamh O’Leary, thanks to her part in Seandún’s first senior camogie championship title success is one of the three Echo Women in Sport quarterly winners for winter 2021.
For a player who gives 100% to every team she is involved with, it’s a well-deserved accolade.
Her commitment off the field is as strong as when she’s on it but reserved in nature and always praising other players above herself she is somewhat taken aback at the award.
“Oh, that’s mad,” was her response. “Thanks very much. I’m delighted on behalf of the team.”
Starting her career at the age of seven Niamh recalled Saturday mornings in the Tank Field under the care of Niall McLoughlin.
“We just played games which was great fun and Niall is still up there to this day doing the same with so many young girls, giving them the stepping stone to great friendships and a sporting life.
Coming through underage we won a few Seandún underage blitzes. Then we started to struggle with numbers at training and were losing a lot of games.
“We got a new management team in 2012 as we were coming out of U14. We won an U16 league and minor championship and the big one would have been winning the intermediate league and championship double in 2015.
“That was amazing for us. I’ve been very lucky with the Brian Dillon’s group I came up with.”
Struggling numbers-wise, unfortunately, the feeder St Patricks’ School stopped playing camogie when Niamh was in second year, and it has affected the playing numbers in the club.
With Brian Dillon's runners-up to Blackrock in the 2012 U16 B championship and Blackrock having no representative on the Cork U16B panel, the honour of captaining Cork fell to Dillon's, who had two representatives, Niamh, and her good friend Sinead Mills. Both names were put into a hat with Niamh being pulled out.
She captained Cork to All-Ireland U16 success that year, 2013, which is an achievement few are lucky to enjoy during their career.
“I was on Cork U14 development squads, but that U16 win was unreal. Coming back to Brian Dillon’s with the cup and everyone cheering the bus as we pulled in. It was mad,” she recalls.
Niamh made the Cork U16 A panel in 2014 and was on Cork’s minor panels in 2015 and 2016. All-Ireland success didn’t come during those years, but Niamh relished being on those panels and developing all the time.
She played Ashbourne Cup with UCC for four years from 2016-2019 but it wasn’t until 2020 that she got a call to the Cork Intermediate panel by then manager Mark McCarthy.
But things didn’t go according to plan as Niamh explains.
“We only got a few months training due to Covid and then we were told that the camogie association only wanted one adult team per county playing championship, so we had to withdraw.
“That was hugely disappointing for us all. 2021 was interrupted as well and we failed to advance our group on scoring difference, which was a big blow to us, particularly after we had beaten the eventual All-Ireland champions Antrim in that group.”
Despite her inter-county exploits Niamh never believed she’d ever win a senior county title, not to mention being Player of the Match in the final. 2021 in that regard was a year that will live long in her memory.
“I probably would have laughed a year ago if you told me that I’d have a senior county medal.
“Séandun didn’t always enter a team in the senior championship. Two years ago was my first time ever playing with them.
“When you’re playing with an Intermediate club you’re never thinking of a senior championship but when the opportunity came to play with Séandun, and we had the players and the talent you think that you might actually go out and hold your own against these senior clubs with seasoned senior players and a lot of cork players.
“So, it was a shock to win it.”
Her boyfriend Darragh captured the final whistle on video and Niamh blushes as she recalls it.
“Oh, I cringe looking back at that. I was jumping around the place.
“But it’s mad to think that the players from so many clubs celebrated together so much and what it meant to us.
There was girls crying. Some of them had never won a county at any level so it was a huge achievement for them.”
What does Niamh think of the view some people hold with regards divisional sides, that they don’t like to see them in competitions, not to mind win them, as no one club benefits?
“I think divisional sides should be allowed in competitions. Of course, winning one now I would say that, but it gives players an opportunity to play at the top level.
“There are players that may never otherwise get that opportunity. So, I think it’s great, it improves players which in turn improves clubs and also improves players for inter-county level.
“I go up to Brian Dillon’s and there are still people congratulating me, people I didn’t think would have taken any notice.
“News of Seandún’s success spread very quickly. Even the hurling and football side of Brian Dillon’s were very good to us.
“They had their street league finals a few weeks ago and they asked the Dillon's Seandún players to bring the cup up and lead the parade.
“There were young girls and boys that day getting pictures with us so that’s great for them to see that. To see that they can play with a junior or intermediate club and have that success.”