St Patrick’s Maghera held a special night of celebration for their five Ulster winning camogie teams. Michael McMullan went along and spoke with coach Catriona Scott about the special achievement.
BLUE, black and white jerseys as far as the eye could see. Tea and buns. Photos. Smiling faces. Proud parents. Endless applause. Presentations. St Patrick’s Maghera’ sports hall had it all.
Camogie President Hilda Breslin and Ulster’s Hilary McGrath were seated in the front row. Maura McCloy, who rarely misses anything camogie related in Derry, was seated by their side.
John ‘Curly’ McIlwaine was doing what he does best, snapping the images that chart history. Paul Hughes was the master of ceremonies.
In her address, Principal Katrina Crilly promised an All-Ireland title next year before Catriona Scott confirmed the school’s 2024 camogie tour of Canada.
It was a night of substance and totally fitting of the school’s clean sweep of Ulster titles.
There were a few themes. The thanking of those coaching camogie in the school, the girls for their efforts and the clubs for arming players with the basic skills to build a team around.
“Katrina wanted to celebrate what is a unique achievement,” Catriona Scott said of the night’s origin.
Only Maghera themselves had managed the feat before. Cross and Passion Ballycastle can oh so close with four titles.
“It was just a special night,” Scott began. “I had always dreamt of a photograph, if we won the five (titles), with every single girl in it.”
As guests arrived, the masterpiece was coming together in harmony. From over 50 Year 8 pupils all the way to the senior team, they were all in it. A mosaic. Different ages and clubs, all fused into one.
The night itself was like the photo. It was all about the girls. Each individual captain summed up their season before reading off their list of players to come up and collect a photographic memento.
“I am so proud of them and they just want to work so hard,” came Scott’s reply about the magnitude of the achievement. At the front of the room, sat a glistening array of silver.
At the start of the season, the senior players had plenty of spinning plates with the conclusion of the club journey. Cancelling school training to give a glimmer of rest was offered, but not welcomed by the girls. Collective preparation was important too.
“It was like the u-14s, they kept asking when school training was starting and it was the same with the first years,” Scott added.
The u-14 cohort were also a talented group in the growing arena of ladies football. A balance was found and must remain. Having both sports side by side is important.
Ann Kelly and Goretti McKenna were present, smiling from ear to ear, to see the latest harvest of the camogie crop they planted all those years ago. The late Helen McMullan also got a mention for an input into school camogie.
“Claire Kelly was one of the winning captains the last time we won all five titles,” Scott points out. “Ciara Mulholland was my captain a few years ago, so there are three generations of coaches in here.”
In the hustle bustle of school life, they – and all the other school coaches – don’t have to stay late. But they do. The words tradition and commitment are intertwined. And so, the cycle continues.
“Bronagh Quigg and Mary Devlin have been there for years with our first years,” Scott adds. Eimear Lavery, whose husband Colum coaches football in the school, is another cog.
Another addition this season was former Derry hurler Mickey Conway who came in to coach some of the teams. It was a fresh voice and vital addition to the group.
A theme of the night was the positive link between school and club. An increase in club coaching at a young age forms the groundwork.
Schools then mould the players. Teams form and, with it, comes an exposure to camogie at a higher level. Players return to their club or the cusp of county teams with an important layer of development.
“We used to have to break down every skill and we’d be out three times a week, but now you can see the work being done in clubs,” Scott said of the improvement over the last decade.
“Definitely, we have noticed it in a big way over the last three or four years. We see a change, there is probably more of a focus on camogie. You can see the parents starting to get involved as well at club level.”
It’s a two-way street. Clubs need the school and school need the clubs, with the player as the real winner.
For all of the Ulster success, it’s an All-Ireland title they now crave most. Loreto Kilkenny denied them in last year’s junior and senior finals, but Scott is already plotting for September. There is a reflection on what can be done differently.
“I think a lot of it is psychological,” she offers. “A bit of strength and conditioning with girls, but I think a lot of it is psychological.
“Going to Gort this year with the u-14s in the Super Nines will make a big difference. We never experienced All-Irelands (in the past) against southern teams until junior.
“This year, they got to play all those teams on the way to the (Super Nines) final. We beat all the big teams and then they met Kilkenny.
“They will have a taste of All-Ireland level, or having the confidence and being able to refer back to that.”
Looking ahead to next year, the 2023 u-14 and junior groups – they best Scott has encountered – will form the backbone of the years ahead.
“It’s their skill, teamwork in the group and they won their titles easily…they were phenomenal,” Scott said of their key attributes.
She also points to the commitment of Aoife McWilliams playing despite an arthritic condition in her lower back.
It was about finding a way to get back in action. Sport in school has that special appeal.
The formalities on the presentation night were broken up by a series of videos where players spoke of the value of school sport.
It builds resilience, friendships and promotes wellbeing.
The evening concluded with a scene that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Late, Late Toy show. Under the camogs’ seats were a series of envelopes, each with a letter that when giddily assembled spelt out “we are going to Canada” to unveil their 2024 trip.
In the past it was New York, but Canada offers a fresh angle. The staff and pupils will roll out the entire Irish experience.
Camogie. Irish music. Dance. Language. A summer camp experience straight from the core of Ireland.
Before that, the first bell of September will toll. Corridors echoing with laughter.
Stories of summer will be swapped before the plotting begins, with five Ulster camogie titles to defend.