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'Emotional' All-Ireland club glory bodes well for a big summer with Derry

Slaughtneil’s Aoife Ní Chaiside captains Derry as they open their All-Ireland intermediate championship campaign today.

ON THE 5 March 2017, Aoife Ní Chaiside climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand, fists in the air with a smile beaming across her face.

Aoife Ni Chaiside lifts Bill  Agnes Carroll Cup Aoife Ní Chaiside. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

She proceeded to lift the Bill and Agnes Carroll Cup, the All-Ireland senior club camogie crown. The Slaughtneil camógs had won the club’s first All-Ireland title. They also became the first Derry side to do the honours.

With ‘ní neart go cur le cheile’ printed across her jersey, the scene couldn’t have been more powerful.

Ní Chaiside lifted the cup like she was never going to let it go, and delivered an emotional, and poignant speech as Gaeilge to a record-breaking crowd.

There was one friendly Slaughtneil face missing from that crowd though.

Back in October, Thomas Ní Chaiside passed away following a long battle with cancer. Just five days later, his three daughters — Aoife, Eilís and Bróna — donned the Robert Emmetts jersey for the Ulster final.

“It was a tough year, there’s no doubt in it,” Ní Chaiside smiles, her voice breaking slightly. Her teammates, family and the club have been second to none.

There really is no strength without unity.

“Daddy would have been loving every step of the way. You have to get on with it though.

“Very emotional. Every game that we went out to play and probably even more so the final. Thank God we were winners at the end of the day, with a smile on our faces and celebrating.”

Their opposition on the day was Sarsfields from Galway. Another close knit club full of family links, four McGrath sisters back-boned the team — Orlaith, Clodagh, Niamh and Siobhan — while their father Michael, more commonly known as ‘Hopper’, patrolled the line.

Slaughtneil celebrate after the game Slaughtneil celebrate after their club All-Ireland win. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Thomas Ní Chaiside wasn’t only a father to his own girls, he was also the joint manager of the camogie side, and a huge figure throughout the club.

He had put serious work and countless hours into developing each code across the board, and shaping his daughters and sons — Seán and Éanna — into the players, and people, they are today.

He would have been the happiest man in the country watching his side run to glory at GAA HQ, and of course, seeing his daughter climb the steps to raise the silverware.

“Just thinking of the other McGrath sisters on the Sarsfields team, and their Daddy. Obviously, Daddy would have been absolutely delighted to watch us play in Croke Park as well.”

Her voice wavers slightly.

“And to watch me lift the cup even would have been an extra bonus.”

***

Slaughtneil’s All-Ireland win was obviously a huge, huge achievement, and a memorable day for all involved. Ní Chaiside acknowledges it and speaks about it, but she’s keen to discuss the future rather than dwell on the past.

“You just have to get on with it. The first All-Ireland in the club, everyone was so delighted.

“After the match, and the build-up to the match even, the fact that we had won the game at the end — everybody was just on top of the world. Not just the players. Families, supporters…

“It was lovely to play along with your sisters in Croke Park on the big day, cousins as well. It was great, a great experience.”

Afterwards, Ní Chaiside and other Slaughtneil players involved with Derry took a step back from the inter-county set-up, and missed several league clashes.

The slight lay-off did them the world of good, it’s all ‘go, go, go’ again.

Aoife Ní Chaiside Ní Chaiside at the 2017 Liberty Insurance camogie championship launch. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Coming back into the team, you feel a wee bit strange after they’ve had their four league games, I think it was I had missed. It’s good to get back in again, we had three weeks off I think in between times.

“You have to get on with it I suppose.”

The Slaughtneil camógs are operating again in the league, but championship isn’t until the end of August so it gives Ní Chaiside and her clubmates ‘a bit of time to regroup again and refocus.’

Between now and then though, there’s a huge amount of inter-county camogie to be played. Fresh off the back of an Ulster senior title win over Antrim, Derry are now gearing up for the intermediate All-Ireland series and kick off against Kildare later today.

In the league, the Oak Leaf county reached the Division 2 final, but were well-beaten on the day by a strong Cork side. In opposing groups for the All-Ireland championship though, Derry find themselves in the company of fellow Ulster finalists Antrim, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Wexford and Kildare.

The format is five games, between today and the 12 August. “That’s spread out a wee bit more,” she smiles.

“It’ll be tough trying to keep the momentum going for the the summer. It’s hard, but you have to try and keep girls motivated and focused for them five games over that length of time.

Aoife Ni Chaiside with Pamela Greville and Laoise Quinn Ní Chaiside captained the succesful Ulster team at this years Interpros. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

“You have to make sure that the last game is as important as the first one.”

Living and working in Belfast, Ní Chaiside knows that it’s going to be tough to finish in the top two and qualify for the semi-finals, but she accepts the challenge.

Despite the heavy league final loss, she draws confidence from the fact that Kildare ran Cork close earlier in that campaogn, while Derry beat the Lilywhites by three in the semi-final.

“I just think we weren’t up to the speed of it on the final day. I suppose we had a couple of injuries as well, a girl had broke her thumb so we had lost her. Things were not great.

“Hopefully we’ll have less excuses and get tore into the five games now coming up.

“Wexford was my first game back with the county, it was a tough game back. I had gone and watched the Kilkenny game, even though I wasn’t playing. It was a tough game as well. Kildare we played in the league semi-final there, it’s going to be tough.

“It’s a tough group, there’s no doubt about it, but hopefully….”

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