IT’S not often that a sports team dedicated to the Gaelic tradition get to showcase their talents abroad.
There is endless dedication to local club games, matches across one’s own county, and for some, a chance to represent that county in a provincial or ultimately national level. But the perks of being part of something like a World Cup, a Six Nations championship or an Olympic athletic team are unlikely aspirations.
However, one local camogie club is taking steps in that direction with a trip to Berlin later this month to play non-competitively with a select group of German teams, as well as providing mentorship to those teams.
While organising the trip is a group effort, it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t be happening without the input of the U16 Inniscarra Camogie Club manager, Liam Ryan, who says: “There is a long tradition of Irish cultural groups going abroad in music, dance, bands, etc. so why not bring our sporting culture abroad, and better again with emphasis on more participation from girls in sport.
“Let’s lead the way in what girls can aspire to when they are part of a camogie club”.
When Liam, a father of four, was hatching his plan he looked very close to home for inspiration, as his wife Michele is the founder of Blarney Dance Academy (BDA), an Irish dance school that celebrates abroad every second year during the St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
In 2015 it was Paris, followed by Rome in 2017, while this year they are off to Amsterdam for more adventures.
Liam always travels with Michele and his three daughters, who are all involved in dancing, and those trips gave him food for thought in organising something similar for his camogie group, which he has been managing since they were on the U9 team.
Liam first went to Joan O’Flynn, the former director of Camogie in Ireland, based in Dublin, and spoke about taking a team to go into schools. She put him onto Kathleen Egan, the European Development Co-ordinator of Camogie in Europe. Germany was suggested and contact was made with Setanta Berlin, a club established in 2000, which has a schools program, as well as hosting a European Youth Camogie event every year on the weekend after St Patrick’s Day. This year they will host the very first German Youth League, with teams arriving from Hamburg, Frankfurt, Berlin and Munich, as well as the Inniscarra U16s who will be the star attractions and rightly considered experts in their field.
“Inniscarra is the best camogie club in Cork right now and when the girls go out they’ll be asked ‘Can you show me side-line cuts? Can you show me how to take frees?’ They’re looking for specific coaching over there. Our girls will be providing mentorship to the teams, like during the match at half time.
“We have a girl of 16 who played for Cork, so for those kids that’s the nearest they’ll get to their Ronaldo or Messi moment for the sport in which they play”, says Liam.
“Quite a few of our girls do German at school so they might demonstrate a few skills and do it in German. It’ll be a fun thing for them”, adds Liam.
One wonders what German word will be found for sliotar!
It seems a few more languages could come in handy too on the trip: “We’ll be visiting the Nelson Mandela School on the Friday to introduce them to camogie. There are students there from places like Yemen and Brazil, around 25 different nationalities in total in the school. It’s a unique opportunity to introduce the sport to so many different cultures.”
Giving a helping hand with organisation on the German end is Berlin-based Sinead Kavanagh, PRO of German Camogie, which organised its first Cúl Camp weekend last year.
Illustrating how the camogie movement in Germany may have been initiated by ex-pats but has grown to the wider community, only one of the five coaches for the camp was Irish, the rest made up of Germans.
Sinead backs up this observation: “In our youth division, we currently have 70 youth members, aged between three to 16, only one of whom was actually born in Ireland. While many of our youth have some Irish connection, many have been attracted purely for the love of the game and are as enthusiastic as any Irish child playing in their local GAA team in Ireland. When you take the adult players into consideration, the GAA is really international, with our teams made up of ex-pat Irish, local German born and even those from as far flung as having south African and Tunisian roots.”
Back in Inniscarra, the planning is ongoing with Tipperary native Liam keen to stress that he’s not a one man army. He carries out his duties alongside lead coach Fergal O’Leary and fellow coach Sheila Lyons who, like Liam, has been with the team since they were U9s.
“She does immeasurable work for underage teams”, says Liam.
Still, Liam’s own dedication is admirable, especially considering that his own daughters don’t play the game.
“When I came to the parish first my older daughters didn’t seem to have much interest. They were involved in karate and other things. My youngest daughter asked to join the U9s if I’d help train. She stayed playing up until three years ago. She does a lot of Irish dancing and is out two or three nights a week with that. She still loves going to matches but she had to prioritise a little. By the time she’d given up — for me, you get to a stage where you’re loyal to that group of kids. We have a great affinity, they are good kids and they train well.
“It’s hard to get people to train teams and organise teams so I said I’d stay involved with the group all the way up along. Last year eight of those girls were on the Cork U14 panel, which was a great achievement. They have a real love for the game.”
It’s not only a challenge to keep trainers on board but also to keep the girls interested as they get older, with demands on their time from other recreational activities, not to mention the pressure of exams.
The U16 Inniscarra camogie captain, Katie Lordan from Blarney, is a prime example of someone with a busy schedule, as she manages to fit in piano, art and choir into her week, as well as playing camogie and basketball with her school, Coláiste Choilm in Ballincollig.
“I’m in fourth year this year but in third year it was tough to make it to every training session, but it’s a break from the usual schedule, allowing you to relax and have fun”, she says.
A 2017 study commissioned by Lidl, sponsor of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association, found that while team sports have a direct and positive effect on self-confidence and mental wellbeing, half of young women drop out of their chosen sport by the age of 13.
So what is Inniscarra doing to keep their girls involved?
“Keeping girls in sport is very important and I’ve always been very conscious of the necessity to have a social side as part of what we’re doing.
“Girls are just as competitive as boys for sure but perhaps they enjoy the social side a bit more”, says Liam.
To that end, he has organised some fun (but physical!) days out for his team over the years, including trips to Ballyhass Aqua Park, West Cork Secret, Blackwater Outdoor Activities and Fota Island Adventure, as well as Mahem in Cahir, Co. Tipperary, a site used for filming TV show Ireland’s Fittest Family.
Of course, on the upcoming trip to Berlin there will be plenty scope for the social aspect.
“This is going to hopefully create bonds for life. And it’s very healthy in a community club for the parents to have connectivity with each other too”, says Liam.
The squad has been fundraising for the trip to Berlin and on March 9 they will participate in 1,800 laps of the community pitch in Ballyanly, representing one lap for every kilometre of distance from Cork to Berlin.
Team captain Katie is optimistic about the future of camogie.
“I feel like camogie is seen — not less than hurling — but not as well attended. I want it to grow and get bigger and to show that it’s even growing in other countries”, she says.
Meanwhile in Berlin, Wexford native, Sinead Kavanagh is waiting to greet Katie and her team-mates.
“The visit of Innniscarra to Berlin is so important to Setanta because it demonstrates to our players the wider reaching links to the GAA community at home and aboard, and for our growing camogie population, it serves to show how wonderful the sport really is when played at the highest level and gives them a goal of excellence to aim for,” she said.
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