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From starring in Cork's All-Ireland wins to watching on from New Jersey

Orla Cotter scored the winning point when Cork and Kilkenny met in the 2018 All-Ireland final, she’ll watch tomorrow’s semi-final from Jersey City.

Orla Cotter with her player of the match award after the 2018 All-Ireland final.
Orla Cotter with her player of the match award after the 2018 All-Ireland final.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

REWIND TWELVE MONTHS ago and they were sightseeing around New York, playing an exhibition match in Gaelic Park and enjoyed the reward of a trip with the best in the game after a long season of exertions.

By then Orla Cotter had set up base Stateside with her husband Mark.

There was a definite convenience in the location of that All-Stars camogie tour.

The Kilkenny crew wondered if the move represented a line drawn under her days with Cork. They joked that they were bracing themselves for her to return to wreck their silverware dreams again the following summer. Best to be mindful of an opposition threat.

Two years ago a tight and tense All-Ireland final was only settled during a frantic finale when Cotter held her nerve to knock over an injury-time free.

It won the game for Cork in Croke Park.

The teams renew acquaintances in tomorrow’s senior semi-final, their first meeting of championship consequence since. Cotter will be an early Saturday morning viewer, GAA GO the means by which we she can take in the action from her apartment in Jersey City.

Watching from afar was not always the plan. There was no retirement announcement last winter, instead she nursed a hope of a return to link up with a Cork team that she has been a shining light for since 2006.

Yet this has been the year of Covid. Factor in traffic light travel systems, quarantines and visas, and trying to get home to play some camogie was never going to be straightforward.

“I was always hanging on, ‘Oh, there might be an announcement the end of September that changes things.’

“But after that I figured that I wouldn’t get home. I was always a bit hopeful and was tipping away training. I would have loved to have got back.

“Realistically I probably should have known not that it wouldn’t happen. It wasn’t to be.”

The spring lockdown reminded sportspeople about how much they enjoyed the rhythm of training and matches in their weekly routine. No different if you were living in America or back home in Ballynoe in East Cork.

Cork camogie has been central to Cotter’s life, just as she has been central to the county’s ambitions. Seven All-Ireland senior medals, five All-Stars and Player of the Match awards in ’15 and ’18. That honours list speaks volumes about her prowess and illustrates how many big days she has been involved in over the past 14 seasons.

orla-cotter-and-gemma-oconnor-celebrates-with-the-oduffy-cup Orla Cotter and Gemma O'Connor celebrate with the O'Duffy Cup in 2018. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“In one way being over here kind of makes the decision for you, ‘Okay I’m not going to get to play this year.’

“It made it a tiny bit easier being away. Say if I was at home and I couldn’t go to the games, would that have even been harder? I’m in the same boat that I can still watch it online here.

“I do miss it. You’re trying to tip away and keep yourself fit but the joy of playing is doing it with your friends and team-mates.”

Her sporting story has not been confined to camogie. In her early days in the Cork dressing-room, Mary O’Connor persuaded her to come down the road and play some ladies football with Inch Rovers. Cotter’s club St Catherine’s had no such outlet, so she figured why not? She slotted into a team populated with star names like O’Connor, Angela and Annie Walsh, and Amy O’Shea.

A decade ago they reached the club summit with an All-Ireland win against Cora Staunton’s Carnacon, atoning for a pair of previous final defeats.

If that interest had been parked for a while, it has been ignited again in recent months with Manhattan Gaels. There is only one camogie team in New York and with the North American Championships scrapped in Boston this year, there was no outlet available. Ladies football helped fill the void,

“I randomly met a girl I was in secondary school with one day over here, Mairead Rice from Fermoy. Myself and Mark had gone over to a park near us and I bumped into her, we got chatting.

“She asked, ‘Did I have any interest in playing a bit of football over there?’

“When the camogie wasn’t happening, I said I would.”

She came with a decent track record and bagged another medal when they won the New York final. But it was the trips over to Randalls Island for training and membership of a team again that were most valued.

“I was delighted to have it. You have that competitiveness, going training Tuesday and Thursday, matches on the Sunday. It was brilliant and meeting loads of girls from around Ireland. Made loads of new friends.”

That helped to settle during a year that has been full of extraordinary moments. When Mark got a transfer with his company to work in finance, Orla took a career break from her teaching position in Midleton. They made plans for travel around the country and looked forward to living the American dream.

Instead life threw some curveballs at them. Work wise Mark has just recently returned to his office near the One World Trade Center, Orla did some summer camps and after-school coaching nearby.

On their doorstep has been a constant series of seismic events, a pandemic that noticeably gripped the city and state, the nationwide protests after the killing of George Floyd and then the landmark November presidential election.

“It’s definitely one you’ll talk about in years to come, that you were in New York that time. The initial lockdown, cases were so high, people were scared to leave.

“From our apartment we could see one day the Navy ship coming in as an extra hospital ward because hospitals were under so much pressure. They’d tents set up in Central Park. You see things like that, ‘You’re thinking, Oh my God’.

“But where we were, we were fine. Similar to the rioting, you’d friends at home saying, ‘Are you coming back now?’

“But we were safe where we were. What the TV shows at home, probably makes it look scarier than it was. There was a big protest close to us here,

“A couple weeks ago we were watching Cork-Dublin in hurling, the next thing we heard cheering. Mark checked his phone and saw Biden had got in. It was just bizarre, you could see loads of people cheering out the windows of their apartments or out on the street.

“Just seeing all that and being here when it was on, it was all a bit mad alright.”

If it’s been a different foreign country experience to what they envisaged, they still have been able to sample what local life has to offer.

“It has been enjoyable in that we’ve met lovely people out here. Through the GAA we’ve had good craic up in Gaelic Park on Sundays. You just make the most of what you can do.

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a-view-of-the-action-during-the-camogie-all-stars-game A view of the action at Gaelic Park during the 2019 camogie All-Stars tour. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Being in Jersey City and so close to New York, you’re still able to do so much even without leaving your state. We got down to Cape May during the summer. Hopefully if things stay open we might be able to go skiing for Christmas. This is all without leaving your state.

“But everyone says to me when Ireland went into second lockdown, that it looks like we’re having a great time. Our restaurants didn’t close, pubs were still open. I think it’s just been hard for everyone in the world.”

The big drawback has been the lack of family interaction. There were plans to host visitors from home and hopes of getting back to seeing younger members growing up but all that has had to be put on ice.

“In April my Mam and my sister were coming. My brother and his wife were coming in May.  Then it was like, ‘Okay the probably they won’t make it.’ 

“It isn’t what we thought it would be but sure that’s been 2020 for everyone across the board.

“I’ve two little nieces who I miss hugely. My little goddaughter Aifric was one in September and Fia is going to be three in January. Thank God for FaceTime and Zoom with them, it’s great craic.

“There are days you’d love to get home to see them and your parents and family. The worst part is not knowing when you’ll get home. If I knew I’d get home in March or April, you’d look forward to that.”

orla-cotter-with-her-niece-fia-otuama Orla Cotter with her niece Fia after the 2018 final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

So they’ll wait and see how everything plays out over the next while, plans dictated by Covid as much as everyone else.

The constant supply of matches from back home helps at weekends. Tomorrow is a day of huge significance in that regard. Half seven in the morning for the camogie throw-in, then at lunchtime it will be the focus of the Waterford hurlers for Deise native Mark in their All-Ireland semi-final.

“Big day Saturday now for us!

“I got to see Cork’s saw game against Clare and a couple of the round-robin games as well. They look like they’re hopefully coming good at the right time. We always loved playing in the summer but it’s a different kind of weather to be playing in now.

“Páirc Uí Chaoimh looks great, I’d say it’s the first time Cork ever are playing a semi-final there. That’s class. When I first started playing for semi-finals you’d to go up nearly every year to Nowlan Park. It’s nice to have them on home turf.

“It’ll be a tough one, the last few times we’ve met Kilkenny, there’s never been anything between us, puck of a ball really. Both teams love playing each other, there’s a good rivalry there.”

Central to that rivalry for so long and now still invested in it when watching on across the Atlantic.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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