May 10th, 2019

The fact Mullaghbawn native Niamh Murphy is still serving her Armagh apprenticeship at the age of 30 seems an acceptable price to pay for having the most interesting back story in the squad.

While she has started only one Armagh match to date, Niamh’s sporting journey is surely unique and she feels fortunate to have had such a range of experiences rather than wondering what might have been in a longer Orchard career.

There aren’t many who have lifted a trophy as a victorious skipper in Croke Park, while Murphy has also had the distinction of being an inter-county captain when leading London in the All Ireland Junior championship during hertime teaching in the English capital.

Now Niamh has her sights set on nailing down an orange jersey and building upon a formative first season in the Armagh set-up which saw her start the league game against Cavan and come off the bench three times including the closing stages of last June’s Ulster final.

An ill-timed hamstring strain prevented her from featuring in Armagh’s opening game of this season at the weekend but she still hopes to establish herself as a towering full foward who offers something different from the Orchard’s other options.

Although older than the typical player arriving new into a county panel, Niamh knew she was coming into a very professional set-up with high standards and fierce competition for starting spots.

“I came in fairly late ahead of last season and it was tough enough for there’s a big step up from the (Junior) level London play at. I’d also a bit of hamstring trouble which curtailed my involvement in the National League.

“Making my debut against Cavan was special, it was great getting on in the big win over Tyrone in the Athletic Grounds and I got the last few minutes of the Ulster final albeit that was a difficult day for Armagh.

“But the way we regrouped and nearly won the second Donegal game speaks volumes about the character in this set-up and, although I didn’t play at Healy Park, I’d no doubt I wanted to come back for a second season and give it my best shot.

“Last season was about finding my feet, getting used to the environment and then pushing hard for this season, so I was willing to be patient. I feel more settled in now, more confident and better equipped to contribute.

“Strength and conditioning started back in October and everything’s been building up to the new campaign. After all the hard work and an excellent training weekend in January, I was very upset (about the hamstring problem) at training last Tuesday night but these things happen.”

Murphy had actually played age group gaelic football for Armagh with the likes of Maebh Moriarty and Marian McGuinness having first taken up the sport as a young girl.

“My mum was my primary school teacher in Mullaghbawn and she introduced gaelic football at the school. There was no girls team at the club back then so I played for the boys in Under 12s. Larry Crilly started football for girls and we won our first trophy at Under 14s.

“I played for the club’s senior team from the age of 14. We won the Armagh Junior Championship and got to the second round of Ulster when I was still at school. They couldn’t field for a year when I was away but regrouped and won another Junior title in 2015.”

Murphy made an encouraging return to her home club colours last season, captaining the footballers as they pushed eventual winners Drominee all the way in a pulsating Armagh Intermediate Championship semi-final.

“I hadn’t played for Mullaghbawn for six years and it was good to be back. The girls progressed every game and we won Division Three so that will be better championship preparation for the coming club season.

“We were playing two league levels below Dromintee last season and maybe their extra experience counted in the end. Losing Colleen McElherron to injury was also a big blow. But we took the positives and everyone’s looking forward to the new season with Gareth Kelly continuing as manager.”

She did pick up some silverware last season, the Armagh Intermediate Shield, with Mullaghbawn in camogie, the code at which her mum Ann (McCone) represented the county with distinction.

“Mum has always encouraged me to play. She won an All Ireland medal at Sacred Heart and my dad won a medal during his time at Abbey Grammar. They’ve both played for Armagh and have been a big influence in my career.

“When I went to London they encouraged me to get involved over there and would have come over regularly for our big games and of course came to matches whenever my teams would have been playing over here.”

Many will remember Murphy captaining Parnells on a foggy November day in Camlough when the streetwise, imposingly physical British champions were beaten by youthful Shane O’Neills in the 2016 All Ireland Intermediate semi-final.

However that disappointment was balanced by numerous successes at a club which became an important part of Niamh’s life, opened doors she hadn’t dreamt of and proved the vehicle for making memories which will stay with her forever.

“I joined Parnells two months after moving to London to teach and loved it. The managers were tough on us and the standard was high. We won the All Ireland Intermediate Club Championship in 2012, beating a team from Tipperary which had Aishling Moloney in it.
“We took the training seriously and even flew back and forth for challenge games against the likes of Foxrock Cabinteely from Dublin, who reached last season’s All Ireland Senior Club Championship final, and RGU Downpatrick.

“There were three English-born players in the squad but, when you’re heavily reliant on Irish ex-pats including students, there’s a high turnover of players each year. We lost 12 players after that 2012 success but bounced back.”

Murphy’s most memorable moment came in August 2016 when, in her second season as skipper, she had the honour of captaining Parnells to victory in the Etihad Airways GAA World Games at Croke Park.

Parnells topped their group on the Tuesday before beating Australasia, Asia and the Middle East next day to take their place in the final where they overcame Australasia again on a 3-7 to 0-8 scoreline.

“Captaining in Croke Park and lifting a cup in the Hogan Stand wasn’t something I ever expected and an opportunity I wouldn’t have had at home. It was special too because the football team is your family when you’re away from home so we were a tight enough group.”

The London inter-county team can call on players from eight ladies gaelic clubs but Parnells provide the backbone and Murphy was encouraged down that route not long after arriving in England.

“London were in the Intermediate tier back then and I remember playing against Armagh in a group game at Killeavy in 2012, the year they’d dropped down from Senior and went on to win the Intermediate title,” recalls Niamh, who went on to become county captain.

“We went back down hereafter and got to the All Ireland Junior semi-final in 2016, when we lost to Antrim. It was difficult for some clubs are more supportive (of the London county team) than others and of course some students and teachers tend to go home to Ireland in the summer.”

She’d enjoyed six years in London but in the end Murphy felt she was only staying on in England for her sport so opted to return home and took up a primary teaching job in Bangor where she coached the school team to the Northern Ireland finals.

“It was fantastic for the kids and they were thrilled when I got my Armagh team-mate Caroline O’Hanlon, a real international netball superstar, to do a supportive video message for them,” enthuses Niamh.

A strapping physical presence at 5’11” Murphy has been deployed at full forward for London and full back for Parnells though she also lined out for the club at centre half back and in midfield where she now plays for Mullaghbawn.

She reveals that she got her nose broken playing tag rugby in London but, along with the two gaelic codes, Murphy has still a third string to her sporting bow in the form of netball for the Seconds team at NI Premier League champions Belfast Ladies.
“They train Tuesday and Thursday evenings, same as Armagh, so I’ve only played the first part of the netball season so I can focus fully on football, but the girls are lovely. I’ve been playing with past and future internationals and working with an award-winning coach, Claire Winning.”

This school year she’s teaching at Cliftonville Integrated Primary School in north Belfast where, like her mother in Mullaghbawn back in the day, Niamh is introducing children to the sport of gaelic football for the first time.

“The school hasn’t had gaelic before as it was just soccer, hockey and a bit of netball. I’m enjoying taking it and there’s a real fresh feel, for some of the pupils from different backgrounds hadn’t even seen gaelic games before but now they’re looking for clubs to join.”

A sociable individual, Niamh has a great range of life experiences and can confidently fit in anywhere and contribute, but she came into the Armagh ladies set-up knowing she’d have to establish herself from scratch like any teenage newcomer.

“It was an honour to be called up last year and a privilege to train alongside the likes of Caroline O’Hanlon, someone I really look up to, and learn from her complete professionalism and work ethic.

“The standard is so high with Armagh but I’m determined to do what it takes to make the grade and am grateful for the encouragement not only of the management but the most senior players like Caroline and (captain) Caoimhe (Morgan), who is always pushing me on,” says Murphy.