When your mother is your number one fan

They’ve stood on almost every sideline, washed hundreds of dirty kits and fuelled up their hungry sports-mad children with nourishing home-made meals — CHRIS DUNNE talks to the mothers of two of Cork’s greatests sports people, ahead of Mother’s Day
When your mother is your number one fan

MUM AND SON: Rugby player Donncha O’Callaghan with mum Marie, at a UNICEF Ireland Mothers’ Day Lunch in recent years. Picture: Mark Stedman

MUMS Marie O’Callaghan and Kitty Corkery don’t see themselves as legends. But both Cork women have raised sporting legends. Marie’s second youngest is rugby star Donncha O’Callaghan and Kitty’s second youngest is Gaelic Football All Star, Briege Corkery.

“Yes, I did all the fetching, carrying, dropping and ferrying,” says Marie, who has four boys, and one daughter.

“My crowd got very big,” adds Marie, who found herself a young widow when her husband Hughie died suddenly at the age of 40.

“I reaped from what I put in. People used to say, how did you do it? How did you feed them all? Let’s just say there were a lot of potatoes peeled in my kitchen!”

The Cork mothers fed, washed, laundered, cleaned and chauffeured for their children for endless days, months and years.

Donncha, 37, and Briege, 30, who lived 38.9 kilometres from each other, would go on to bring honour and glory to their county, their country, their families and to themselves, in different sports.

“Briege was never to be found in the house,” says Kitty, who is the mother of 10 children — Siobhan, Marie, Sean, Denis, Michéal, Katherine, Donal, Jeramiah, Briege and Mairead. They live in Rusheen, Macroom.

“She was always outside around the farm. Briege wanted to help with the animals and drive the tractor. She never played with dolls. She only played games with balls. She hit balls for hours on end outside in the garden and in the fields. There was plenty of scope and she had lots of team-mates,” says Kitty. “Briege was a real tomboy.”

She had her mother’s genes. Kitty won an Intermediate County medal with Canovee in 1973. Briege’s sisters, Katherine and Marie, both camogie players, togged out for Cork.

“Her first match was at the age of seven in the 1995 Scaith na Scoil semi- final,” says Kitty of Briege.

“Her sister Katherine was in 6th class at Rusheen National School and Briege was in first class. Briege scored a goal by running under bigger girls’ legs and striking a ball into the net. It was an accident more than anything!”

Briege’s first taste of many future victories came in the same competition in 1998 when she was vice-captain of the Scaith na Scoil team. The taste of success whetted her appetite. Briege wasn’t just hungry for the thrills and spills of camogie and Gaelic football — she was ravenous.

Kitty was up to 90.

“The washing-machine was going non-stop,” she recalls. “I used to dread Fridays because the piles of endless laundry never seemed to get smaller. My lads were into sport too as well as the girls. Dirty kits and the washing and drying of them in 24 hours were all part and parcel of the household.

“The cooker was on full steam ahead. Big pots of potatoes were always on the boil. I had help but there was never a let-up in the house; cooking, cleaning and washing.”

Briege was a natural born winner, winning six All-Ireland Senior camogie medals, as well as 11 All-Ireland Senior Gaelic Football medals, six camogie All Stars and 10 Ladies Football All Stars. She is arguably the greatest GAA sportsperson of all time.

NUMBER ONE FAN: GAA player Briege Corkery in the company of her mum Kitty. Picture John Tarrant
NUMBER ONE FAN: GAA player Briege Corkery in the company of her mum Kitty. Picture John Tarrant

“Briege stuck with camogie and Gaelic football when her career took off,” says Kitty.

“Her dad, Mike, played football with Aghinagh in his younger days. But then the farm took over all his free time.”

Kitty’s free time was spent on the road, embarking on long car journeys to training, to matches, and to cheer on her daughter from the side-lines.

“We’d pack the flask and a basket of sandwiches and off we’d go,” she says. “Even when the going got tough and the venues were further and further away we got up early in the morning, rain, hail or snow and took to the road.

“In those days we’d all pile in to the car. There were no such things as seat-belts. We’d have a car-full of children, as many as could fit, and head for the match,” says Kitty.

“The fun was massive. We all had a great time and we had a great social life and we made lots of friends all over the country.”

There was a lot of driving involved. Briege played for club and county.

“I spent 30 years driving to camogie and football matches,” says Kitty. “The lads would cycle to local venues for their matches. The weekends were hectic.

“I grew to love Monday mornings when some semblance of normality would come back and I might even get a rest for an hour or so.”

The clock ruled the roost.

“Everyone watched the clock,” says Kitty. “As soon as the homework was done, they were up and out hitting balls in all directions.”

There were a lot of hurleys and boots put through the wringer.

“Breige went through loads of hurleys and boots,” says Kitty. “She still does.”

Breige was totally committed to her sport. Her mother was behind her all the way.

“I was always on the side-line,” says Kitty. “In recent years I’ve been to Croke Park twice every year. But the first time I went to Croke Park, it was something special. And winning the first Cork All Ireland Football final in 2005 was unbelievable.”

Was she nervous?

“I was very nervous,” says Kitty. “I was nervous of injuries too. Breige broke her ribs once and her hand when she fell at home. But she always bounced back.

“Breige never gives up. She always comes back. Now she is back outdoors where she is happiest. Herself and her husband, Diarmuid, are in a milk production enterprise with Crosshaven- based dairy farmer, Michael Bateman. She has achieved great things on the field of sport but she is still the local girl. And she is great still to help out on the farm at home.”

Marie O’Callaghan could have done with some help when she found herself rearing five children alone, Ultan, Eddie, Emmet, Donncha and Emer. There were hungry mouths to feed.

“It was heavy going,” Marie admits. “The children had no role model. I had to be their role model. Donncha was only five when his father died. Money was tight and we were a big family. For Eddie and Ultan, it meant leaving school at 15 and getting a job.”

Marie was resilient, shouldering responsibility for every aspect of her family’s life at their home at Glen Cairn Park, Bishopstown.

“Bobs were tight,” says Marie. “I took in students, I minded children, I did baking and flower arranging.”

Hughie was a good provider.

“Hughie was a good footballer and a soccer player,” says Marie. “He worked as a plasterer. Then he got work with the corporation which meant more stability. He wasn’t there long enough to get a pension. When he died I told the children, Eddie, Emmet, Ultan, Donncha and Emer, that ‘Holy God needs your Dad now’.”

Marie had to be strong for her children.

“I had to tell them we are on our own now, so we’ve got to get really tight. We’re going to look out for each other.”

It was something Donncha always did when he played as a lock on the rugby field. Just like his mother, the Irish international, the star of Munster’s two Heineken Cup winning sides, and who captained the British and Irish Lions Tour, defended and protected his own.

“Hughie had introduced the boys to rugby, so I carried that on,” says Marie. “I had a mantra; ‘I can and I will’. Parents took it in turns to bring the boys training and to matches. Emer was sporty too. We were endlessly on the road.”

Donncha, following in his brothers’ rugby footsteps, had to do something extraordinary on the field.

“When they began to play in the big league, the boys became more self-sufficient,” says Marie.

“I remember that the rugby kits were really heavy. They took ages to wash and dry. The material in them then was thick, like a blanket.”

The O’Callaghan boys mucked in.

“They did all the right things,” says Marie. “The training, the eating, the nutrition, the early nights, even to this day. They were dedicated.”

But boys will be boys.

“I had to be very strong on discipline,” says Marie. “To keep four strapping sons in order.”

How did she do that?

“I’d stop them at the front door if they were out of line and I’d tell them; no potatoes for two weeks! It was the death knell. They loved their grub.” Donncha was like his mother.

“He practically had the same DNA as me,” says Marie. “Donncha was a big guy. His matches were nerve-wracking for me. I prayed throughout every match and every game on TV. I knew what I was in for at every game.

“When the boys played schools’ rugby I told them there had to be one winner and one loser.”

Donncha was making his mark. His biggest fans took to the road.

“When I told my sons that myself and Jenny, Donncha’s girlfriend at the time, had the good fortune of acquiring the use of a cancelled camper-van to go on the Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005, they thought I should be certified,” says Marie. “One of them said it was the right idea.”

Marie and Jenny had the adventure of a lifetime, travelling all over New Zealand to the rugby matches.

“I arranged with Jenny to come with me to collect the van,” says Marie.

“When I asked her if she would do some of the driving, she must have thought I was crazy.

“We loaded up the van with provisions and we set off. I knew if Hughie was alive, he would be there. So I was definitely going to be there.

“Our first stop was Rotorua. The North and South Islands were amazing. The rugby community welcomed us with open arms and we made friends for life. We already knew a lot of the players and their families.

“I have been fortunate enough to travel to Australia, South Africa, where I visited Table Mountain and went on safari. I’ve been to matches in France and Fiji. I still go on the coaches to all the matches. I will keep going as long as I am able.”

Marie has come a long way.

“In the early days I had to manage on a shoe-string,” she says. “Meal times were chaotic. Everything was put on the table all together and it was a free for all. It was the easiest way to do it.”

The family didn’t have much. But they had their devoted mother who propelled herself through life after Hughie died and who propelled her children along, affording them every opportunity to fulfil their potential.

“My sons and my daughter are very good to me,” says Marie. “I have one princess. I am proud of them all and what they have achieved in their lives.”

Does she worry about injuries?

“Donncha nearly lost a leg and he broke his cheek-bone,” says Marie. “He will tell you that if you are fit enough, then no injury will affect you badly. If you get injured on the upper body, the lower body can still get fit.”

Does she understand the rules of rugby?

“In the beginning I had no knowledge,” says Marie. “I’m still learning and I am learning to keep my mouth shut!”

Donncha is now with the Worcester Warriors. He has been a UNICEF ambassador since 2009.

His women-folk hold the fort.

“I see the same traits in my grandchildren,” says Marie, who is nearly 70 and who swims every day.

“They have the can-do attitude, they strive to achieve better.”

The 15 grandchildren understand where their Nan is coming from.

“One of them might ring me up telling me he is playing a match at such a place. I tell them OK. Nan is off.” People still ask her how she did it all; raising a fine family single-handedly.

“I say with great difficulty,” says Marie with a smile. “And a lot of prayer.”

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