The old adage ‘there’s no place like home’ will have particular resonance for sporty sisters Niamh and Aoife Forker when Clonmore hosts its first ever Ulster Club Championship match this Sunday (2pm) against Derry opposition.
Playing this tie on their own pitch, replete with newly-laid goalmouths, will be an historic occasion for the Clonmore community and the first time the local club’s ladies have been involved in a provincial competition.
But even just wearing the Clonmore colours this weekend will be a source of great pride for the Forkers, who have lined out for quite a number of other teams through the years both at club and representative level.
Because of coming from near the county boundary, they initially played underage camogie for Edendork and Tyrone before switching to Port Mor and Armagh, for whom both siblings have played at adult level.
They started playing gaelic football alongside the boys in Maghery up until the age of 12 and then Grange gave them a temporary home in the big ball code before Clonmore could field their own ladies side.
The talented Forkers have enjoyed considerable success with other teams and are grateful for the experiences along the way but getting over the line with Clonmore in last month’s Armagh Junior final after the hurt of three decider defeats has a special place in their hearts.
“We’ve maybe been better known for camogie through the years, but I think we actually live closer to the pitch in Clonmore than any of our squad,” says Niamh, currently finishing off a Masters in Limerick having graduated from Ulster University Jordanstown in Sports Science.
“There’s real local pride, everyone comes out to each other’s matches – the men’s players will turn out to watch our games and vice versa – and there’s people down at the pitch every night. It’s a club very much at the heart of the community.
“There have obviously been memorable experiences elsewhere, with Armagh and other clubs, but this success with Clonmore means the world to us and it was so surreal to win eventually after falling short on those previous occasions.”
Along with the likes of skipper Emma Conlon, prolific forward Sarah Quigley and Niamh’s fellow midfielder Riona Cunningham, the powerful Forkers are key figures for Clonmore who bring great physicality and valuable big game experience from camogie.
That’s important, particularly in the context of this young team whose oldest player is full back Emily Mullen at 24, and the siblings do acknowledge the responsibility on their shoulders, albeit that’s something they relish rather than shy away from.
“We know we really need to perform for Clonmore, but all the experiences we’ve had up until now do stand to us and have made us the players we are, whether that’s playing county camogie, winning at club level with Eire Og or even losing those first few football finals.
“In 2018, we got there by default – from memory a bye into the semi-finals and then Clann Eireann Seconds pulled out – and we were very young back then and very naïve. I don’t think we even realised how big an occasion it was so weren’t even that nervous.
“We were beaten by Mullabrack, and then lost to Clan na Gael in the final in Portadown the following season. Then in last year’s final, we got a great start but came out the wrong side against Derrynoose so the pressure was really on this season to go all the way.
“That quest to finally win the Junior Championship has been a bit mentally draining. There was silence initially at half-time for we’d come in level after being four points up. We knew we needed to go out and up our game and thankfully that’s what happened,” says Niamh.
Aoife adds: “We’ve had a tendency to start well and die off for 20 minutes but we’re a strong second half team, which is probably a testament to our character. The fact Clann Eireann (Seconds) had scored the last four points of the first half was probably a good wake-up call.
“We knew we couldn’t let it slip away again and the hurt from getting beaten in the other three finals drove us on. Tara (Conlon) got a goal very early in the second half and that was the perfect platform for us to push on.”
There were just 17 seconds gone when the younger Conlon sister raised that green flag and Clonmore never looked back, outscoring their opponents by 2-7 to 0-1 in the last half hour to win by the relatively emphatic margin for a final of 12 points.
“When Tara scored that goal, I could have cried for it just really lifted the pressure so much. In the end, we were far enough ahead to be able to enjoy the final few minutes – I remember looking at the clock with two minutes left and thinking ‘we’ve actually done this’.
“Our goalkeeper Rebecca couldn’t see the timer on the scoreboard from her position so she was a little more stressed, but we were all absolutely buzzing when the final whistle went and it was extra special that it was in the Athletic Grounds,” reflects Niamh.
“I’ve played there for Armagh and Port Mor, as well as that first final with Clonmore, but this was the best feeling, even compared to that All Ireland Junior camogie win in an empty Breffni Park during the pandemic when we weren’t allowed to take the trophy home.”
The Forkers have had plenty of silverware wins in camogie, initially in Tyrone colours with Niamh shining in lower tier titles triumphs for the Under 14, Under 18 and Minor age groups before swapping the red hand for the orange jersey of Armagh.
Since switching allegiance from Tyrone, Niamh spent several seasons in the Orchard panel and picked up that All Ireland Premier Junior Championship medal in 2020 when the second string teams from the southern counties couldn’t compete due to coronavirus restrictions.
She has also tasted defeat in Croke Park with Armagh, but enjoyed being joined in the county set-up last year by younger sibling Aoife, who won an All Ireland camogie title in her time at St Pat’s Academy Dungannon.
Incidentally, Niamh had left school the year before a St Pat’s Academy team featuring five Clonmore clubmates – the two Conlons, Quigley, Riona Cunningham and Rebecca Dobbin Donaghy – had won the All Ireland Under 20 B Championship.
Clonmore have nine dual players in their ranks including three sets of sisters – the Forkers, Emma and Tara Conlon, Rebecca and Maighread Cunningham – along with goalkeeper Donaghy and young Jessica Traynor, who are all with Port Mor.
Additionally, Francine Farley is attached to serial Tyrone champions Eglish and Niamh admits the logistics can be challenging in terms of avoiding direct clashes and trying to keep player loads at optimal levels.
“It can conflict a bit but most of our managers have worked well with it at club level. County camogie has wiped us out of football for periods though, but we weren’t with Armagh this year as I’ve been studying in Limerick and Aoife was based in Belfast but doesn’t drive.”
Their regular availability was beneficial for Clonmore, who once again were seen as strong contenders for Junior Championship success, though they were apprehensive for the semi-final away to Pearse Og, who had knocked out second division outfit Tir na nOg.
“We’d all gone to that match and Pearse Og played unbelievably well so we were nervous going into the semi but Caitriona Carmichael marked their best player out of it and we won well so were able to take confidence into the final the following weekend,” says Aoife.
“I think that performance meant we were actually less tense going into the final even though we’d lost to Clann Eireann Seconds in the league, a very good game on a really hot day. It was a tight turnaround after the semi, but we had a sense of momentum,” adds Niamh.
“Clann Eireann have girls like Aoife McDonald, an unbelievable player, and Evie McCafferty with big futures, but we have an experienced core group who have been together right through and younger ones who are really stepping up.”
Some of this team had won an Armagh Intermediate title with Port Mor camogs in 2019 but this historic championship success with Clonmore was extra special and Aoife fondly recalls “walking up those steps with Niamh and the whole team, who really are like family.”
“I don’t think we could have partied harder and the celebrations went on for about 10 days, but with the big gap to the Ulster Championship starting we had that luxury of taking a week off training and really getting to enjoy our achievement,” explains Niamh.
“But we’ve been back training hard ever since and now can’t wait for this tie. It will be something new obviously, a first ever provincial championship match for Clonmore ladies and the first time our club has hosted any Ulster tie so it will be an historic occasion.
“An away game might have been an adventure of sorts but getting on the bus and going a long journey could have left time to really get nervous so I’m delighted we have home advantage and no doubt there’ll be a great turnout to support us,” she enthuses.
Aoife enjoyed her one senior season with the Orchard camogs, but the 20-year-old Ulster University Sports Studies undergraduate, who is based at their newly-developed Belfast campus, is playing gaelic football for Jordanstown this new academic year.
Niamh had a year of age group football for Armagh and, although as stated earlier, the pair are probably better known for camogie up until now, that could change or they may even embrace another new sporting challenge in the coming months.
But for now, it’s all about the place closest to their hearts, playing with friends and neighbours, girls they’ve grown up with, for this close-knit community club and these strong young women with their big game experience will have vital roles to play this Sunday.