Derry camogs are preparing for a new season and Dervla O’Kane is again one of their key players. She spoke with Michael McMullan…
IT’S Saturday morning. It’s camogie time. Then again, for Dervla O’Kane, she has never known anything else.
She chats about the game the same way she plays it. Assured. You can sense the enjoyment. Her tone says it all.
With a decade in the Derry senior jersey already behind her, it’s time for breakfast and a chat before a challenge game with Down.
She is a role model for anyone in sport. Derry were chipping away in search for a first All-Ireland since 2012. Some years they were close. Other times, things didn’t go well.
Players came and went but a core stayed together. When you love a sport, that’s what you do. Dervla O’Kane was one of the rocks. It made the magic of last summer in Clones all the sweeter.
The league is just over two weeks away and a run out against Down doubles up as a team bonding day. The mind wanders into what 2024 may bring.
It will conclude with Senior Championship camogie. For now, it’s about getting the building blocks in place.
By day, her job, with Citibank, as an investment banker gives her enough flexibility to mix work and camogie.
Half the week involves a trek on the M2 to and from Belfast. Remote working takes up the other days. Where possible she’ll organise it on camogie days.
Coming from Swatragh and raised on stories of a senior team who won a staggering 19 Senior Championships in a row, camogie is always important.
“When we were growing up and playing, we had coaches that were part of those teams so it was always in the back of your mind,” O’Kane said.
“We always had quite strong underage teams so it was good to keep going with the drive at that time.”
O’Kane would push on into the Swatragh senior team and her name has been a permanent inclusion on the Derry team.
When they ended their All-Ireland famine last summer, Meath were a fitting opponent. Often only the puck of a ball seperated them.
There was a championship clash during Covid when Meath prevailed in an afternoon in Templeport at the end of a year when camogie, like all sports, was scattered across the season.
“They have always been a very strong side,” O’Kane offers. “I remember playing them in Swatragh two years ago and it was the first time we got a win over them. I think, at that stage, we realised we were quite strong.”
The tables were turned last year in the league when Meath came through in a tight encounter.
It kept Derry’s eye in during a season they’d be forced to dig deep on their way to championship glory.
“We didn’t make it easy for ourselves,” O’Kane said. It took extra-time to fend off Kilkenny at Thurles in the semi-final.
After a controlled first half in the final, Meath came storming back and Derry were left to pray Aoife Minogue’s late free didn’t make it between the posts.
The decision was questionable at best, but the sliotar tailed wide. After breathing a collective sigh of relief, Derry finished the job in Clones.
It was one of those memorable days when the crowd energised the game. Players seem to jump higher and run faster. A proper buzz.
After fending off a Meath comeback, Derry found another gear and were able to enjoy the final moments, with one hand and four fingers of the other on the cup.
For the players who had experienced the barren years, it was extra special.
Committing at county level demands time that isn’t always repaid with success. Some players across the sporting landscape eventually pull the plug with the juice not worth the squeeze. Dervla O’Kane is different.
“I have played every year (for Derry) throughout underage, so I have not known anything different and I have got used to it,” she said.
The knocks might take longer to shake off than in the earlier years but her love of camogie is more important. A playing career is short enough.
Thankfully long-term injuries have stayed away with the odd “three or four week” spell of recovery her longest time on the sideline.
What does winning an All-Ireland feel like? Initially, it was disbelief. O’Kane rakes back over the final ten minutes after Meath’s goal. Their lifeline.
“It was still neck and neck,” she recalls of the moment Derry’s season again hung in the balance.
“They got a penalty and it was very similar to what had gone down the week before.”
It was decision time. Stick or twist. Each Derry player made a pact to themselves. It wasn’t happening again. They knew the girls beside them were tuned into the same channel.
“Everyone had that in their head and we had a response right away,” O’Kane explains.
“Mairead McNicholl scored a wonder point and the stand erupted, it was absolutely buzzing. After that it was point after point until we ran away with it in the end.”
It was their time and rounded off a fantastic year for camogie in the county.
St Patrick’s, Maghera completed a clean sweep of Ulster titles. There was All-Ireland success for Derry at underage level and the ambition was being matched at county board level.
“It is as competitive as ever I remember,” O’Kane adds. “Things have been happening that haven’t been seen in the county in a long time.
“Even with the junior clubs, Drumsurn had a successful Ulster campaign this year.
“It is in the best place it has ever been and it is really exciting to see. As long as we get that buy in over the next couple of years it should be a really exciting couple of years to come.”
For O’Kane, it also comes down to buy-in and getting the right people coaching the teams.
Exposure is another thing. The Derry social media channels are awash with photos. Ursula Jacob was the special guest at their recent presentation dinner, a glitzy night of celebration.
“The All-Ireland senior games were on TV before and you are seeing the likes of our games being streamed on YouTube,” O’Kane continued.
“It gives girls more access to be able to see what it is like at senior level, something they can drive towards themselves and to be successful at their own age group.
“People love getting out playing it with their friends and enjoying it.”
O’Kane hopes Derry’s All-Ireland success can light a flame in young players, a willingness to follow in their footsteps.
“Even the support you get when you are on the pitch, it helps drive you on,” she said, pointing to the importance of encouragement on different levels.
“That day in Clones, (against Meath) for us to see the stand full of Derry ones was amazing to see.
“All the good luck messages on social media and it was the same for the colleges in their campaigns.
“The support at the minute is amazing for camogie so I want to make sure that continues to improve.”
On the field, Derry’s defeat to Cork in the 2022 All-Ireland semi-final cut deep. Really deep. Like anyone on a sporting crusade, Derry camogs banked the disappointment.
They were a point ahead with the finish line in sight before two Cork points tore their hopes to pieces.
“That was definitely a painful one,” O’Kane said with conviction of a memory they tapped into in the months after.
“We were kicking ourselves because we had six wides in the first ten minutes. We had the opportunities and ended up losing it ourselves in the end.
“That’s why that one was more painful. That was a kick in the teeth and maybe the kick we needed to actually realise we didn’t want a repeat of it.”
PJ O’Mullan came in as manager for the 2023 season. A new setup always brings a bounce.
“In particular, it was the bond within the team,” O’Kane said of the difference between coming up marginally short and bouncing back to win the All-Ireland.
“It was nothing I have ever experienced before…it was amazing,” she said of the Derry camp.
“That did help and everybody knew the gameplan. Everyone knew what we needed to do.
“It was pretty much about sticking to that to the end. It was about belief as well, belief in the girl beside you.”
Derry open their new season against Carlow when the league resumes on Saturday week.
There is the typical game by game approach in the short term with hope of painting a big picture of a successful league.
From last year’s panel, eight have stepped away. There will be additions later in the season, but, for now, the management have called in a dozen new players.
There is a considerably bigger Sleacht Néill contingent that includes former Down star Brid Rogers.
“In the league, we’ll be working out the different positional things,” said O’Kane, the vice-captain.
“We want to go in with a big performance and to impress in the league.
“We said it was left behind us last year when Meath beat us by two points. We want to right that wrong so we will be going in strong for that one.
“The Sleacht Néill girls have that experience of Ulster. Anna Cassidy has experience from university so there are girls coming with experience of playing with various teams across Ireland.
“Everybody will have something to add and everyone will have something to prove throughout the league, to fight for their own position. That’s what is keeping it interesting as well.”
Saturday’s run out against Down was the latest in a series of warm-up games.
Coming back to training in November helped them get a settled group together and a “four or five week” training block into the tank.
“We are in a better place than we have been in years before with the league,” O’Kane concludes.
“A lot of the time we haven’t started until after Christmas so we have a good bit more fitness work done and I think we are in a good place.”