'People would always ask me which sport do I prefer?' - Galway's dual diamond

Áine McDonagh is best known for her exploits with the Galway ladies footballers, but she’s always been a hugely talented basketball player.

WATCHING IRELAND’S SIX Nations win over England at the weekend, the memories came flooding back.

Áine McDonagh is best known for her recent exploits with the Galway ladies footballers, but she’s also a talented basketball player with a colourful past in that code. She donned the green of Ireland at underage level, and still plays with NUIG Mystics.

nui-galway-announced-as-a-basketball-ireland-centre-of-excellence Áine McDonagh was speaking at the announcement of NUI Galway as a Basketball Ireland Centre of Excellence. Source: Eóin Noonan/SPORTSFILE

Representing both her county and country is something so special, and hearing Amhrán na bhFiann from the Aviva Stadium reminded her of that.

McDonagh turned to those around her on Saturday. “I remember the first time that I put on an Irish jersey, and we walked out and lined up and started singing the national anthem, I cried,” she said.

“Everyone kind of started laughing at me. I was like, ‘No, I actually cried, and I cry every single time that I sing the national anthem.’ I don’t know but to me, there’s something really special about it, especially when you get to represent it.

“It’s just so special. Anyone getting that opportunity, especially against England — I know when we used to play against them, it was a massive deal. The passion, like Tadhg Furlong after getting a turnover, they just go absolutely ballistic.

“I just love that passion. That’s the thing that would get me going.”

Another special memory also sprung to mind. She remembers watching The Sunday Game at the age of five or six, and the usual pre-match routine in the McDonagh household.

“My Dad would always make me and my three brothers stand up right beside each other and put the hand on the crest and sing it out. Even when we didn’t even know the words, we’d just pretend we did. 

“To me, the national anthem always meant so much. When I got to sing at first with the Irish jersey on, it was definitely one of one of my most special moments ever in my sporting career.

I don’t think I’ll ever… well I might do if I lift the cup maybe one day. It was definitely a special moment and anytime that I do go out there playing for Galway, I don’t take for granted, going out singing it with the jersey. I think it’s a really special moment and I think anyone that gets the opportunity to do it is very privileged.”

A family with a rich sporting history – her mother player camogie for Dublin, her uncle is the late Mick Holden, one of Dublin’s 12 apostles in 1983 and renowned dual player, and her cousins are the Schuttes from Cuala — McDonagh enjoyed an array of sports growing up.

Basketball, in fact, was her main one through her teens, representing Ireland at U16 and U18 level, while Gaelic football took a backseat until she made the Galway minor panel. Then, it took centre stage.

Interestingly, her international basketball career took flight because she didn’t make the Galway U14 team. Herself and two others from Moycullen would have played everything at a high level, each as competitive as the next, but great friends.

Ailbhe Davoren, who is now a mainstay in the Tribe senior side alongside McDonagh, made the cut. Herself and Catherine Connaire fell short. But Connaire had a Plan B in mind, putting the idea of trials for the Irish basketball team to McDonagh, who was reluctant at first.

“I didn’t really see myself as being that great at basketball,” the 22-year-old explains. “I was always good, but I wasn’t great. I went up with her anyways. We were so nervous, because there was only the two of us and then there’s all these big names from Cork that we used to hear winning All-Irelands and all that kind of stuff.”

Lo and behold, they made the 24. And then they made the 12. “Once I got involved, I was absolutely hooked,” she grins, making each and every Irish underage team she could from there, in her age grade and out of it.

While she kept playing club football, her call-up to the county minor team meant the two codes traded places. Her star rose and rose on the inter-county scene and football became number one, while she played basketball at a local level and then with UCD, when she studied there.

aine-mcdonagh In action for Galway in 2018. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

In 2018, McDonagh made a real breakthrough with the Galway seniors, catching the eye as an athletic, rangy and skilful half-forward, while she provided an engine in midfield the following year as the Tribe made serious progress and reached the All-Ireland final for the first time since 2004.

“I didn’t have the best season myself in 2019, so I felt like I needed a bit of a break,” McDonagh concedes, recalling how she stepped away from the inter-county set-up for last season’s pre-Covid-19 league.

“Then I just really felt like I needed to get back into basketball. I went back playing with Maree and I really enjoyed that. It was the first year that they were up in the Super League, we did quite well.”

She returned to the Galway panel for championship, reinvigorated after enjoying her club football and basketball exploits, which ultimately led to her linking up with her life-long Moycullen basketball coach, Paul O’Brien, at NUIG Mystics.

The pandemic has hampered her progress on the court with no full return to action, but McDonagh relishes the challenge of balancing both at a high level once again.

“Thankfully, basketball and football don’t really overlap too much,” she nods. “The basketball started up in September just when the football [normally] would be finishing off.

It would be kind of tough to do both. You don’t really get too much of a break. That’s why I struggled in 2019. I felt like my head needed a bit of a break but overall, they really complement each other I think so it’s not too hard to balance them.

“People would always ask me which sport do I prefer? I think everyone is kind of convinced that I’d pick football because I’d probably be more known for the fact that I play football but it’s kind of just on the season that’s in it, because I find basketball is just really good to clear the head and it’s a lot less pressure. It’s a lot easier.

“When you go into a county you set up, obviously it is quite enjoyable, but there is a lot of pressure that comes along with that, especially when you’re playing at such a high level and getting to All-Ireland finals and the likes.  couldn’t really pick between them, they both give something different in each of them. So I really do like both of them equally, I don’t think I could pick one.”

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The friends she’s made through both are priceless, old ones from basketball in particular coming to mind like Niamh Cotter, who plays for Cork.

“It’s great to see them being successful in all their different walks of life and then meeting again,” she nods. “I got into it pretty much just for the laugh but then it ended up turning out to be something bit more serious. I’m delighted to get the opportunity. God, I wasn’t really expecting it but I’m very grateful.”

nui-galway-announced-as-a-basketball-ireland-centre-of-excellence McDonagh at the announcement of NUI Galway as a Basketball Ireland Centre of Excellence. Source: Eóin Noonan/SPORTSFILE

McDonagh was speaking at the announcement of NUIG as a Basketball Ireland Centre of Excellence, news she considers as “massive” considering the endless treks she made to the capital in her international prime.

Now, international training, trials and matches can take place there, the latter coming as a massive boost for the west of the country. 

“When I was on the Irish teams when I was 15, 16, 17, you’d be almost pulled from school at two or three o’clock just to make it up for training in Dublin at six,” she recalls.

You’d be there for the whole weekend and you’d be getting back home at six or seven on a Sunday evening. For schoolwork and all that kind of stuff, it was it was very tough. The travelling was very tough, it’d be quite expensive as well. To have NUIG now, it’s huge and an incentive for all young players. The basketball is definitely there, it will be great now to have it on show.”

For now, she’ll continue her training with the hope for a green light for sport in the near future, and another for the return to teaching basketball to primary school children with the Mystics.

“I think along with everyone else, it’s a bit of struggle to stay motivated, especially when you don’t have an exact date when you’re starting back,” she concludes.

“I think everyone’s trying to do the best they can, trying to keep motivated to do a little bit, but hopefully we’ll get the go ahead soon to get back training and get back into the swing of things.”

- Another article with Áine McDonagh on Galway ladies football will follow on The42.


NUIG Mystics and Ireland underage international Aine McDonagh was speaking at the announcement of NUI Galway as a Basketball Ireland Centre of Excellence.

The Centre of Excellence will provide access to expertise, such as strength and conditioning, sports medicine, sports psychology, diet and nutrition, sports management and administration, coach development and training. They will also have media and meeting facilities.

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Emma Duffy

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