HENDRON’S ALL IRELAND DREAM STILL ON /
HENDRON SETS SIGHTS ON BANJO GLORY
As a prolific ladies gaelic football forward, a hat-trick is nothing new to Ballyhegan’s Blathnaid Hendron, but a triple celebration like the young county player enjoyed on a super Saturday last month would count as special in anybody’s book.
The multi-talented Hendron marked her 21st birthday by being crowned banjo champion at the Ulster Fleadh in Dromore before rushing home to show her scoring prowess as Ballyhegan hammered Mullaghbawn 7-15 to 1-6 in a McGuinness Plumbing League game!
“It was a memorable birthday alright! Although mum and dad don’t play themselves, my family are interested in traditional music and we’re members of Armagh Pipers Club. I spent summers at the Willie Clancy Music Festival down in county Clare.
“I’ve always entered the Ulster Fleadh and have come second and third in tin whistle but never been placed in banjo before. Winning was a massive honour and something I’ll be proud of forever,” declares Blathnaid, who will now compete at national level this weekend.
So, although a TG4 Senior Championship quarter-final loss to Cork brought Hendron’s first Orchard campaign to a close, dashing hopes of featuring in this Sunday’s showpiece in Croke Park, she still has the chance to claim an All Ireland title that same day of August 13.
On the back of her Ulster success, Blathnaid will be going for banjo glory at the All Ireland Fleadh in Mullingar on Sunday and thereafter her attention will turn to Ballyhegan’s maiden Armagh Senior Championship campaign, which begins the following weekend.
The Davitts are up to the top tier thanks to their comprehensive victory over Mullabrack in last autumn’s Intermediate decider, when the lethal Hendron was an easy choice for Player of the Match after hitting an astonishing 4-10.
“It was really special playing in the Athletic Grounds again. I’d played there aged just 15 when we won the Armagh Junior final in 2017, and I’d had a decent enough game, but there hadn’t been another opportunity until last October.
“In the semi-finals we had a good win against Clan na Gael, who we’ve had a good rivalry with in recent years, so everyone was looking forward to the big game and thankfully things went well against Mullabrack,” she says, in something of an understatement.
Ballyhegan ladies secured the highest honour in their history by winning 6-20 to 1-7 with a rampant performance, spearheaded by Hendron’s huge haul, though she wasn’t aware of her exact tally until afterwards.
“You’re never counting up, but as a forward it’s nice to feel that you’re doing your job getting scores to reward the team’s hard work. It’s a responsibility trying to take the right options and there’s pressure to make chances count.
“It’s nice when everything comes together, especially in a final. We’d been beaten by Lissummon in the 2020 final when we weren’t really ready for the physicality but last October was a good day for myself, the team and our club, and we enjoyed the celebrations.”
Her exceptional exploits not only earned the UCD Commerce Student a Buttercrane Championships All Star but also a coveted call-up to the senior county panel by Orchard supremo Shane McCormack, and she has had a fulfilling first season in the orange jersey.
After making her first Armagh appearance as a sub in January’s opening National League game away to Cavan, Hendron was handed surprise starts in the next two and had the thrill of coming off the bench at Croke Park in April’s Division Two final victory over Laois.
She scored her first Armagh point in front of a five-figure crowd in Clones against Cavan in a curtain-raiser to the men’s Ulster final, featured in the subsequent ladies showpiece at Owenbeg and raised the Orchard’s last white flag of the year in the recent Cork clash.
McCormack has stepped down from the Orchard helm since the team’s All Ireland exit but Hendron is grateful for the former Kildare goalkeeper’s willingness to give game-time to fresh faces in 2023, when she had involvement in all but three of Armagh’s 14 matches.
“I’ll always be incredibly grateful to Shane for being given good opportunities, because players can come into a county panel and go years without getting their chance,” reflected Hendron, speaking before McCormack’s recent departure was announced.
“A county call-up was something I’d been working towards and always aspired to but I’d never been approached until Shane rang after Ballyhegan were knocked out of the Ulster Club Championship last autumn.
“Being at university in Dublin meant there would be a bit of travelling but I loved it right from the start. I’ll never forget getting on that first day against Cavan and then to start the next two games was amazing, lining out alongside such good players.
“There’s so much quality in the Armagh squad, you feel you have to earn any involvement, so there’s a sense of achievement when you do get on. It makes those cold nights training at Killean worthwhile and you also see the pride it brings to your family.
“I got a run-out in a challenge game against All Ireland champions Meath on a wet night fairly early in January and there was a big buzz from that at the time. Then those opportunities during the National League, as part of a winning team which reached the final at Croke Park.
“That was a very special day. Lining out in Croke Park is the dream as a child growing up playing football in the garden. It was surreal just walking out onto the pitch before the warm-up, it gives you goosebumps.
“I was called on for a few minutes at the end of our win, and again I’m grateful to Shane and (assistant manager) Denise (Jordan) for that and having trust in their less established players and giving us opportunities.
“Then it was special playing in front of that fantastic crowd in Clones, with many thousands of Armagh people there. The atmosphere was amazing and the girls had the match already won when I came on so there was no real pressure and the game was nice and open.
“Scoring my first Armagh point that day was the icing on the cake. The Ulster final a few weeks later was a different feeling because we lost and, looking back on our season now, that Donegal game still sticks in the mind as one that got away.
“I think back on things that I could have done better myself, and us as a team, but as a young player new to county football, it was a valuable experience and I feel like I learned a lot from that match.”
Hendron didn’t feature in the dramatic victory over Mayo as Armagh topped their All Ireland group but was thrown into the fray in the last quarter of that historic home quarter-final against Cork and definitely didn’t look out of place.
She scored a well-taken point and contributed confidently in the intricate attack which led to claims for an Armagh penalty, followed by a Hendron shot being blocked and then that controversial over-carrying call against Aoife McCoy which sealed the Orchard outfit’s fate.
Although she insists that “the result outweighs everything,” Blathnaid also acknowledges that, at this stage of her career, it’s important to harvest the positives and she can reflect with some satisfaction on how well she slotted into such a big game.
“At the start of the year, I’d have bitten your hand off at the thought of being put on in an All Ireland quarter-final, but you’re there to do a job, not just for the sake of it, and I’m proud that I wasn’t shy on the ball or reluctant to get involved,” she reflects.
“Like the Donegal game, you go back over everything and think what could have been done differently but that’s natural with any narrow loss in an important match. There are plenty of improvements to be made but there’s also a lot to encourage us going forward.”
The orangewomen will be under new management when they return to Division One next season after a six-year absence but being on her placement year at Kingspan in Portadown at least means Hendron won’t be up and down the motorway to training two nights a week.
“I played for UCD Seconds this past year and being involved in that has been great for meeting girls from all over the country. Most of my friends in college are people I’ve met through football.”
Before moving on to university, Blathnaid, daughter of the Principal of Lisanally Special School in Armagh, Sandra Flynn, was a pupil of St Patrick’s Academy Dungannon, with whom she won the All Ireland Senior B Schools Cup back in 2019.
“I was one of only three fifth-formers in that team, so one of the youngest. It was very exciting to be part of that success and play under Jacqui McKendry (formerly Clarke, who was joint manager when Armagh reached their only All Ireland final to date in 2006).”
This writer recalls an impressive performance by young Hendron in that year’s Armagh Intermediate semi against Granemore – her self-critical recollection is of missing a penalty – and they also had to lose a final the following season on the way to last autumn’s success.
Ballyhegan go into this month’s Buttercrane Senior Championship quarter-final against Dromahill as underdogs but buoyed by home advantage and backboned by a county quartet which also includes skipper Eve Lavery and the Ferguson sisters, Grace and Maeve.
“It’s great to get a home draw. Senior is a step-up but having the game in Ballyhegan Park will make it a special occasion and we should have a good home crowd behind us. The ladies get good support and there was a big buzz when we won the Intermediate title.
“I feel we deserve to be in Senior now and everyone’s looking forward to the challenge ahead. Just like with Armagh at inter-county level, as a club Ballyhegan want to be playing against the top teams. We were relegated from Division One at the end of my first season.
“We played Dromahill twice in Division Two last year and were probably a bit short of them then, but we have a lot of young players who have kept progressing and there are four of us who have been with county this season so can bring big game experience from that.
“Being with Armagh has probably developed me even more as a person (than a player). You are part of an elite environment, which has high standards and there’s a real intensity in training which helps push everybody to their limits.
“County football is a significant commitment and those who make the effort to go want to make it count. You’re there to give your best and be tested to the full. When you’ve experienced that culture, it’s natural that you go back to your club and drive standards.”
Before Ballyhegan host Dromahill comes this Saturday’s All Ireland Fleadh and, in addition to both being things that she works hard to excel at and gets pleasure from, Hendron sees some compelling parallels between her quests for high-level success with ball and banjo.
“In both cases, you’re expected to perform at a high level and put your best foot forward when it matters most, and with an audience watching. It’s about trying to channel that nervous energy and get the best out of yourself,” reflects this talented all-rounder.