Senior return a further sign of Omagh’s revival

Niall Gartland talks to the Cunningham family about St Enda’s camogie rebirth

MONDAY, May 6 was a quietly momentous day for all those who have put their shoulder to the wheel in aid of Omagh St Enda’s camogie.

After a hiatus of more than three decades, they made their first competitive appearance in adult camogie on a pleasant evening in the town at St Patrick’s Park – and they won, too, overcoming Donegal team Markievicz in their Tyrone Junior League opener.

When camogie was revived in the club back in 2013, the very idea of fielding a senior team was just that – an idea – but a batch of talented youngsters stayed the course and their commitment has helped turn a dream into a reality.

It’s not really about winning trophies; it’s about the love of the game, the camaraderie and in one particular case-study: family.

Three members of the Cunningham family are deeply involved in Omagh’s flagship camogie team. There’s sisterly duo Aine and Emer, both fiercely talented dual players. There’s father Kevin, who manages the team alongside Donal Lagan, and to top it off, Kevin’s wife Ann has traded the football for the camán in the twilight of her own playing career.

Each have an interesting story in their own right and it’s no surprise that Kevin has been at the coalface of camogie’s revival in the club as this isn’t his first rodeo.

A former dual player in his own right, Kevin doubled up as player-manager (alongside the aforementioned Donal Lagan) when Omagh hurling made its long-awaited return at senior level back in 2016. So there’s parallels in that respect, and Kevin recognises that there’s no such thing as an overnight transformation.

“The camogie started out again in 2013 with the u-8s and we kept it going, attending all the Go Game blitzes”, he said.

“We were fortunate enough as we had a crop of good players coming through. We had players who won u-16 and Minor Championships in the football, and a lot of the same players won u-104 and u-16 Camogie Championships.”

He continued: “We had relative success which makes it easier to keep girls involved. We won our first game against Markievicz and then we drew with Greencastle Fr Shields. We’re coming into exams and holidays and we couldn’t field against Edendork, but we have our next game lined up against Brocagh in early July.

“We’re very much in the formative stages, it’s not about trying to win anything – it’s about getting a team established and trying to get two or three younger girls introduced to the squad every year.”

Daughters Aine and Emer are already making their mark at intercounty level. Elder sister Aine starred on the Tyrone team that recently won the Ulster Junior Championship, Tyrone’s first provincial silverware in 13 years.

She jointly captained Tyrone team that won last year’s All-Ireland Minor Championship at C level, while Emer, another prodigious talent, was the stand-out performer as Tyrone retained their minor crown back in April.

Their potential was evident from a very young age, and that was something their parents were keen to nurture, as Ann explains.

“I suppose it all stems from Kevin and his whole background in hurling. We’ve pictures and videos of Aine and Emer pucking about in the garden and playing wee matches, they really enjoyed it and we chatted to other parents and got their children involved too.

“That’s really how it started out, and we still have a good number of girls on the team who came out of Recarson Primary School, who were in the same class as our own two girls.”

A stalwart of Ladies Football in the club, Ann is a total novice when comes to playing Camogie. She’s modest about her own contribution to their burgeoning senior team, but every little helps.

“I played against Markievicz, I came on as a sub and I’m an extra option if we’re low on numbers.

“I wouldn’t have the sharpness or skills as the girls, but I probably do have the physicality.

“I’d never played camogie before, but I’ve been coaching Aine and Emer from a young age and it’s nice to be involved and to see them progressing.

“I did do a foundation course in coaching a good number of years ago when we were starting out, so I knew the skills of the game, but when it came to playing a match, I was still quite fearful.”

Aine and Emer also starred on the Omagh St Enda’s team that won last year’s Tyrone Intermediate title. Ann was also part of that set-up and is glad to have the opportunity to create some lasting memories for the family.

“I’ve probably retired from ladies football about three times at this stage but I’m definitely finished up now. I went back last year because the girls were playing and I thought it would be a nice thing to do.

“I’m not sure if the girls appreciate it fully now, they’re young and taking everything as it comes, but I think in later years we’ll all look back and think that was a really special thing for the family.”

It’s almost a completely different skillset from the ladies game, so Ann says she’s not going to attempt anything too outrageous when given her chance to shine.

“It’s definitely quite different, I suppose in football I’m used to catching and kicking and all the rest of it. When it comes to the camogie, I also find the helmet quite difficult to get used to, it affects your periphery vision a bit. As soon as I pick up the ball, I’m basically laying it off. I’m not about to start heading up the pitch on a solo run, I’ll get rid of it and try to make sure we keep possession.”

Ann isn’t quite sure what the future holds in terms of her camogie career, but she says she won’t let them down if they need an extra body to make up the numbers. She’s found the experience thoroughly gratifying in every respect, drawing a contrast with the more competitive world of local Ladies football.

She said: “There’s always quite a nice atmosphere at the camogie. The football can get quite competitive, the matches can get quite feisty I suppose. There’s maybe a nicer feel to camogie if that makes sense.”

Omagh St Enda’s cater for football, hurling, ladies and camogie, and they make a concerted effort to ensure that everyone gets treated equally, as Ann acknowledges.

“Since I started at a young age, I can see massive improvements in how the girls have been supported in terms of access to facilities, pitches and physios and so on. There’s no issue at all, I don’t see any difference at all in how the boys and girls are treated from a high level, there’s never any favouritism.”

So it’s all positive basically, but time will only tell whether Omagh St Enda’s camogie will flourish and grow at adult level in the years to come. Joint-manager Kevin knows from experience that it won’t necessarily be easy, but if the hurlers can manage it, then why can’t the camogs?

He said: “It’s great to have the flagship senior team, but you still need to have the conveyor belt of coaches and underage players coming behind us to supplement the team over the the next couple of years. That could be the difficult thing as we don’t have the same tradition as some clubs, but we would be hugely encouraging of anyone who wants to get involved to help out, even if they don’t know much about the game.”

Kevin continued: “It would be great if we could replicate what the hurlers have done. People were a little bit dismissive of the hurling team initially and thought it wasn’t being taken seriously, but Donal [Lagan] put in a lot of hard work and now you can see the age profile improve, initially we’d lads in their 40s and now it’s all lads in the early-to-mid twenties.

“It’s a bit different in that sense with the camogie, we’re a very young team to start with. We’re still very much in the formative stages, there’s no real negatives to speak of and we’re just taking it one step at a time.”

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