SUCCESS IS A FAMILY AFFAIR FOR EIMEAR
Love of family, a passion for sport, vocation for teaching and pride in where she comes from are important pillars in Eimear O’Kane’s life and intricately interwoven threads in the tapestry of the 25-year-old Blackwatertown woman’s story.
Since mourning the loss of her uncle in late August, a taste of sporting success already this autumn has brought joy for O’Kane and, with the potential of an exciting few weeks ahead, there are hopes that this harvest season will bear further fruit.
Having only featured for the closing few minutes of last September’s showpiece as the Armagh Harps ladies footballers claimed their first Senior Championship success since 1998, O’Kane was in the starting team as the Abbey Park women won last month’s final.
Then, last weekend, Eimear captained Port Mor to victory over Crossmaglen in camogie’s Armagh Senior Championship quarter-finals, setting up a showdown with Granemore in the Athletic Grounds next Wednesday night for a place in next month’s decider.
Before then, the Harps footballers are away to Antrim champions Moneyglass this Sunday (2pm) in the Ulster Senior Club quarter-finals, so it’s a busy schedule for O’Kane but, if her teams can keep winning and avoid direct scheduling clashes, it’s all good.
Eimear was replaced by younger sister Orla towards the end of the county football final but the camogie is even more of a family affair with mum Mairead being the Port Mor manager and a third sibling Caoimhe also in the team!
Last time Port Mor were dining at the top table was when the then Mairead Donnelly and her sisters were influential figures more than a quarter of a century ago and now the younger generation are putting their club back on the camogie map.
They have had a meteoric rise through the grades again in recent years, winning the Armagh Junior Championship in 2018, claiming the Intermediate title the following season and now chasing a first Senior success since the year present skipper Eimear was born.
“There was Covid disruption last year, so we weren’t playing league games against all the top teams and then I broke my hand just before the club championship, so this is really our first proper Senior season as such and we’ve wanted to give it a good go,” she says.
“The club had success back in my mum’s time and now the daughters of some of that team are involved in what has been a real revival in recent years. It’s a vibrant young playing group, with my cousin being the oldest at 26, so hopefully we can keep progressing.
“I won two Junior Championships playing alongside Mummy and I actually got Player of the Match in one of them but, because of being so young at the time, I then became ineligible briefly when the new rule came in which said you had to be 16 to play adult level!
“Naturally, it’s nice playing alongside my sisters. Caoimhe (21) is a newly-qualified teacher, Orla (19) is currently at St Mary’s University College and I’m teaching in the local school, St Jarlath’s Blackwatertown, so we’ve that career choice in common too.
“I’ve been in St Jarlath’s for three years and am loving it. I’ve also started to coach the Under 8s and Under 10s in the club along with Caoimhe. There’s a good turnout and the children are really inspired by being able to look up to us as role models.
“Next Wednesday will be the first time we’ve played in the Athletic Grounds with Port Mor and the local children are very excited about coming to watch us,” enthuses Eimear who has been rewarded for giving top priority to club camogie and football this year.
In its pandemic protocols, the Camogie Association forced players to choose between club and county coming into this season and, as well as her understandable loyalty to Port Mor, O’Kane felt she had unfinished business with Harps.
“I’d said to Paddy McShane that I wanted to give Harps a good go this season and earn my place in the team after what had happened personally last year when I’d missed out a bit because of having surgery on my hand three weeks before the county final.
“I’d had a quad injury so hadn’t been playing club camogie but, with Port Mor’s first Senior Championship match coming up a few days after the Harps quarter-final against Clann Eireann, I played in our league game on the Wednesday night to help prepare me.
“Unfortunately, I broke my hand and had to ring Paddy in tears. I had to get a plate and five pins put in. I got on for the last few minutes of the final when we won, which was still better than nothing, and ending the long wait (for another county title) was great for the club.”
All three O’Kane sisters were in the Armagh camogie panel last autumn which won an All Ireland Junior Championship hollowed out by the second strings of other counties not being allowed to take part, though timing once again wasn’t on Eimear’s side.
“I was dropped before the final after isolating due to Covid, though I did have the satisfaction of coming on against Cavan in Breffni Park,” says O’Kane, who missed out on this season’s Orchard run to Croke Park and a Premier Junior decider defeat to Wexford Seconds.
The day of that camogie final, Harps were facing Clann Eireann in the Orchard club football semi, a titanic tussle which the Abbey Park women won with a last-gasp goal from Aoife Lennon before going on to a second successive showpiece win over Carrickcruppen.
Togging out in Croke Park would have been nice, but O’Kane has got her reward with Harps, having made a conscious choice to commit to what is a very impressive set-up under manager McShane, head coach Joe Feeney and skipper Fionnuala McKenna.
“I felt we’d something good going on with Harps, I wanted to play a full part there and the decision has paid off. I’ve worked really hard on my own training and having Joe Feeney there has meant top-class coaching. He reminds me of my mum with the camogie.
“As players, we have to be so thankful for the work Paddy has put in and our success is ultimately down to him. I was delighted when he phoned to say he was coming in ahead of the 2018 season and he has brought everything we’d have hoped for.”
Like O’Kane with Port Mor camogs, Harps have had McKenna as club captain for a number of years rather than chopping and changing and Eimear admires her fellow school-teacher along with Armagh skipper Kelly Mallon and Galway great Sinead Burke.
“Kelly’s brilliant. She’s always encouraging us, telling everyone to keep their heads up and back themselves and not worry too much about mistakes. She’s a real role model, quite quiet but speaks with authority and very effectively so everyone listens.
“Sinead has had a great career for Galway, but has fitted in so well with Harps since coming here. She’ll happily partner up with anyone in training and is just the nicest person on the team. The senior players set a great example and don’t have big egos.”
This Harps squad is a coalition of formidable people, many of whom have had notable achievements with other teams or in other sports and held leadership roles elsewhere, including O’Kane, and has a wide age range, but that remarkable mix works well.
The dynamic young guns are trusted to deliver and have great respect for their elders in return so, rather than the whole proving less than the sum of the disparate parts, it is actually proving a brilliant blend which can deliver results.
“There’s an age range of nearly 24 years in the regular team and other even younger ones coming through like Eimear Finn and Aobh McGleenan. It’s a great set-up to be part of and I’ve really enjoyed this season so far.
“Even after the big breakthrough last season, the hunger was still as strong this time and we wanted to prove that win was no flash in the pan. We knew other teams would be gunning for us, but we felt we could deliver another title.”
O’Kane missed the preliminary round game against Grange due to the family bereavement and, after a comprehensive victory over Crossmaglen in the quarter-final, Harps faced a Clann Eireann side strengthened from the one they had dethroned last season.
“We knew what Clann Eireann were going to bring and us being (reigning) county champions guaranteed nothing. They’ve a lot of medals in their team and a lot of county players and I felt it could be out toughest game in two seasons.
“I don’t usually be as nervous for football as camogie, maybe because I’ve the responsibility of the club captaincy at Port Mor, but I was that day. We just got over the line in the end and beating them gave us great confidence for the final.
“To start this season’s final was special for myself and being replaced late on by Orla was a lovely family moment. Especially after the death in the family, the club championships were something to look forward to and winning with Harps gave us a real lift.
“Sport is something which we all love, and we talk to each other about a lot at home. Caoimhe hasn’t been involved with Harps the past two seasons, but Orla is there and in fact came through all those successful age group teams under Paddy’s management.
“My family would travel anywhere to watch me play, including down to Galway when I was vice-captain of the St Mary’s camogs, so it was great they could be in the Athletic Grounds for both finals in spite of the various restrictions there have been, including my aunties.”
With another Armagh Senior Championship medal for football under her belt, O’Kane switched her focus to camogie and the visit of another rising force, Crossmaglen, in what felt like a good draw for either team.
“We’ve always had good battles with Cross. They’ve had an extra season in Senior and playing those league games against the better teams is beneficial. I’ve played under their manager Micheal Murphy for Armagh and knew they’d be well prepared.
“But we’d done our homework well and got the win in what was a good game. We’ll definitely be underdogs on paper for the semi-final against Granemore, who have plenty of Senior Championship pedigree whereas we’re still new to this level.
“They beat us in the Championship last year, when Orla got badly injured in the original game and ended up in hospital with a split liver. Granemore are skillful and well-drilled, but we’ll give it a good go and it should hopefully be a very good game.
“Credit to the girls who are back at university for their commitment to training and there’s added excitement from the fact we’re playing in the Athletic Grounds for the first time as a team so everyone’s looking forward to it, including our supporters,” she enthuses.
Before then, Harps have this Sunday’s Ulster Senior Club Championship match away to a Moneyglass side who took the Antrim title in stunning style by thrashing holders St Paul’s of Belfast 7-11 to 1-6 in their recent county final.
Considering St Paul’s beat a Harps side depleted by Covid issues a week after last season’s Orchard title triumph, O’Kane knows the Abbey Park women will need to be at their best to progress in the provincial competition.
“Moneyglass are a new team to us, though I played with their Antrim goalkeeper Anna McCann for St Mary’s, but they beat St Paul’s by a big score so will be tough opponents. Everyone’s really looking forward to us and we don’t want the season to end yet.
“It’s great still to be training with two teams in October and I’m genuinely enjoying it. As a sportswoman it’s nice to feel so supported in both clubs,” reflects Eimear, whose Harps footballer brother Tom O’Kane has also been involved with coaching Port Mor camogs!