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'I went to Australia but didn't realise how sick Dad was... He must have hidden so much of his pain'

Former Cork dual star Angela Walsh speaks to The42 about her decorated inter-county career and the loss of her father Donie to cancer.

CORK STALWART ANGELA Walsh was certain that the 2011 All-Ireland football final would be her last game wearing the rebel red.

angela-walsh-and-geraldine-oflynn Walsh in possession for Cork during the 2011 All-Ireland final with Geraldine O'Flynn behind her. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The dual star would eventually sign off from her inter-county career with 12 All-Ireland medals across the two codes; nine in football and three in camogie.

Captain of the footballers who lifted the Brendan Martin Cup in 2008, Walsh is one of the most decorated players to ever play the game as part of a distinguished group of winners.

But circumstances in her life changed in 2011 that prompted her to put other things in her life ahead of sport.

By that stage, Walsh had enjoyed five All-Ireland triumphs with the Cork ladies. She was a member of the original class of 2004 who went onto transcend the sport under the tutelage of the incomparable Eamonn Ryan.

After achieving so much, she thought she was content with her lot.

The realisation that the end was near seemed to really set in as she walked around Croke Park during the pre-match parade for the 2011 All-Ireland final against Monaghan. 

“I remember going in thinking, ‘This is my last match,’” she tells The42 as she casts her mind back. 

“I knew that I was going in 2012.”

Walsh’s boyfriend Kevin — who is now her husband — was living in Australia at the time. Work for plumbers was scarce in Ireland at the time and he was forced to move Down Under to make a living.

Naturally, the Inch Rovers star wanted to head out for a visit and she began applying for career breaks through her job as a secondary school teacher. 

She eventually succeeded in getting the time off, and 2012 was the year she had pencilled in for the trip.

angela-walsh-and-louise-galvin Walsh charging forward with the ball against Kerry. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Her father Donie had been diagnosed with prostate cancer the previous year, but his advice to her at the time was to go ahead with her travel plans.

“I had applied for career breaks and they never came through and [then] I got them,” Walsh explains. “I had left in 2010 to go to Kevin and he was still away in 2012. 

I went to Australia that summer but didn’t realise how sick Dad was. Even my brother went travelling. 

“He was getting on fine with the treatment, and he didn’t make it to Croke Park for the 2011 final.

He would have watched it at home but it’s mad, when you think back, he must have just hidden so much of his pain and how bad he was.”

Donie Walsh was never shy about expressing pride in his daughter’s achievements. While the Cork machine was gathering momentum, he was at every single game.

He quickly became friends with the parents of the other players and would often introduce his daughter as the best full-back in Ireland. Following the Cork ladies was an obsession for him.

Source: LadiesFootballTV/YouTube

There’s even a chapter entitled ‘For Donie’ in the book ‘Relentless,’ a fantastic account of Cork’s rise to dominance by Mary White.

He was so proud of me, he’d mortify me,” Walsh laughs. ”He used to say, ‘This is my daughter’… which are lovely memories.”

Walsh picked up the Player of the Match award in 2011 All-Ireland final, which seemed like a fitting way to end things with Cork.

She left for Australia the following June but was back home within a few weeks. Her father’s condition had deteriorated and his time was near.

Walsh was on her own as she faced the long journey home to her family, with Kevin following on shortly after. 

The flights were certainly difficult, but the pain was lessened somewhat by the caring flight attendants who comforted the young 26-year-old who was trying to process her father’s delicate state.

Amidst the sadness, Walsh and her five siblings were all there for Donie’s final days. Even at that stage, he was still inquiring about the Cork ladies.

angela-walsh-celebrates-after-the-game Walsh completed an All-Ireland double with Cork in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

They all shared memories and traded stories before Donie finally drifted off peacefully on 3 August.

“Once you knew it was coming, that week was lovely,” Walsh remembers. “We got to bring him home and there were people calling. We were just regaling and telling stories.

And he’d come out of his sleep and try and join in. It was lovely and obviously you have to say goodbye, so it’s still not easy.

“Even when I came back [from Australia] he’d say, ‘Angela, what’s the score in the match?’ He still thought I was playing.

Walsh found refuge in football in the aftermath of her father’s death. She was happy to return to Inch Rovers to take a break from some of the heavy emotions that followed the loss of Donie.

But she didn’t anticipate that she would be invited back to the Cork team. Even when she got the call from Eamonn Ryan, she waited for reassurance from the players about her returning late in the season.

They were thrilled to see her come through the dressing room door ahead of their All-Ireland quarter-final win over Donegal. Walsh didn’t feature in that game, but she made substitute appearances in the semi-final and final as Cork collected another All-Ireland crown.

“It feels like yesterday,” says Walsh. “It was just emotional coming back after everything.

“My cousin [Anne-Marie Walsh] came off in the final so that was kind of hard. Every single trip to Croke Park was emotional but 2011 was really emotional because he couldn’t be there.

And then 2012 when he actually wasn’t there, those days were very difficult because you were trying to hold it in.

“I think without the support of the girls, I wouldn’t have gone back. Eamonn was just so good and all the girls were so good. I’m so appreciative.

“It was like a break and just run around after a ball. I definitely feel it helped. It meant so much to him going to all the games.”

eamon-ryan-celebrates-with-angela-walsh-and-deirdre-oreilly Walsh with Eamonn Ryan and Deirdre O'Reilly after that incredible comeback in 2014. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There’s final hits, and there’s final hits. There’s last matches and there’s last matches.

Walsh believed her race was ran in 2011 but after returning to the Cork panel in 2012, she played for an additional two years before finally calling time on her inter-county days in 2014.

Rallying from 10 points down to beat Dublin in the All-Ireland final was definitely a sweet way to say goodbye. The ultimate mic-drop exit.

“I still can’t believe that match,” beams Walsh. “It was definitely the best way to go because we’d won the camogie [All-Ireland] two weeks previously as well so it was brilliant.”

She became pregnant with her first child Keeva later that year, and although Ryan called on her again the following season, Walsh knew her time was up. Stepping off the Cork treadmill was no easy decision but she was ready to close that chapter of her life.

Walsh made a lasting impact in a Cork jersey but reaching the pinnacle of ladies football wasn’t always a burning ambition for her. In fact, volleyball was once her main sport. She even played with the national squad at underage level and regularly commuted to Dublin for training.

Ladies football eventually took precedence in her life. Plenty of success with both codes in Cork followed as well as a senior All-Ireland football title with Inch Rovers in 2010, beating the Mayo powerhouse Carnacon in the final.

Walsh has since given birth to her son Rian, while Keeva is now four and beginning to take an interest in football. Walsh hopes to be able to bring her daughter to the All-Ireland semi-finals in Croke Park later today, where Cork will take on their old rivals Dublin.

Connacht foes Mayo and Galway will collide in the other tie.

The Cork team has many new faces in the panel now, but members of the old crew who have moved on continue to stay in touch. 

Throughout the highs and lows of Walsh’s life, those bonds she formed in the Cork team have always stayed with her.

“We meet quite regularly once a month or every two months.”

For my 30th, my sister Ciara gave me a framed jersey with all the girls’ signatures on it. So, I have that hanging up in the house and I have my other All-Ireland jerseys in a box. I kind of gave away everything else.”

“At the time, we were fortunate enough to be winning All-Irelands. We just formed a great bond and became great friends. I think it’s only since we stopped that we realise that we’re appreciating what we achieved.”

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