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'It brings back your identity you maybe lost' - Returning to camogie after having kids and playing with four sisters

Former Wexford star Claire O’Connor, her sisters and the Rathnure camogie team take centre stage on TG4′s Ár gClub tonight.

Ráth an Iúir Cláir Ní Chonchubhair 4 Former Wexford star Claire O'Connor after returning to action for Rathnure. Source: TG4.

THE O’CONNOR SISTERS are synonymous with Wexford camogie.

The famous five have won All-Ireland senior titles with the county, and continue to lead the charge for their local club, Rathnure. Through the years, they’ve seen it all in sport — the highs and the lows, the ups and downs, the good days and the bad — and they currently take centre stage in TG4′s Ár gClub series.

Recorded through the 2019 championship, Claire — or Cláir Ní Chonchubhair as she goes in the programme — is the main focus of tonight’s episode [8pm, TG4] as she returns to camogie after having her second child. 

Contesting high-level sport whilst juggling family commitments is challenging, of course, but the O’Connors’ story certainly highlights that that’s the reality for women in sport.

The eldest sister, Aoife (41) has two children and also continues to play, while Niamh (36) has a newborn baby and is the same predicament as Claire (39) was last summer, humming and hawing about returning to senior club action. 

Source: TG4/YouTube

“It was interesting to follow a Mammy who was just back from having a child,” Claire told The42 today. “That’s women in sport. That’s what they were trying to showcase: women in sport have to factor so many things into their lives when they’re trying to play the sport that they love and be part of a community of players playing a team sport.

“There are loads of women out there trying to pull their four and three children, or their one child, to the field, and trying to achieve the same thing, be it football, camogie, basketball, hockey… that is the story for a lot of women.

“Yes, modern men are really good as well to support that situation, but it is a step harder for women because they have to manage their children, get to the field, and build back up that base of strength.

“You’ve basically spent nine or 10 months growing another human being so it is a big deal to get your body back to having the ability again to play.

“You do lose confidence when you have children and you’ve been removed from the thing that you know best in sport. All these changes happen that only women can understand, I suppose.

“You lose confidence and belief in yourself. You think that you’re not able, but when you come back and you play a bit, you realise, ‘God, this is what’s making me able and this is what’s giving me confidence again and bringing me back to my true self.’”

breige-corkery-and-sile-burns-with-claire-oconnor Facing Cork in the 2012 All-Ireland final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Like many others, it took her some time to return as it was a big decision to make, with many factors to consider.

“How am I going to get back and what do I need to do to get strong again,” were just some of the questions Claire had.

As the youngest sister, Eimear (27), tells in tonight’s preview: Claire probably wasn’t even thinking of fully coming back at first, but then when she went training with the intermediate team and got taste for it, she wanted more. 

The hunger came back almost immediately, and she was right into the thick of it playing senior championship in no time.

“I’m still not sure if I was able for senior last year when I came back, they didn’t have a big panel,” she concedes.

“But once you get a taste for it, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is such a release.’ You’re getting away from the house, getting time to yourself, it’s an hour-and-a-half of hanging out with other girls; the things we did all our lives.

Ráth an Iúir Clár's Children and her parents Claire's children and her parents. Source: TG4.

“It brings you back to a bit of your identity you maybe lost in having children and trying to rear your children. They become your number one, whereas camogie was always our number one before that.

“When you get a taster for it, you love the time away, you love how you feel fit again, strong again. I think a lot of young women who decide to part ways with sport, in any capacity, lose that feeling. It gives great mental health as well as physical health.

“I would say that when you’re a new mother, you do struggle mentally sometimes and I think sport is a fantastic way to bring you back mentally and bring you back physically to strength. You’re tired, exhausted, dealing with your newborn and your toddler maybe, which was my situation.”

Her kids were four-months-old and two when she returned to play last summer.

“And when Aoife came back before me after having two kids,” she adds, “the year after that, her husband took over the team. He managed, she played and our parents looked after her children. That is no lie, that’s how it went. It really was a family affair for them.”

The O’Connors know all about family affairs, with Ciara (34) and Teddy (30) making up the talented line-up of siblings. 

Again, Claire is keen to stress that her situation is nothing special. 

Ráth an Iúir Dreifiúiracha Uí Chonchubhair 2 The O'Connors enjoying a puc around. Source: TG4.

“GAA has been huge for our family, but it’s huge for 40% of the population of Ireland,” she continues.

“I know we might be five sisters and it’s unusual to have that big of a family, but I’d say if you went into any household in Ireland, you would see brothers, sisters, all sisters or all brothers, making the same commitment and doing the same thing.”

It’s all the O’Connor family have known, and they’ve reaped the rewards of sport in both a mental and physical capacity — it’s made the bad days better, and the good days great.

“It creates a lot of things playing as five sisters; it creates bonds, strengths and it also creates criticism,” Claire grins. “‘You took my skort,”You took my socks,’ ‘Jesus will you pass the ball,’ ‘Mark up, will ya!’; all those things that you wouldn’t necessarily say to other players on the team, you seem to be allowed say it to your sisters. But there’s an honesty in that, there’s an honesty in the GAA in that it’s a lifestyle and a family thing.

“We’re our own toughest critics. Your sister walks in for a postmortem after a match: ‘Don’t tell me, I don’t need to know!’ You’d be cringing at the mistakes you’ve made. If you don’t own up to your mistakes, they’ll definitely tell you. No fear of that!”

“Filming with a family, what you saw was definitely what you got! There’s no point in pretending that you’re something that you’re not.”

Ráth an Iúir Cláir & Eimear Ní Chonchubhair 2 Claire and Eimear. Source: TG4.

The entire experience of Ár gClub was incredible, Claire concludes despite her initial small slice of apprehension. 

“In a quiet way, you were expecting it to be in your face,” she laughs. “We were all initially a bit nervous when they approached the club, but they could not have been nicer.

“You’d be a little bit nervous in that you don’t want to make any mistakes with your Irish either! It was a really nice experience for our club. It probably was one of our most difficult years in that it was the first year we struggled to get a manager — we didn’t get one until May — and we struggled with numbers. In a way, they couldn’t have been there in a worse camogie year for us, it’s kind of ironic really.

“But they’re a great bunch of girls. We haven’t won much in the last few years… 2008 was the last time we won the county final, that was pre- all the Wexford All-Irelands of 2010, 11, and 12. It’s a long time since the club has won a county senior championship. A lot of the girls that are there are really young and have never won anything senior. My sisters are the ones that were there in 2008 and we’ve all won so we know what it takes to win. 

“All in all, it was a lovely experience and I would encourage other GAA clubs to take it on.”

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Emma Duffy

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