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'They were just such special kids' - the school that produced five of Dublin's six All-Ireland final defenders

Of the six Dublin defenders starting in the 2019 All-Ireland final, five went to school in Coláiste Íosagáin.

A CERTAIN DUBLIN All-Star defender’s first memory of ladies football is sitting in the stands watching the 2003 All-Ireland final in Croke Park. 

mick-bohan-with-dublin-ladies-football-team-5102003 Mick Bohan with his 2003 Dublin team. Source: INPHO

Her now manager, Mick Bohan, was over the Sky Blues that day, and while they were beaten at the death by Mayo leaving this 11-year-old absolutely devastated, she took so much from the occasion.

With the big decision regarding which secondary school she would attend looming, she made the decision there and then as Helena Lohan gave her speech from the Hogan Stand. 

Niamh Collins couldn’t help but laugh as she told the story recently on RTÉ’s The W podcast.

The Foxrock-Cabinteely star was weighing up Loreto College Foxrock — for which her primary school was a feeder school — or Coláiste Íosagáin, a Gaelscoil on the Stillorgan Road.

I was like, ‘No, Dad I need to go to Colaiste Íosagáin because I need to be able to speak Irish so if I ever play on the Dublin Ladies team and I accept the trophy, I’ll be able to say it in Irish,’” she recalls, before adding with a giggle; “even though it’s a sentence!

“It just made such a big impression on me. It paved the way for me to go to the secondary school that I went to, which, at the end of the day was a really big factor in my career.

“I played basketball and football quite seriously there, probably to a higher standard than I would have in the other school, which I don’t doubt had an impact on my career overall.”

***

It says a lot about Coláiste Íosagáin that five of the six Dublin defenders who started in the 2019 All-Ireland final came through the ladies football ranks there. 

Collins, Sinéad Goldrick, Martha Byrne, Aoife Kane and Éabha Rutledge all completed their second-level education at the south Dublin all-girls school (Olwen Carey is the odd one out), and it definitely left a lasting impact on one and all.

So much so that immediately after they beat Galway and sealed their third All-Ireland crown in-a-row, the quintet gathered together and sent a picture to their former teacher and football coach at Íosagáin.

It was a small gesture that meant so much to Ellen Nic Phiarais, when she opened her phone to see the image Rutledge had sent on. 

“Éabha actually made my day,” the Geography, Maths and PE teacher tells The42, explaining how she always made an effort to keep in contact with her former students wishing them well before, and congratulating them after, big matches.

“Obviously I was so delighted for them winning, but I was like, ‘I’ll text them tomorrow, let them enjoy their night.’

dubssss The fab five: Martha Byrne, Aoife Kane, Éabha Rutledge, Sinéad Goldrick, Niamh Collins. Source: Coláiste Íosagáin Twitter.

When I got that message, I was just like, ‘Wow.’ That probably meant the most to me. After winning an All-Ireland and to actually think about sending your teacher a message, that just really made it for me to be honest. They were just such special kids.

“Even any of my friends know, I talk about them footballers like I literally would have done anything for them. They were so amazing. Just the want, the drive; they would have went through a brick wall.”

It worked both ways. 

And it’s safe to say that Ms Nic Phiarais is over the moon to see her former students ripping it up week in, week out on the biggest stage.  

“The funny thing is they weren’t all defenders in school,” she giggles. “Éabha was like my main forward. She was only in third year at the time, but I pulled her up to the senior team as a full-forward.

“Aoife would have played as a forward for me, and Niamh and Martha were my midfield. We had a strong defence because basketball was quite strong at the time.

It’s funny because those girls weren’t my backs.

Nic Phiarais started out at the school in 2009, just after Goldrick left, but she played a huge role in each of the other four Íosagáin graduates’ teenage years.

In her first year there, the then-22-year-old teacher was understandably finding her feet. She didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes so was reluctant to push ladies football too much in her new surroundings.

Things soon changed, though.

Basketball, athletics and camogie are the other main sports in the school, but with that crop of talent and Nic Phiarais in the driving seat, ladies football took over.

In 2011, they landed their first All-Ireland ‘B’ title. It was Collins’ Leaving Cert year, and she marshalled midfield alongside Byrne, who was in the year below. Rutledge wore the number 14 jersey, while Kane — a second year at the time — was on the periphery.

“That year would probably be my favourite memory, even now,” Nic Phiarais smiles as they all come flooding back.

“Our aim was to try and win Leinster, and it just kind of snowballed the second year I was in the school [the 2011 season]. The first year, I think we got knocked out in maybe the Leinster quarter-final. We got nowhere, like.

niamh-collins Star defender Niamh Collins. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Then the second year, it was like, ‘Right, we can actually go somewhere this year.’ The talent was amazing… the likes of Niamh, Martha and Éabha, but on top of that there were great other footballers too.

“My job, I always felt, was to make a team out of them because they filter in from a lot of different clubs. There’s Kilmacud, Cuala, Foxrock-Cabinteely, Ballyboden, there were some from Bray Emmets; there was a massive mix of clubs, and they also ranged from different years in the school.”

I wouldn’t take any credit for their football skill whatsoever, my job I always felt was to make a team out of them,” she adds, stressing that over and over.

Bit by bit, Nic Phiarais most definitely did just that. And after school bake-offs on a Friday helped the cause.

“It kind of just happened by accident,” she explains, “and then we got into the habit of it.

“We’d sit down and just make friends out of the team. Then, before any big matches, I’d make them caramel squares. We’d have a kick-about, and have tea and caramel squares afterwards.”

Even recently, Kane and Rutledge called into the school with the Brendan Martin Cup and those famous caramel squares were still the main topic of conversation.

Another secret to their success was pre-match tea and biscuits, but it was pure hunger, heart and determination that pushed that brilliant Coláiste Íosagáin team to win after win, and title after title.

“Every time we played, there was someone better on the other team but we just played as a team,” their adoring coach remembers. 

The 2011 Leinster semi-final win over Loreto Balbriggan comes to mind, and a few nice words from the opposition’s coach afterwards: I’ve never seen such a team performance, ye deserve to go further because ye are a team.

They were one, they really were and I have to say, that was the main thing for me,” Nic Phiarais beams, tracing their journey to provincial glory and thereafter.

With St Patrick’s Day falling between that victory and an unprecedented All-Ireland semi-final, she can’t but laugh as she remembers what came next.

“I was like, ‘Oh God, these are fifth and sixth years, they’re going to be out Paddy’s Day, what are we going to do?’ Me and the other coach at the time were like, ‘Right, we’ll have training at 9am the day after Paddy’s Day.’”

eabha-rutledge Éabha Rutledge has transformed from a forward to a back. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The pair of coaches decided they’d head out on the night of the 16 March to be in top-form for early morning training on the 18th. But sure, of course, Nic Phiarais ended up out on St Patrick’s Day, and feeling a bit worse for wear the next day.

“Every single kid turned up at training on time, I was worse off than them, like,” she laughs. “That was the internal joke – obviously I wouldn’t say anything to them at the time but they knew full well, the head on me.

They were like, ‘Miss, do you need the water? Not us!’ Every single one of them was there, not a bother on them. And they were there to win.

On, they went, into uncharted territory. And their coach’s “favourite match ever in the school.” Loreto Letterkenny — led by the deadly Geraldine McLaughlin — stood between Íosagáin and a coveted All-Ireland final sport.

McLaughlin is a name any ladies football fan will be more than familiar with now considering her excellent exploits with Donegal and Termon, but even as a teenager, she was destined for greatness.

“A fantastic footballer, unbelievable,” Nic Phiarais nods. “In the Ulster final, didn’t she score something like 7-11. I was having heart failure. I was telling the kids, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be grand.’ But they stalked her on Facebook, they all knew her anyway, they knew her inside out nearly by the time we got to the match.”

Collins — who had only recently returned to football after a bout of glandular fever — was tasked with the job of keeping McLaughlin quiet. She did just that, but was a notable absentee in midfield.

With 10 minutes to go, Íosagáin were five points down. The dream was dying. 

I can still see Niamh turning around going, ‘Miss, I need to attack.’ I was like, ‘Yes, you do… go, go, go.’

“She burst through the midfield. You know Niamh, so strong and physical, had people dragging after her. She took a shot, it bounced off the crossbar and Cliona Máirtin — a basketball international who hadn’t played football since she was 10, I drafted her in –  made contact with it, scored a goal and we came back and won by three points.

“Literally with 10 minutes to go, the game was over. That was my favourite match. Teachers had rang back to the school like, ‘Listen, it’s great they got so far,’ and then I was like, ‘No, they actually won.’ Little things like that.”

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With success in the decider, momentum grew and grew in the years that followed. Numerous Leinster titles, junior B and senior A All-Ireland crowns were added to that first senior B one in the trophy cabinet.

As Kane said herself before this year’s All-Ireland final, that senior A All-Ireland win over Tipperary’s Coláiste Dún Iascaigh in Dr Cullen Park in fifth year was the “best day of my life,” and “my first major success.”

aoife-kane-and-mairead-seoighe Aoife Kane had a huge year for the Dubs. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

School football really is a special experience. 

“What was fantastic about the girls was all of them came back in,” Nic Phiarais adds.

“Niamh was in sixth year when we won that first All-Ireland and I remember her coming in the following September saying, ‘Miss, I just want to help out. I don’t want money, I want to help train.’

That September after winning the first All-Ireland, 120 kids came out between three teams. I was standing on my own with Niamh beside me and the two of us were like, ‘What are we meant to do here?’ Everyone wanted to play football because that momentum was there. It was just fantastic.

“It was a whole school thing,” she smiles, remembering how teachers moved classes to facilitate the players, while others organised buses. “Everyone got behind us.

“The girls were so special. When Aoife and Eabha came in with the Brendan Martin, that was one of the things they said, it was football in school that made it for them.

“I think the Irish as well was also a thing. They always thought they had the extra edge with the Irish, they’d be screaming at each other as Gaeilge and the other team wouldn’t know what they were at.

Even Aoife said amongst the Dublin backs they were using Irish again, shouting as Gaeilge. I suppose it was nearly natural to them from one point, but they were probably using it as a tiny edge again lately. 

“I just… I can’t even sum it up. They were just amazing, really amazing. I was lucky — and they were lucky — they kind of came in years together.”

Memory after memory, story after story; there are just so many. And so many examples of how these players would have done anything for the team.

Nic Phiarais remembers one girl in a sling, hell-bent on togging out. Another, playing with a broken arm and not telling management until afterwards. Collins landing in a hedge one day with two feet in the air as she couldn’t slow down trying to keep the ball in play, and of course, her battle back from glandular fever because 2011 was going to be “our year.”

“It became good to play like a girl,” Nic Phiarais notes. “We have the boys’ school beside us and the running joke had become, you wanted to play like a girl. They put that much into it, they were just amazing. Just amazing. 

“One thing I will always say about them is they just gave 100% all the time. They would have ran into a brick wall. They were just always so pumped and always so up for it.

niamh-collins-and-sinead-goldrick-celebrate-after-the-game Collins and Goldrick after their semi-final win. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“They always fought for each other, and always played as a team. They just always gave 100%. The joke at the time of that first All-Ireland was, ‘Ah, you can repeat the Leaving Cert but you can’t repeat an All-Ireland.’ It was just fantastic.”

The pride she has in her former students and now-Dublin stars is second to none. Nic Phiarais always uses 2019 All-Star forward nominee Rutledge as an example in school now: how she was on the edge of the Dublin set-up for so long, but made her breakthrough this year after her switch to defence. 

She has unique memories of them all: Byrne chanting to her team-mates to rally the troops, Kane’s star rising with her Mam on the sideline at every game, and how there was always just “something about Niamh Collins.”

While Nic Phiarais evidently left a mark on each and every one of those, they did so on her too. And on Coláiste Íosagáin.

“They inspired generations to come,” she concludes. “We won four All-Irelands after that. It was following them. They came back to train, and when you’re looking up to that standard… we were just so lucky that way.

The hype around the All-Ireland was great, when the girls came into the school. They’re just fantastic, they really are.

“I can’t give them higher praise. Just amazing. And I’m just so happy for them.” 

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Emma Duffy

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