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'Brian Cody made our childhoods. It’s why Kilkenny hurling and camogie is as good as it is'

Claire Phelan and Kilkenny are gearing up for Sunday’s All-Ireland camogie final.

Claire Phelan lifting the O'Duffy Cup in 2020.
Claire Phelan lifting the O'Duffy Cup in 2020.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

23 JULY, 2022. It was strange day for Kilkenny, to say the very least.

The Brian Cody era came to a staggering close, a Saturday afternoon statement bringing an end to the speculation that had built all week. A few short hours later, the camogie team booked their All-Ireland final spot with a stunning win over reigning champions Galway in Croke Park.

“We were surprised,” Claire Phelan recalls, “not a nice surprise really but jeez, Brian Cody made our childhoods for a lot of us, we got to experience September every year and All-Irelands nearly, which is something special.

“It’s nearly why Kilkenny hurling and camogie is as good as it is, because young kids were growing up with that All-Ireland every year nearly which was amazing. I know there’s a good list of candidates there for it and I have no doubt the best man will be put in the job and hopefully will go on and do as good as Brian Cody did.”

As we all well know, in Kilkenny, hurling and camogie is everything. The hurley, or hurl, and sliotar, religion. The currency, Celtic crosses.

Brian Dowling’s side are left flying the flag this season, facing Cork on Sunday in their eighth All-Ireland final in 10 years, the O’Duffy Cup lifted just twice in that period.

Cody’s hurlers fell short upon their return to the final last month, all-conquering Limerick with the upper hand in HQ. Phelan was delighted to be one of the lucky 86,000 or so spectators in attendance that day.

“An unbelievable game, we were so proud. The lads gave an absolutely incredible display, worked to the very end. Unfortunately Limerick are just a top outfit and they edged it in the end but it was a brilliant display and I think even we can take a lot from it.

“They never gave up and they died with their boots on. They were absolutely brilliant, I think it was a fitting performance, they gave what Brian Cody has given every single time. We’re hugely proud of them.”

brian-cody-celebrates-with-eoin-cody It's the end of an era in Kilkenny with Cody departing the hurling hotseat. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

And surely it brought more fire to the belly for the business end of the camogie?

“Definitely,” the experienced defender nods. “When you’re sitting up in the stand there all you want to be is on the pitch and you’re thinking, ‘Where will I be this time next week,’ or, ‘What might happen?’ It does whet the appetite and you’re just ready to go.”

2022 hasn’t exactly been straightforward for Phelan and co., the last-four win a special one.

“There was a lot thrown at us this year between injuries and players leaving and whatever else along with that,” she explains. “So it just meant a lot.

“That was our goal at the start of the year, we wanted to get to an All-Ireland and to do it was great. And it was great to have family and friends there. Because of Covid the last few years, it just wasn’t the same.”

That December 2020 All-Ireland triumph in an eerily empty Croke Park was strange, the Cats now without that day’s Player of the Match Aoife Doyle.

Herself and her sister Kellyann are both sidelined with cruciate injuries, the latter having suffered the dreaded knee injury for the third time. “Blow after blow,” Phelan frowns in sympathy — Laura Norris also struggling with an ongoing foot injury — but that’s all extra motivation for others, she nods.

“It’s hugely tough on them but they’re brilliant, they’re at every training, they’re on the bus, they’re tipping around still and it does make a difference to have them there, chatting away to girls. You’d just be devastated for them, the amount they put into it.

“You can see how much it means to them. We have the opportunity to get out on the pitch and play so we’ll do what we can because they’d love to have the opportunity as well. I’ve been lucky, I haven’t had too many injuries but we all know what it’s like when you’re not able to play and you’d give anything to play. We will definitely have them in our minds the whole time and it will be a driving force because we can see what they’re doing off the pitch to get back again so it will definitely be a driving force for us.”

claire-phelan-and-ashling-thompson Head-to-head: Claire Phelan and Ashling Thompson. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Phelan has been involved for the past 11 years or so. Highs, lows, up, downs, she’s seen it all.

“I’m one of the older ones,” she grins. “I had my first Championship in 2011 with Ann Downey, so I’m around a good while, I suppose.

“We’ve met Cork loads of times in between that, there’s been good days and bad days but it’s all part of a journey. I think as you get older you start to enjoy it more and realise how special a thing it is to be in a group like that. I’ve enjoyed all that, yeah, and hopefully we’ll have another day to remember next weekend.

“We’ve been on both sides of them so we know how easy they can slip away. When you win you don’t want to leave Croke Park, but when you lose, you just want the world to swallow you up and you have to face going back to family and things like that. Look, we’ll do our best and work hard, that’s all we can, and hopefully it will be a good day.”

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There’s kind words for all those involved through the years: the Downeys, Breda Holmes, Dowling and his “brilliant” backroom team. A sense of appreciation of all they’ve achieved, and excitement for what’s to come. 

Like most others on Noreside, camogie is everything for Phelan. But there’s more to life, too, she smiles.

She’s a primary school teacher in Clara National School, working alongside Paddy Deegan, Aisling Nolan and Eileen O’Hara, all fellow warriors in the black and amber.

“Enjoying the holidays and chilling out,” she smiles. “They’ll all be giving out that I’m off!

“I’m getting married this December so that’ll be taking up my time as well. Plenty of planning but we’re on top of it.

“We’re both kind of laid back, we’ll get it done anyway eventually, after the All-Ireland.”

There’s a big job to focus on first.

7 August, 2022. Potentially, another memorable day for Kilkenny.

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Emma Duffy

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