Antrim camogie legend Mairead McAtamney reflects on a long and successful career

STARTER for ten – who captained a team to All-Ireland glory while her two nieces were also on the team?

For the camogie aficionados of this world, that’s more than enough detail – the answer is Antrim legend Mairead McAtamney, who played for her county for more than two decades and threw herself into coaching, only taking a step back in her mid-seventies.

Now 77, and still feeling the after-effects of a recent knee replacement, McAtamney remains a dab hand on the golf course.

Mentally, she’s also sharp as a tack and has vivid memories of her playing days – when most of the game was played on the ground, teams were 12-a-side and helmets were for motorcyclists.

Her list of accomplishments runs long – she won All-Irelands in 1967 and 1979, won ten Antrim and Ulster Championship titles with Portglenone and a wealth of individual honours, including being named on the Team of the Century back in 2004.

Her playing days began at Dominican Convent Portstewart. The option was straightforward – it was either netball or camogie, and due to circumstances she ended up coaching the team to two Ulster Schools titles when she was only a teenager.

“I thought I’d try camogie, but the PE teacher was big into netball so there was nobody to coach us. Once I got to third year I had to coach the game or it would’ve had to stop. I remember the first game I played in, I was full-forward and I scored eight goals. I never managed that again but that was my introduction to camogie and I thought I might be able to handle this alright.”

McAtamney was thrown into the deep end with the Antrim camogs when she was only 14. She was blackguarded by an opposition player but on the whole it was a much less physical game than it is nowadays.

“There was no such thing as a minor team in those days. I was brought on as a sub against Tipperary when I was 14. It wouldn’t be allowed these days and I can understand why. I was fast and skilful but I was playing against a very experienced girl and she kept sticking her hurley in my side and standing on my toes and I was intimidated.

“But camogie was different back then, it was a lot easier to play than it is now. They play like hurlers now, with physical challenges and shoulders. It was just as well as we had no helmets – mind you I still got plenty of bangs on the head.”

While Antrim won four All-Ireland titles before McAtamney arrived on the scene, they played second fiddle to Dublin. The Dubs were the big fish back then, winning ten All-Irelands on the trot before McAtamney got her hands on an All-Ireland medal in 1967. They defeated Dublin after a replay on a scoreline of 3-9 to 4-2, and it was thoroughly well deserved.

“Dublin were the big team back then and basically won it every single year. I played in a number of All-Ireland finals before 1967 but we were always beaten by Dublin, they’d a great full-forward line.

“We were the only senior team in Ulster so we went into the All-Ireland semi-final automatically, but Dublin always stopped us. It was a delight to finally get the better of them. Dublin fell away after that and Cork came along and dominated.

“It was an exceptional experience but you didn’t have the spectators you have now. We’d have been lucky to have 900 supporters at the game. It’s totally different now, there’s more promotion of the game. A lot of men would’ve said it was an oul doll’s game.

“A lot of the game was played on the ground back then. When coaching youngsters now, I like to concentrate on getting their ground stroke perfect and that makes it easy for them when it comes to playing the ball off the hand.

“It was only 12 a-side and you had a double crossbar as well – one at the top of the posts as well. If the ball went over the top of the crossbar it was ruled out as a wide. It was difficult and a great relief when they finally did away with that one.”

McAtamney won her second All-Ireland medal in 1979 following a gap of 12 years. She said a big reason for the wait was the reluctance of clubs across Antrim to send their best players to the county.

“Clubs didn’t want to send their players to the county and that was a big drawback. That’s only changed relatively recently.

“I remember sitting in Croke Park for the 1978 final alongside another Antrim player. Teams weren’t that strong back then and we thought ‘we could win this if we committed next year’ and we decided to give it ago. There were some great young players coming through the ranks like my nieces Jackie and Siobhan, Mary McMullan, Philomena Gillespie and a few good players from Loughgiel. Jackie headed off to America after we won the All-Ireland which was a big loss, she played centre half-back and was brilliant. She never played camogie again after that.”

Their 2-3 to 1-3 victory over Tipperary in the 1979 final was extra special as McAtamney, who played in midfield, was captain on that occasion.

“I was captain and ready to retire by that stage. It was lovely, it was really out of the blue that we decided to give that season a good rattle. I remember playing against Wexford in Randalstown for the quarter-final and I got married the next week. I went to Jersey for my honeymoon and came back for the All-Ireland semi-final, which luckily enough was in Randalstown as well. I remember doing my training on the beach, there was no such thing back then about being scared of getting injured before matches.”

Indeed, McAtamney attributes her longevity as a player to the hard yards she put in behind the scenes.

“I was 45 when I played my last camogie match, we won the senior championship in Antrim. I was still doing alright. I’d four youngsters in my playing days but I always went out running and I’m a great believer in keeping yourself fit and not just depending on your coach.

“I think that was the secret, and I loved the game as well. I never had many injuries but my wrist has arthritis, there was a particular player who always blocked my wrist instead of my stick. I’ve one artificial knee as well and I’m not getting the other one done as I went through so much pain with the first one. Last week I played only my third round of golf in the last few years.”

One of her proudest honours was when she was named on the Team of the Century back in 2004. She won a whole host of other individual honours as well, but being named alongside some of the greatest camogs of all time, like Una O’Connor and Kathleen Mills, was especially noteworthy.

“I was the only player from Ulster on that team. I got the word to attend the presentation but sometimes you’re nominated and not picked so I didn’t get too excited. When my name was called out it was such a sensation, it felt like the peak of my career as I didn’t just play – I’ve done a lot of coaching and committee work so it truly was something.”

She’s never been shy of an opinion and at times hasn’t been happy with the direction taken by camogie chiefs in Antrim. Things have improved, however, and last year’s Intermediate Championship triumph was a major step in the right direction.

“I always felt the emphasis was on the club scene. I remember being sent to an Antrim gala dinner and I said I was at the county final and there wasn’t two of those players playing for the county. The managers were keeping them for the club.

“Now the whole thing has changed, there’s a great committee in charge of the Antrim county teams. It seems the penny has dropped that it’s an honour to play for your county. It used to annoy me greatly.

“There was no Ladies football in my time as well and to be honest I was so biased against it when it started, as I felt it would take over from camogie. To a certain extent that’s happened but I’m not as biased as I used to be and sometimes I enjoy watching it. The young girls seem to prefer the football but I think that’s because it’s a bit easier to pick up.”

She isn’t immune to the joys of the golf course and has won a number of tournaments. She says there was never any money in the GAA, but that was the nature of the sport and she accepted it.

“It’s a different grip but I’m good at driving, I wouldn’t be as good around the greens as some people as I haven’t the same training as some people.

“I’ve already had two free trips abroad to play golf, I never got so much as a free stick with camogie. That’s changed but the only time I ever got anything with the camogie was when the Derry County Board asked me to coach their u-14s for a week. They gave me a tenner which wouldn’t go far now.

“But the money wasn’t important, I loved coaching for the sake of it. Things have changed now, coaches and managers are getting paid and health and safety has become a very important thing. In my day there wasn’t the money but I never thought anything of it. If someone asked me to coach now I wouldn’t take the money.”

She also says that camogie was a lifeline for her when her husband Liam Magill passed away last year. Her family is steeped in GAA and her son Michael had stints with the Antrim footballers and hurlers.

“It was my lifeline when my husband died, I went up to the pitch every night and spent a couple of hours with the girls, who knew me because I’d coached most of them down the years. I’ve been paid back favourably from that point of view.

“I’ve only been retired for two years but I still help out a bit, I can’t help myself from doing a wee coaching session if I see the wee ones using the wrong technique, swinging their sticks like hockey sticks. I think it’s important that camogie players who have won things get out and coach the young girls coming through as it gives them something to aspire to. I always think the best coaches should be working at underage level as it stops girls from developing bad habits.”

As for regrets, there aren’t many – but she says it is a pity that no video footage exists from her playing days. Still though, it was some career and she’s an icon of Antrim camogie.

“When I played with the county there were never any videos so I never saw myself playing and that saddens me a bit. They take videos of club matches and everything now.

“Eglish were our rivals in Ulster, they were a good team. I remember playing them in Newbridge on a ferocious day and somebody took a video, I tried to get hold of it to no avail. I’d have loved to have had a watch of it, to see what I could’ve done better. Players have every opportunity now because everything is recorded.”

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