At just 22 years of age, Katie O’Connor is preparing to lead her team into the AIB All Ireland Senior Camogie Club final on Sunday, and if that wasn’t daunting enough, among her teammates are a number of her childhood heroes.
O’Connor has never been short of GAA mentors growing up with her father and uncles heavily involved in hurling while her cousins, Jack and Rory, are now part of the Wexford set up under Davy Fitzgerald. A camogie career was inevitable.
“You couldn’t really get away from it. It was great. There were slaps every now and again, a few stitches. Those were actually from the girl cousins – Aisling, she’s on the team, she’s playing corner-back for us. We were certainly toughened up.”
That team is St Martins, who are awaiting their first ever All Ireland final. Among the players lining out on Sunday against Slaughtneil will be four-time All Ireland winners, Mags D’Arcy and Noeleen Lambert.
Considering they are “the experienced ones”, O’Connor was surprised when she was asked to take over the captaincy duties.
“He told me there somewhere at the start. I said, ‘Are you sure? Really? What about one of the others?’ I was very glad to be asked.”
It hasn’t been a bad first season for her as captain, as she lifted the club’s first ever Leinster crown, beating Thomastown back in November. For O’Connor, it was an occasion to remember.
“It was an honour, of course. Especially to be captaining women that I would always have looked up to, Mags [D’Arcy] and Noeleen [Lambert], they were my childhood heroes.
“I would have had their autographs on the back of my jersey when they were winning their All-Irelands, now I’m there playing with them. It’s a real privilege.”
Along with the other young players, the 22-year-old is grateful to lean on their experience, especially when it comes to playing in Croke Park.
“Noeleen was away last year having a baby but she’s back this year with us. So, it’s great to have her back. She brings a lot of experience to the team. She knows how to win. To have her back this year teaching us was great.
“It’s so important, especially coming up to days like this, the All-Ireland. The majority of us, the younger players, wouldn’t have had any experience with big matchdays like this. Especially days out in Croke Park.
“If anyone ever has a problem, Mags would always be more than welcoming to every player, to help them if they are stuck with anything or if they are nervous; Mags or Noeleen would always be there with advice.”
It’s not just on the pitch where St Martin’s have experience. Their manager, JJ Doyle, led Wexford to three All Ireland titles between 2010 and 2012. Although the club may be rookies when it comes to big match days, they do not need to look outside their borders for advice.
“JJ has been there before and done this. He did it with the women when they were winning their All-Irelands. He was with the U21 boys when they were winning their Leinster. JJ has great experience when it comes to big days like this.
“I was asked before if we had anyone in talking to us for extra advice and we haven’t because JJ has everything that we need and he gives us all the advice that we could possibly ask for.”
A monumental task awaits St Martin’s as they face reigning champions, Slaughtneil, who are hoping to complete three-in-a-row. However, the Wexford side have been making great strides in recent years and beat Oulart The Ballagh for the first time this year on their way to back-to-back county titles.
There’s no shortage of support for the team in the local area and they’re not afraid to test a few rules to prove it.
“There’s a lot of stuff up around the village but they’re planning on putting up more this weekend.
“There was talk of painting the road, but I don’t know if they’ll be allowed to do that. They did it ’96 for the hurlers but they were different times. I don’t know if they’ll be allowed to do that but it’s going ahead anyway!”