“It’s a magical experience”, says Sarah Dervan when asked about playing in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, with clear joy and awe in her voice.
“Your day starts from the minute you wake up, your nerves kick in that morning and it’s hard to believe you’re going up to play an All-Ireland final in Croke Park. The buzz is around the place, the parishes, the girls. It’s unbelievable.
‘To win up there is out of this world completely, it’s unbelievable memories.”
The Galway camogie captain has experienced every possible emotion in the hallowed ground from the heartbreak of 2011 and 2015 to the joy of lifting the O’Duffy Cup on the steps of the Hogan Stand last year.
However, one of her first experiences of Croke Park came as an excited young fan, traveling with her U10 Mullagh teammates to watch Galway in the 1996 All-Ireland final against Cork.
“I’ll never forget it, we saw what Croke Park was all about, we saw all these brilliant women going at each other hammer and tongs. Galway won that day and it was magical. I was lucky enough, I got out onto the pitch and I got my hands on the cup”, Dervan recalls.
“At that age, it was unbelievable, seeing all the players who were our heroes. There was a buzz about the place afterward, everyone was mad to go training and play camogie, everyone was pretending to be those players that day.
“Role models is what they were to us. We looked up to them and anything we could do to be like them, we did it.”
Dervan has come a long way since those days when she used to puck around in the back garden with her older brothers and father in an effort to be just like them. The 32-year-old now boasts two All-Ireland medals and five All-Star awards and is a constant and solid presence for Galway in the full-back line.
But perhaps it is that experience of watching her heroes in Croke Park as a child that makes her appreciate sharing every moment of her success with the younger generation.
“The homecoming was unbelievable, to bring the cup back to the club and it was a dream come true. Everything you’ve suffered, all the hard trainings, it made it all worthwhile.
“The real treat then is when you bring the cup to your club or your national school and you see all the kids. They light up when they see it and it makes their day. There’s always a real feel-good factor when kids are around, even when you take an underage session, their willingness to learn and to improve is brilliant. They never fear anything new.
“When you’re in it, you don’t realise that you are [setting an example]. You’re going out and playing to the best of your ability, you’re enjoying every minute of it. If you’re inspiring kids on top of that, it’s brilliant, it’s huge. Any way that you can keep kids playing sport, and keeping them out in the fresh air and involved, it’s always worthwhile.”
It’s clear that leaving a legacy in this sport she adores so passionately is important to Dervan. Camogie and Galway have given her so much and despite the long, tough training sessions in the depths of winter and the heartache that often goes hand-in-hand with sport, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“For me, camogie was all we had in our parish. It’s a way of life for me, I know no different. Any small thing we can do to encourage them to keep playing, any of the girls would do it.
“I love it, pure and simple. Even after a hard training session, there’s always a sense of achievement to get through it. You always want to improve yourself and your game any way you can.
“It gives you memories for life and you have friends then that you meet, the craic you have… It gives me a purpose. Especially in these times, I cherish every second.”
Camogie is growing in profile year on year and was even added to UNESCO’s list of protected cultural activities around the world, together with hurling, in 2018.
Dervan is delighted that the sport is finally getting the recognition it deserves, not that she is interested in it for her own benefit. Instead, she is determined to safeguard the game for the next generation.
“It’s great for camogie to be getting its light to shine because it is a fantastic game. The All-Star trip was fantastic and it puts us up there with the rest of the Gaelic games sports.
“It’s great for young people to see us girls up there with the best of them. In camogie, we have some absolutely fantastic players and it’s important that they get their light to shine and let people see what they’re capable of.
“The more we can drive the profile of camogie up, the more benefit the younger generation will feel.”