AOIFE FINDING LIGHT AFTER DARKNESS
Had life unfolded differently, top-scorer in the 2015 All Ireland Senior Championship quarter-final Aoife Lennon might now be back training with the Armagh gaelic county squad ahead of the National League getting underway later this month.
Or the woman who captained the now defunct Newry City Ladies to the NI Premiership title in women’s soccer a few years ago and led them into the UEFA Champions League would have been playing in last Wednesday’s opening round of fixtures in the new season.
In other circumstances, former Northern Ireland international Lennon could conceivably have been basking in the glory of qualifying for next summer’s European Championships as one of Kenny Shiels’ history-making heroes.
The multi-talented Lennon’s sporting prowess isn’t in question, her past achievements speak for themselves and, aged just 28, she’s still at her physical peak, but the cathedral city woman is finding fulfilment elsewhere at present and not pining for faraway fields.
She’s still getting her sporting fix at club level with the Armagh Harps ladies gaelic football team and derived great satisfaction from being an integral part of their first county title triumph in 22 years last autumn.
Aoife has achieved plenty further afield over the years but, in more recent times, Abbey Park is her sporting happy place, close to home, where she finds fulfilment including from mentoring the promising players coming through the Harps pathway.
Like everyone else, Lennon is delighted to be back to club training these past few weeks after a long, locked down winter and she has also plenty going on at present in the important area of mental health and well-being which has become central to her life.
The primary purpose of our interview is to chat about Aoife’s role as ambassador for this Saturday’s Darkness Into Light, an annual initiative organised by Dublin-based charity Pieta and sponsored by Electric Ireland, which raises much-needed funds for suicide prevention.
Since its inception in 2009, when 400 people did a 5-kilometre dawn walk in Pheonix Park, Darkness Into Light has become an established event which has grown and spread, with some €29million raised during that period along with awareness of mental health issues.
“It’s virtual this year, and people are being encouraged to do their own thing, whether walking, swimming, just watching the sun rise or whatever. The funds raised will support 17 local charities,” explains Aoife.
“We want to get as many people signed up as possible because it’s an amazing cause. Mental health was a growing issue in society anyway and now Covid has had a massive impact with people losing jobs and so forth.”
Along with raising funds, Darkness Into Light is an opportunity to show support for those whose lives have been impacted by suicide and remember loved ones no longer here as a result. As someone who has been personally impacted, it is a cause close to Aoife’s heart.
Sadly, Aoife’s beloved dad took his own life when she was just 13, a tragedy which has had long-term repercussions for her that she didn’t begin to fully understand until many years later when even the love of football could no longer numb the suppressed pain.
An inspirational skipper, she had captained a young Newry City Ladies side containing the likes of future Armagh gaelic ace Aimee Mackin as they rose right through the ranks of women’s soccer in Northern Ireland and played at full international level.
Repeat promotions took Newry to the top flight and, in 2015, they became the first club from outside Belfast to be crowned champions. The following season, she scored a spectacular goal which went viral and proudly led her team into European action.
Although Lennon had parked international football for the time being, a cross-channel move appeared a realistic ambition and signing for Shelbourne seemed like a stepping-stone towards that.
However, Lennon didn’t end up playing for the Dublin-based side and instead went travelling to New Zealand, where she metaphorically hit the buffers but, in doing so, embarked upon a journey of self-discovery and progressive recovery.
While away, Aoife bravely laid bare her innermost emotions in an incredible blog which was challenging just to read because of being so personal and raw, but it was also compellingly profound and must surely have helped people as well as being therapeutic for herself.
She shared compelling testimony in her journal, backed up in many media interviews since as a mental health campaigner, about the loss of her dad and the long-term effects upon her, which included developing anorexia.
Lennon had immersed herself in sport, especially soccer, always wanting to do her dad proud. She was good at it, worked hard and did well but the taste of success couldn’t cover up problems bubbling below the surface forever. The emotional ache couldn’t be ignored.
“Sport is a massive part of my life. It has been there to help and serve me in difficult times and was something I used as a coping mechanism. I had passion and belief and the talent to be successful,” she explains.
“In ways sport saved me, but was also a place I could feel my darkest. There can be dangers with it, it becoming what defines you. Until I went to New Zealand and didn’t have a ball at my feet, I didn’t really look around me and put things into perspective.
“I was sick in a lot of these times that it looked like everything was great. Sport helped me a lot and I’d good people around me. It was a coping mechanism, but that only goes so far because you can’t get away from whatever real life issues there are that need faced up to.
“For the 60 or 90 minutes of a match, you can forget troubles but then you have to go home again. It took a long time to address difficult issues and start dealing with so much pain that I’d been going through since I was a wee girl.
“When I was in New Zealand, I felt it was the first time that I’d stopped and began processing everything that had happened. I was on my own there and the pain started to flow,” recalls Lennon.
“What had been my (subconscious) coping mechanisms had their limitations and didn’t deal with the underlying issues. I’d put pressure on myself, felt that I had to be a certain way and look a certain way and it led to an eating disorder.”
The adrenalin which sport gave her was more a quick fix than a cure, a form of psychological pain-killer which only numbed the hurt in her heart that needed attended to, a self-medicating drug which grew into an unhealthy addiction to pursuing supposed perfection.
Thankfully now in a much better place, Lennon isn’t bitter about the cruel blows life dealt her at an early age which cast a cloud for so many years – “we all go through trauma at some stage” – and the strength she has found is now being used to help others as well as herself.
She channelled a gift for communicating, in such a compelling way, about emotional matters and well-being, both on her own platforms and in media interviews, and her future professional life will revolve around what feels like a calling as much as a career.
Aoife speaks powerfully, from painfully personal lived experiences of visiting dark places, coming through tough times, growing to understand herself and finding fulfilment beyond the trauma which has shaped her life for so long but no longer governs it.
“Expressing the pain I’ve endured was initially for myself but it can hopefully help others too. I set out to speak my truth about everything I’ve experienced. If sharing that can benefit even one other person, that’s great.
“We all go through something in life. Everything that I’ve been through, including opening up about that, has brought me to where I am now as an ambassador for Darkness Into Light and also becoming a life coach. I’m about to receive my certificate for that.
“My daddy couldn’t find his light, but he has given me a light. I wasn’t ready to deal with what happened in my teens and these things weren’t really talked about by then. Thankfully, there’s more awareness of mental health and emotional well-being now.
“You can experience trauma from small things, there’s no timescale for dealing with grief and we all have our challenges. When I speak about what has happened in my life, it doesn’t simply mean everything’s great and my own life is rosy now, but sharing with others helps.
“I’ll always have a passion for mental health. I’ve become a life coach because I want to help people evolve, unblock their potential and live the life they deserve to live. We have only one chance at life,” says Aoife.
It’s important to spot when someone might be drowning rather than waving but, beyond just surviving and life feeling tolerable, the aim must be for it to become good again. After firefighting, fresh growth must be nurtured rather than the scarred earth remaining bare.
“There was a time when I was in a dark place and didn’t know where I was going or how to get out. Even just talking is a pathway, knowing that it is there and that you are loved. I had the support network, but you have to keep tapping into it and also really look within yourself.
“It’s about helping share the light, helping people unlock their own potential. I’m excited about becoming a life coach for that reason and this is my third year as an ambassador for Darkness Into Light.
“Apart from fundraising, the symbolism of bringing in the sunrise together is important. We want people to know that there’s hope and support out there, and never to feel alone. It’s about raising awareness regarding mental health and taking outdated stigmas away.”
Given Aoife’s own footballing background, there’s an obvious synergy given that, along with the enduring partnership with Darkness Into Light, Electric Ireland are major commercial backers of women’s soccer including promoting the concept of Game Changers.
“Electric Ireland have been so supportive with regards to both things. That’s fitting for lots of sportspeople are dealing with mental health (issues),” says Lennon, herself a sportsperson who has faced challenges and doesn’t want to be defined by either label exclusively.
That brings us seamlessly on to the recent exploits of the Northern Ireland women’s team who upset Ukraine with a deserved victory in the European Championships play-off to qualify for a major tournament for the first time ever.
She doesn’t want to deflect from last month’s heroics by talking about her own international career but, from previous personal involvement, Lennon knows what an achievement this is and is thrilled for friends and footballers she has played with and against in the past.
“I’m so happy and proud of them. I know the hard work they put in and the sacrifices they’ve made to get here. Credit too to the philosophy (manager) Kenny (Shiels) came in with. He believed in the girls and gave them the freedom to play.
“We’ve seen the team spirt and the passion. They give every ounce and now they’re heading to the biggest tournament of their lives. They have created history in Northern Ireland, they are inspirations. They really do deserve support and recognition.”
She’s particularly pleased for those long-serving stalwarts who have been there since the mid-noughties, never giving up on their dream during unproductive periods when reaching their sporting promised land must have seemed a long way off.
“Absolutely, they have incredible belief and passion, the love to play for their country. They work hard and Kenny’s philosophy has got the best out of the team. I know what they put in, but I’m an outsider now, so don’t like to say too much.
“I don’t even think I want much to be said about the fact I played previously because I don’t want to be jumping on the bandwagon. All the fame belongs to these present players, it’s amazing for them and I’m so proud of them.”
Although she has played at international level, Lennon is probably best known in soccer for her leading role in Newry’s remarkable rise and, although much has changed since, she still recalls that special chapter proudly and with happiness.
“It’ll always be remembered as one of the most special times in my life. I went to Newry with a dream and walked away having achieved it. We won the Premiership, played in the Champions League. It was brilliant being part of that and leading those girls.”
The other brightest star in that Newry soccer side was Aimee Mackin, who was also capped at senior international level as a schoolgirl, but has become more famous for her gaelic football brilliance and is the current All Ireland Player of the Year in that code.
Lennon has watched with interest and delight while her old team-mate has mopped up plaudits and accolades and is full of praise for the Camlough girl, who she describes as ‘a class act and a lovely person’.
“I think we all know she’s one of the most talented footballers that has been produced. She’s just an all-rounder, unbelievably good at soccer too. I admire her for everything, especially bouncing back so well from a major injury and there’s still so much more to come.”
After Newry folded, Mackin switched to Strabane side Sion Swifts along with Moya Feehan though she hasn’t played any soccer since rupturing her cruciate in July 2019 while, although Lennon joined Glentoran for the 2018 season, she has stopped playing too.
Being associated with Glentoran now would be a source of shame in many people’s eyes, so it’s a blessing Lennon isn’t involved with that particular club, but she is content enough to be sitting out the new domestic season anyway.
“Just like I said (regarding the Armagh gaelic county team), it’s not the time for me (for NI Premiership soccer). Football isn’t my life anymore, I’ve found something bigger and deeper,” she insists, though who knows what the future holds in terms of opportunities.
She doesn’t feel qualified to offer an opinion on the alarming lack of depth at the top end of women’s soccer in Northern Ireland with just six clubs in the Premiership and still some mismatches, but hopes there will be positive spin-offs from the national team success.
LENNON IN TUNE WITH CHAMPIONS HARPS
Aoife Lennon has had plenty of highlights in her sporting career as two types of footballer but winning the ladies gaelic county title last September with her local club Armagh Harps holds a special place in her heart.
This is a sportswoman who has played international soccer, captained Newry City Ladies to the NI Premiership title in women’s soccer and led them into Europe, pulled on Armagh gaelic’s orange jersey and shone as the Orchard crew reached an All Ireland semi-final.
Those are all achievements to be proud with many memorable moments along the way, but the Harps triumph felt like winning with family almost and, coming after a 22-year wait since the club’s last Senior Championship success, it brought great joy to many.
Harps are worthy champions too, for never in the history of the competition has a team had to win three such tough games to take the county title, and it was also sweet because of coming in a season that at one stage looked like not happening at all due to the pandemic.
One striking aspect was the obvious bond between the Harps players in spite of the vast age range in the starting team from 40 down to 17, and the presence of big sporting personalities who have achieved plenty elsewhere but happily pulled together here.
“You create that among yourselves. Sport has no age. The older girls believe in the younger ones. Some are like your wee sister, you put your arm around them, make them feel special,” says Aoife.
“It’s important players feel free to express themselves and enjoy it, and that we empower each other. Each of us has done that and, whatever age you are, you can be a leader,” insists Lennon, who herself captained Newry City Ladies soccer club aged just 17.
From talking to those involved, it is also apparent that this was the culmination of a three-year project under manager Paddy McShane, delivered through a lot of hard work, which came together gloriously in those special few weeks last August and September.
After running Carrickcruppen excruciatingly close in the 2018 Senior Championship quarter-final, a favourable draw helped Harps reach the following season’s showpiece where they were reasonably comfortably beaten by Clann Eireann on the evening.
However, winning a first league title in a quarter of a century was a stepping stone as was the club’s first ever Armagh Minor Championship success, under the same manager, McShane, assisted by several senior players, including Lennon.
“Harps have been on an incredible journey. Winning the Senior Championship was something we’d set out to go after when Paddy became manager and each year we’d added to our credentials and capacity.
“When (the original) lockdown came, it really made us appreciate sport and each other. We worked hard on our own, we stuck together as a team even when we had to train remotely. It was great when we were able to get back out.”
In spite of firm foundations having been laid over previous seasons and the addition of Galway great Sinead Burke to an already impressive panel, Harps had a difficult draw and appeared undercooked for facing champions Clann Eireann quite quickly in the quarter-final.
However, Harps were convincing victors on the evening as a superb performance saw them lead from start to finish against the Lurgan giants, who hadn’t lost an Armagh Championship match to any club except Cruppen for 15 years.
The job was far from done though with a very dangerous and ambitious Shane O’Neills side lying in wait in the semi-finals so, although Harps could take confidence from scalping Clann Eireann, Lennon was well aware they couldn’t get ahead of themselves.
“We weren’t as surprised (as others) about beating Clann Eireann because we knew we were ready. We had a philosophy and a plan, the hard work was put in before, everyone was on the same page and, on the day, we showed up, delivered and deserved victory.
“After beating Clann Eireann, it would have been easy to think this was just going to be our year, to slip off the pedal a bit, but we turned up in Middletown for the next game knowing there was a big job to do.”
Having played soccer with the Mackin sisters and Moya Feehan, Lennon knew all about the quality in the Shanes side and Harps had to deal with adversity, finding themselves six points behind at the first water-break having also lost a couple of players to injury.
Lennon had to leave the field herself for a period in the second half but, like Leah McGoldrick, courageously returned to the fray and netted the team’s third goal which proved the difference for Harps in what ended up a two-point win.
“Things didn’t go the way we wanted early on against Shanes, including losing a couple of players, and although we turned it around, they threw everything at us again in the closing stages when we were hanging onto a small lead.
“We really dug deep when we had to, we showed class and team spirit and I was so proud of the demeanour, strength and belief from our team. At six down, we could have thought the game was just going to go against us or we could have let the win slip away at the end.
“But we were able to call upon that spirit and belief forged in each other. Resilient teams can fall down and get up again. We knew we had to be patient and remain focused. Winning was very satisfying for us but we knew there was a tough final to come.”
In the Athletic Grounds showpiece, Harps faced Carrickcruppen, who were appearing in their 11th county final in 13 seasons, had incomparable captain Caroline O’Hanlon pulling the strings and the elements at their back in the second half as they tackled an interval deficit.
“When you’re ahead at half-time, you really have to focus for the second half and remain calm and humble. We were facing the wind and knew we would have to dig deep. We were so close to getting our trophy, so were willing to do whatever it took.
“Whatever they threw at us, we had the belief that this was our destiny and everyone held onto that. We held our composure, battled for everything and each player’s effort showed what winning would mean to us.
“This county title win was a long time coming so meant an awful lot the club. We were also pushed on by remembering what losing the final the year before felt like. That gave us the drive and the thought of winning gave us goosebumps.”
Backed by a great team effort, the Harps big guns produced the goods and Lennon herself was strikingly pumped up, possibly the most visibly so of the entire team. She looks slender, almost fragile compared to some players, but wasn’t shirking the physical contact.
Lennon understands now that a healthy life can’t entirely revolve around the pursuit of sporting outcomes but she also knows what a wonderful feeling it is to achieve something special with your team.
To finally achieve their holy grail brought great relief and delight for the Harps players, especially those who have been around for many years, but Lennon was especially pleased for manager McShane, to whom she pays glowing tribute.
“Paddy was the person that deserved the success the most and I don’t think what we have achieved would have happened without him. His contribution to this can’t be overstated and is to be greatly admired. I’m almost lost for words to sum up what he does for us.
“He has sacrificed a lot of things, in his business and personal life, because of his incredible commitment to the team. Paddy has such passion for the team and has absolute belief in the players and always wants the best for us as people, not just footballers.
“Paddy came in with a vision and the hunger and drive and commitment to deliver on it. It took time to come to fruition but he stuck at it. He sets the tone and, because everyone respects him, we were willing to follow his plan.
“As a manager he treats everyone the same and keeps us all in check. He’s an absolute gentleman, who has done a lot for me personally, including giving me the chance to come back and play for Harps after being away from it.
“He deserves the utmost respect and, knowing how much he wanted it for us, I’m glad we won the Championship for his sake. Now we’re really enjoying being back training these past few weeks and looking forward to the new season starting.”
Especially with a significantly increased number of colleagues having county commitments this season, having a quality, experienced player like Lennon still there is useful for McShane, who had got her involved with coaching the club’s Minors in 2019.
“Paddy asked several of us to come in and help him out. We enjoyed guiding the girls, giving them the encouragement to believe in themselves and go out and enjoy their football. It was a new experience for me and it was great that the girls won the championship.
“We’ve seen the impact these up-and-coming stars have had in our senior team,” says Lennon, who has no immediate desire to join seven other Harps players, including three teenagers, who are part of the Orchard county panel in 2021.
“Right now, that’s not my focus. I see life differently now and my mind is on other things. I’m happy to dedicate my time to my upcoming (life coaching) career and playing for Harps, which is important to my family too.
“Everything happens for a reason and my approach to sport has changed. Life’s short and I want to do other things so the timing isn’t right, though I feel I’m still young,” says a player who has still plenty of sporting life left in her.
“I can’t have an opinion on what someone else wants to do, they’ll know themselves, but clearly they (young Harps players) want to play and learn and develop and become better footballers. They should benefit from them the experience and you want the best for them.”
Although not directly involved, naturally Lennon took a keen interest in that hugely encouraging Orchard campaign last autumn which culminated in Armagh being crowned Ulster champions for the first time in six seasons.
Aoife’s Harps colleague Kelly Mallon had the honour of lifting the trophy as skipper, her old soccer clubmate Aimee Mackin was crowned All Ireland Player of the Year and of course she herself was part of the last Armagh team to reach the All Ireland last four in 2015.
“It was inspiring sitting at home watching the girls going so well. I’m always so proud of them anyway because I know what it feels like to be there and what it means to players pulling on that orange jersey.
“People don’t see the work which goes in and how hard players work to get to that level. It’s good that the Armagh matches were televised, for the girls deserve visibility, support and more recognition,” says Lennon, who hopes female sport can keep progressing.
“I think you sometimes don’t realise the impact sport can have on young girls growing up. People are starting to believe in female sport and rightly so because sportswomen sacrifice so much.
“Most players, even at an elite level, in female sport are also working 40-50 hours per week. They’re doing it because they love it and are passionate about it, rather than for financial reward, and don’t generally get much recognition either.
“Not only do they deserve more profile but better visibility means young girls can see inspirational role models to look up to. That in turn will encourage the next generation of potential top players to believe anything’s possible and follow their sporting dreams.
“Otherwise a lot depends on chance, personal circumstances and even maybe whether their family may be interested in sport. So some may miss out on finding something they may have a natural talent for and get fulfilment from.
“It’s great when a coach sees something in a child and helps nurture that, because sport can help personal development and enhance confidence. Other things can come along in life and it’s easy for young ones to walk away especially if they aren’t really enjoying it.
“It’s about creating a community and a safe space in which, as a young player, you can have fun and get enjoyment, where you can be yourself and play with freedom and belief and not feel competitive pressure too soon.”
With increased exposure for female sport, young girls will have more role models to identify with than ever, including locally, and Lennon herself has enjoyed some magic moments through the years, generating eye-catching clips and iconic images.
A stunning goal she scored for Newry in 2016 went viral and, the previous summer, Lennon had kicked a spectacular point for Armagh from an almost impossible angle way out on the right near the end line.
Having just started playing again for Harps, she had been parachuted into James Daly’s Armagh squad and top-scored as the orangewomen won a pulsating game against Donegal to set up an All Ireland semi-final clash with Dublin.
“Sport has ups and downs but you hold onto those memories. I’ve won silverware with different teams and had the honour of lifting trophies as a captain. Those rewards were why you did it and those special moments made the necessary sacrifices feel worthwhile.
“It’s natural to highlight goals or points, but those wouldn’t have been scored without being given the ball by team-mates. Everybody’s talent is unique and we all try to add something to our teams, whatever our roles.