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Kilkenny to the bone: Reeling in the years, the good and the bad, with Cats legend Ann Downey

She’s been instrumental in all 13 of Kilkenny’s All-Ireland camogie titles, but Downey recently stepped away.

JUST LISTENING TO Ann Downey speak is a fascinating experience. 

aib-gaa-club-championships-launch Former Kilkenny camogie manager Ann Downey. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

She’s Kilkenny to the bone.

From her recent departure as Kilkenny camogie manager to her colourful — and hugely successful — playing days between club and county, and what’s next for the Cats legend, you’re left hanging on her every word. You don’t want the conversation to end. 

Story after story, memory after memory; it’s hard to fit everything in in the 20-minute interview timeslot at the launch of the AIB club championships. But Downey offers nothing but sheer honesty on a wintering Tuesday afternoon in Dublin.

It’s no wonder she’s such a loved character Noreside — and further afield of course — and that’s not just down to the 13 All-Ireland titles she helped deliver (12 of those came as a player).

As she walks into the room, she surely knows what she’ll be asked first.

“It won’t really hit me I suppose until January,” Downey begins on her recent exit after four years at the helm. It’s safe to say hasn’t sunk in yet. “Not that I haven’t been thinking about it, I have. I’m trying to put it out of my mind.”

When the panel comes back together for the new season and she’s not there, right in the thick of it, it will hit home. It’s a little over seven weeks since she went into the dressing room after her side’s gut-wrenching third All-Ireland final defeat in-a-row to break the news — “a hard day at the office,” she frowns — but truth be told, stepping down at the end of 2019 was something she had planned. 

In fact, she thought about it last year. 

Her right-hand man, Paddy Mullally, left the set-up to take over the Mullinavat senior hurlers and while the pair had also worked together at Waterford IT, Downey knew how challenging it was going to be to find the right replacement. 

“I didn’t want to step away from camogie in Kilkenny and leave the job to the county board to get someone,” she concedes. “I knew I’d probably have a better chance of getting someone myself.”

Another All-Ireland winner, Brian Dowling, was lined up ahead of last season, and the O’Loughlin Gaels man is now Downey’s successor in the top job.

Brian was brilliant, the girls really loved him,” she smiles. “The morning of the All-Ireland, I said, ‘Whichever way it goes, I think if I step away it will be in good hands.’

“We had the connection to bring in someone else. I made the phone call to Tommy Shefflin to see if he would be interested. When Tommy said he would [come on board], I was really happy then with my own decision: that I was gong to step away.”

Content with her conclusion, she didn’t tell anyone. Not even her twin sister, Angela, who has been by her side every single step of the way.

Ann remembers hesitancy to re-commit after the 2017 All-Ireland final defeat and a group of players subsequently calling to the house to make sure she was back on board. Appreciated, of course. But she didn’t want that happening this time around. 

“I didn’t say it to anyone because I didn’t want anyone changing my mind,” she explains.

ann-and-angela-downey With her sister, Angela. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I didn’t say it to Brian until after. I just said, ‘Look… your time. You’d do a great job. Just get two good hurlers in with you.’”

“I just felt I couldn’t say anymore to the girls,” she adds, pleased in the way she’s left the set-up with Ray Challenor continuing in his role as selector, and Angela and Breda Holmes both staying involved.

“Everything had been put in place. We have a great backroom team. We never had a doctor until I came on board in 2016, Dr Martin O’Brien came in with us. The girls were just so professional. 

“Although we wouldn’t have the money like the GAA would have, we have a doctor, and we have Dr Fergus Heffernan who is a psychologist, we have the physiotherapist and the girls are given food — but that’s all through funding themselves.

There’s only so much you can say to girls, they were probably sick listening to me so Brian is a fresh voice. And Tommy certainly brings something new to the table as well. Heartbroken that I have to leave camogie behind me for the moment, but happy that it’s in a good place.

There’s no question about how much she’ll miss it. Since hanging up her playing boots in 1999, Downey has been involved with team after team, club after club. First hurling, then camogie, and then alternating between the two. It’s all she knows. 

“I will certainly miss it, yeah,” she nods, a look of dejection on her face. But that changes when she’s asked what’s next. Someone as passionate about the game as Ann Downey is hardly going cold turkey and step away completely.

“Ehhh… You never say no,” she smiles. “Because I suppose my biggest problem is I’m not able to say no.

“I’ve done a few training sessions since the All-Ireland. I was down in Wexford, and there’s medals to be presented and stuff like that. You never say never. But at the moment, I’m trying to take a break if that’s possible.”

Enough about the future. Get Downey reminiscing on the past and you’ve hit the jackpot. 

A question on how much she’s witnessed the evolution through the years gets her going. In short: colossally. Sure wasn’t it 12-a-side back when she started out, so you can just imagine how different the game itself was.

No dressing rooms, no top-class facilities like there are now, too. But as two-time Kilkenny All-Ireland winner Sinéad Millea told The42 recently, the famous Downey sisters were ahead of their time.

The 12-time All-Ireland winning duo were going to lengths no others were contemplating, the midfield engine and her lethal forward of a sister going to the gym and lifting weights when it was absolutely unheard of.

“Both Angela and myself, we were fortunate I suppose… most people knew Angela,” Ann grins, looking back. “I would be referred to as Angela as well and I still answer to that.

ann-downey-591999 Downey in 1999. Source: Lorraine O 'Sullivan/INPHO

“We would have been going to the gym in the local hotel in town. That was something that we did ourselves, it wasn’t anything that we were pressed to do. I suppose the weight thing… we have to say our food wasn’t great. We hadn’t got to that level.

While we were doing the extra training, we were still probably calling into the chipper on the way home after training and having a bag of chips.

“The whole thing has evolved from the time we played. I’d love to be back then. I’d love if I was 40 years younger and only starting out my camogie career because there’s so many opportunities for players now, and that’s through the old social media. It’s brilliant.”

A simpler time back then without it though, she agrees. No distractions. You just played camogie and that was that. And while she’s best known for her excellence on the inter-county scene, nothing has Downey happier than talking about the club(s). 

22 county titles and seven All-Ireland medals across two: St Paul’s and Lisdowney.

Natives of Ballyragget, herself and Angela started out with the former. When her club career comes up in conversation, she offers an in-depth explanation and feels the need to justify the whole one life, two clubs thing.

“The first thing I’d have to say was we played with Paul’s because we didn’t have a club at home that we could play with,” she states, matter-of-factly. “We started off playing junior with them and they were a city team, while we were 12 miles from the city.

“If we wanted to play camogie, you had to join St Paul’s. St Paul’s probably was made up of girls like ourselves who didn’t have a club at home so needless to say, we were very strong.

“When Kilkenny started to win All-Irelands – ’74 was the first – clubs mushroomed around the county. Eventually, Paul’s weren’t able to field a team. Both Angela and myself joined the nearest team to us, Lisdowney. We’re the parish of Ballyragget and Lisdowney is only a mile-and-a-half up the road.

We played with Lisdowney for 10 years and that was unbelievable because it was really playing with your parish. We knew everyone in the parish, my father had the shop and all that parish came into the shop. It was like… we were from Ballyragget but we still classed ourselves as probably Lisdowney people.

“They were great memories. Even all the wins that we had with St Paul’s were brilliant. It’s not easy to win a club All-Ireland. And as good as we were and the star-studded team that we had, we still didn’t win every All-Ireland that we contested. They were great days and we met some great teams.”

Highlights, there were many: “Winning in ’94 with Lisdowney was special and winning in ’88 with St Paul’s was equally as special for us because Angela had been suspended the week before the match.

“We had to play without her. Winning that All-Ireland kind of just had to be done.”

angela-downey-1990 Angela in 1990. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

As she speaks about playing for her adopted parish, Lisdowney, the true meaning of club life shines through.

You just can’t buy that whole parish thing, that whole ethos of everyone joining in whether they’re going to play or whether they’re just carrying the water or getting the field ready or they’re there looking after the jerseys.

“You went back to the one pub that was in the parish and everyone was there from both parishes.”

A particularly special aforementioned day comes to mind, then. And the joy etched all over her face as she tells the story says it all.

“In ’94, our club All-Ireland was played in our parish field in Ballyragget. While we were playing with Lisdowney, we went into the parish field in Ballyragget to play that game.

“That was super because it was a field with everyone just in around it, they were nearly in on top of you. They stood on the bank, looking over the wire and you were just in. That was a special day. It really lives in the memory. It was the one match that we all talk about.”

Downey’s side, of course, produced one of the most spectacular comebacks in the history of Gaelic games against Glen Rovers.

You speak with Sandie Fitz from Cork, she doesn’t want to talk about it… they were something like 11 points up, I think there was 10 minutes to go and we ended up winning by six.

The smirk. 3-6 from Angela and 4-5 from their younger sister, Marina, propelled the Noreside club to their maiden All-Ireland crown. And oh, what an occasion with legends of the game all over the field. What an ending.

“People were leaving the grounds,” she remembers, “because they had Sandie Fitz, Linda Mellerick, Therese O’Callaghan, they had Mary Ring, Stephanie Dunlea, Lynn Dunlea… and this was only 12-a-side at the time. I mean they were a star-studded county team.

We had Angela, myself, Marina, Catherine Dunne might have been on the Kilkenny panel at the time but other than that it was pure club players. 

“It was unbelievable, it was unbelievable…”

The fond memories as a player on the biggest stages soon turned into those as a manager, the 2016 All-Ireland win surely the pinnacle of them all.

In her first year in charge, Downey ended a 22-year wait for O’Duffy Cup glory and bridged the gap from 1994 when she was captain.

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ann-downey-celebrates-after-the-game Celebrating the 2016 win. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Another special, special feeling.

“You’re in charge of a team and you know that you’ve done everything right, you can’t legislate for what they’re going to do,” she says. “When they cross the white line, they’re on their own. You’re just hoping that they perform – which is the one word that I use the whole time – if they perform, they’ll win.

“You know you have done everything. Okay, on the day you might get a call or two that’s not correct and you have to live with that but you know, it’s great satisfaction when you see them playing to their potential and really showcasing what they can do.”

The heartbreaking Septembers that followed — one-point defeats at the death to Cork in 2017 and 2018, and a six-point loss to Galway this year — can’t be overlooked, and Downey takes little solace in the fact that she delivered three Division 1 league titles in-a-row, and three Leinster crowns through her tenure.

“You know, it’s great to win the leagues and to win Leinster but I suppose you’re always judged on the All-Irelands,” she conceded.

It’s the same with the girls when I’d be speaking to them, you’re never asked how many leagues you have — and that’s not being disrespectful to the competition or anything  — but you’re always asked how many All-Irelands did you win. 

“I was there for four years and we contested the four of them and only to come out with one win… it’s a heartbreak, to be honest. Because we were so near in ’17 and ’18 and things that weren’t within our control…”

Her mind wanders, but she doesn’t say anymore before reigning it in.

“We were fairly and squarely beaten the last day, though. Galway were a brilliant team; very physical and very strong, great use of the ball and we have no complaints. Should have got more out of it, I suppose.”

Should have, could have, would have. But she’ll always go down as a Kilkenny great, involved in each and every one of the county’s 13 All-Ireland camogie titles.

Will 14 ever come for Kilkenny? Downey thinks so. Highly complimentary of their unbelievable skill — and that on show across the senior grade — she knows, more than anyone, how talented the group are and she feels they can definitely bounce back.

“Look, I would hope they would. It’s three-in-a-row, but as Niamh Kilkenny said she could write a book on losing All-Irelands. The same with the Dublin ladies football team, how many times they were beaten.

The girls just have to rally, and use that hurt to drive them on. Look at the All-Ireland and try and learn from it. That’s all they can do.

“I haven’t heard if any of the girls are going to retire, what they’re going to do but certainly they’re young enough. There’ll be long enough when they won’t be able to play.

“My advice to them is to stay on and keep battling, and I hope they’ll do that. I think they will.”

aib-gaa-club-championships-launch At the AIB Club Championships launch. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

As chat about herself and the at times, painful, review of her time in the job comes to a halt, she’s happy to report that Angela is keeping well, and has committed to the set-up for 2020 again along with Holmes.

“Unnoticed work, a thankless job,” but one that’s ever so vital as they act as mentors in behind the scene roles preparing food and dressing rooms and the likes.

A quick word for Angela’s son, Conor Browne, as we finish up. The Kilkenny hurler — he played his first All-Ireland final this year — leads James Stephens into the county senior hurling final this weekend.

“That will be a big day,” Dowmey enthuses.

“He’s captain of the village team so it’s massive for him.  He had a good year, yeah, considering that he had been on the panel for so long and wasn’t probably getting any game time with all the games that they played.

“Then to get the call-up against Cork, he did a great job. The same marking Cian Lynch – what Davina [Tobin] does for us, Conor would do for the county. He has a great engine. He puts some work into his sport and to himself; conditioning himself, minding himself, feeding and all the rest.

It will be a great day at the weekend. I mean they’re up against it… Shamrocks are a team that you can only sit back and admire. They’re so talented. TJ [Reid], when he’s not playing against us… it’s great to have him in the black and amber.

“He is magic. I hope he doesn’t break their hearts at the weekend. But they’re in it, and they have a chance.”

It’s all go still, so. 

“All go,” she nods in agreement, with a smile.

“It keeps us going. Even after the All-Ireland; it was straight into the camogie and club. If we weren’t going to a hurling match on Sunday, we were going to a camogie match or vice versa.

“That helps too, of course after an All-Ireland.”

Kilkenny to the bone, that’s Ann Downey.

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Emma Duffy

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