Sister act: Armagh ladies stars Aimee and Blaithin Mackin

Two of the best ladies footballers in Ireland come from the same household. Shaun Casey speaks to Aimee and Blaithin Mackin ahead of Armagh’s Ulster final against Donegal this weekend.

2024 has panned out very differently for the Mackin sisters. Aimee has gone to unbelievable new heights in helping Armagh land a historic first ever Division One National League title, while Blaithin has had to watch on from the sidelines.

This weekend, Aimee is preparing for a fifth Ulster final in-a-row and Armagh’s fourth on the trot against Donegal while Blaithin is still working away at her rehab and hoping to get back to play some part in this year’s championship.

It was a challenge game against Donegal before the league even started when Blaithin’s season took an unexpected twist. A collision with the Donegal goalkeeper meant she needed surgery on her MCL, and she’d miss Armagh’s historic league run.

Still, the Shane O’Neill’s sisters, two of the best ladies footballers in the country, helped Armagh land their very first ever Division One league title, beating Kerry in the final. But they both helped in very different ways.

While Aimee was doing the business on the pitch, kicking 1-4 in their three-point victory, Blaithin’s influence was off the field and while she couldn’t lace up the boots, she was happy to make some impact.

“It was tough in some ways, but it still brought the same amount of joy,” said Blaithin, the younger of the two siblings, on Armagh’s league success.

“Watching them win in Croke Park that day, it was so tough because you want to be part of it in a playing capacity, but I feel like I was still a part of it.

“I was still heavily involved and played whatever role I could, even if it was just chatting with the girls and keeping them going in training. I just did my best in that side of it because obviously the playing role was completely ruled out.

“I knew I’d miss the whole league as soon as it happened so I was able to process it. It was hard in some ways because we’d done so well but easier in other ways.

“If we weren’t doing so well, I think that would have been really difficult. I’d have been thinking that maybe I could have helped, even though in reality maybe I couldn’t have.

“But the fact the girls were going so well, and they were a joy to watch, helped a lot. Then they made history then at the end of it all. It would have been lovely to be playing in Croke Park, but I was just still so delighted.”

Now it’s all about carrying that momentum into the championship and Donegal, the reigning champions, stand in the way of a fourth Ulster title in five years. Indeed, it was the Tir Chonaill ladies who toppled Armagh in last year’s decider.

The two teams know each other inside out by this stage and Aimee, one of seven Armagh players that were named on the Team of the League, knows the challenge that the Orchard County have ahead of them.

“Donegal’s a top team and we’ve seen that over the last few years, especially last year. They’ve got great individual players and skilful players and they’re just a good, strong, solid team,” said Mackin, Armagh’s top scorer in the league with an incredible haul of 7-25.

“It’s always a challenge against Donegal. I think the last few years, it’s always been nip and tuck, but we’ll enjoy the build up to it. We just love to train hard and control what we can control, and we know it’s going to be another tough test against Donegal.

“ There are fine margins between winning and losing it and Donegal nipped us last year so it’s an even enough challenge, which makes for a great occasion hopefully.”

Blaithin added, “Donegal and ourselves have had a good few battles over the past few years so we know each other really well.

“The teams have probably changed a bit, but still we know each other inside out, how we play and set up, so it’ll be a really good battle and a good game.”

Growing up, it was always all about football. Everything evolved around Shane O’Neill’s and Armagh. The Mackins were dragged all over the four corners of Ireland, supporting the men in orange and white.

And luckily, four of the six Mackin children have gone on to represent the Orchard County. While Aimee and Blaithin prepare for an Ulster final this week, their brothers, Connaire and Ciaran, went through the same build up last week.

Ciaran played centre half-back for Kieran McGeeney’s men as they lost out to Donegal in a heart-breaking Ulster final penalty shootout while Connaire, the older of the two brothers, was an unused sub.

“Sometimes it might be unwanted advice, but you have to take it anyway,” laughs Blaithin on the subject of growing up in a football mad house, where the game is the only conversation.

“To be fair, obviously the way our house is, it’s all football talk. You get home from the boys match, and you put it back on the TV and you watch it again and it’s the same with our matches.

“Once we get home, dad’s sitting watching them and giving us all the tips of the day and telling us what we did wrong more than what we did right. We do bounce off each other at home.

“We’d be going up there to the leisure centre and using the pool together so we’re lucky in that sense, we’re always talking about and preparing for matches.

“Dad sort of heads it all. He might have the sweets out on the table, lining out a match and giving us his tactics or his rundown of events. From a young age, it was always football talk, mum might be in the other living room, not wanting to listen to us.

“But the rest of us are sitting there talking all football. Sometimes you need to get a break with it too but it’s a healthy amount in the house.”

Aimee echoes the same sentiment, “There could be advice or there could be criticism sometimes as well which is good too. I think naturally enough we all go to each other’s games, so you talk about it after the game.

“We enjoy it because we watch Gaelic all the time. We just talk about it like everybody else, and we do probably bounce off each other at times. You don’t really think too much about it either, it’s great obviously for the house.”

The two sisters have ventured outside of their Camlough homestead in recent years, and both have signed up with AFLW side Melbourne Demons, one year apart. Blaithin made the first steps, heading Down Under in 2022, while Aimee followed in 2023.

Coming back to the colder (much colder) climate of Ireland has been a challenge and heading straight into the dreaded preseason training wouldn’t whet the appetite too much, but the Mackin’s are used to it now at this stage.

“I think it was difficult to adjust back to winter again,” explained Aimee. “When I left Australia, it was 25 degrees, so the preseason was tough when you’re coming back and it’s freezing cold.

“The transition back home was natural; we’re used to kicking a round ball. It wasn’t so much adjustment maybe in terms of the training, it was just about getting back into it. It was preseason at that point still and it was just about knuckling down and training hard.

“The pitches maybe are a big difference too with the soft ground, but it was brilliant to get back in with the girls. We knew they had started preseason when we were in Australia, so it was great just to get back and get involved with them as well.

“It was a brilliant experience. Obviously, the football side of it didn’t go as well as we planned but a great experience for me and Blaithin to be out playing together. It doesn’t happen too often, or you don’t get these chances too often to go and do something like that.

“Sinead Goldrick was there as well from Dublin and having her on the team helped a lot. It helped to bounce things off her if you ever needed someone and she’s been through it all in the transition.”

Blaithin added, “I love it, Melbourne is brilliant, and our club is brilliant. It’s obviously really nice to have Aimee there last year and coming back again this year. There are differences and there’s a lot of similarities that you can bring back home that you’ve learnt over there.

“Training away from the field, that side of it and with the professionalism over there, you learn a lot about how to go about your day-to-day lifestyle and then over in Australia you can bring a lot of the speed into it and different skill sets.

“It’s still a kicking game so our kicking ability helps us, we’ve obviously been doing that from we’re no age. It’s brilliant and we’re very lucky with the club that we have that they let us (come home) and will continue to let us play for Armagh and then head back over after.

“We’re getting the best of both worlds really at the minute, and we’ll just be focusing on Armagh now. They’re really good that they support us over here just as much as they do over there, they were delighted for us in the league final and they really do be rooting for you.”

It’s been a hectic time for the Mackin household, and with the men losing out last week, the ladies will hope to capture some provincial silverware on Sunday. Like the league final and all throughout the season, the Mackins will play crucial parts, but in very different ways.

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