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Dublin: 11 °C Monday 24 February, 2020
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Family first: Taking advice from ex-AFL star brother, and having a 'role model' and midfield partner sister

The Byrne family of St Mochta’s in Louth are a talented bunch. Star midfielder Eimear chats to The42 ahead of the Wee county’s 2020 league campaign.

EIMEAR BYRNE LAUGHS as she looks back to her childhood.

eimear-byrne-and-roisin-oreilly Louth midfielder Eimear Byrne. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I was probably the last one to pick up a football in my house,” the Louth star tells The42. “That was frowned upon for a couple of years!”

The Byrnes from Louth are nothing short of an admirable sporting family. Eimear, who turned 22 the day of our conversation, is the youngest of the four hugely talented siblings. Next is Ciarán or ‘Casey’, the former AFL star who is now back in the Louth inter-county set-up. Then it’s Eimear’s fellow All-Ireland winning midfielder in Aoife, the Wee county’s captain for 2020. And Declan — one of the county’s top forwards, who has donned the beloved red jersey well over one hundred times –  is the eldest.

“The last year of Cúl Camps,” Eimear picks up, “I think I was 12 when I went and I fell in love with it then. I’ve never let the ball out of my hands from that day on.”

Isn’t she glad she hasn’t? The 22-year-old was instrumental around the middle as Louth lifted the All-Ireland junior championship crown in Croke Park last September. After falling short in the final the previous year, that feeling of getting their hands on the West County Hotel Cup was made even sweeter. 

Through that two-year journey, there were plenty of exhilarating highs but there were also many gut-wrenching lows. The lowest of those came when their manager Mícheál McKeown passed away following a short illness in June 2018.

When he started out at the helm, McKeown’s main aim was for the team to get to Croke Park. They did just that in his memory under Darren Bishop, but were narrowly beaten on the day. To finally get over the line 12 months later was nothing short of incredible.

“Coming so close the year before really gave us a taster,” Byrne notes. “We weren’t going back to Croke Park again to get bet, that was our frame of mind.

“Obviously it was a massive achievement to win the junior All-Ireland, and we want to go again this year. Once you get the taste for success you want to keep on going. 

“There’s been a super bunch of girls there the past two years. You nearly become a family, you’re spending so much time together. Two hours a night training together, it’s nearly mad if you’re not close-knit after that.

fermanagh-v-louth-tg4-all-ireland-ladies-football-junior-championship-final Aoife and Eimear Byrne lifting the 2019 All-Ireland junior crown. Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

“Last year we were training for such a long time, preparing for an All-Ireland so you really are spending more time with them than your actual family.”

That said, she spent even more time than usual with her older sister, Aoife.

The Byrne duo were central through the Leinster county’s rise, and that’s sure to be the case again in 2020. While Eimear was sent to the Lidl Ladies National League launch in Tallaght on Tuesday, she insists she was just standing in for Aoife, the skipper. 

“It’s great to have your sister to fall back on,” she smiles when asked about that dynamic on the pitch. “When things aren’t going well in training or in games, she’s there pushing you on all the time.

“She’s my role model, and a good captain figure. It would be silly not to look up to her.”

“Sometimes we might have a bit of a scuff,” Eimear adds with a giggle. “But definitely, we can nearly read each others’ minds on the field.

“We’re playing with each other since we were very young, and the fact that we were in midfield together last year built some sort of relationship that I don’t think many midfielders would have.

“When you’re playing alongside your sister, it’s kind of different. You can nearly envisage where she’s going to be and when. It’s weird. But it’s amazing to have her there.”

That telepathy surely runs through the St Mochta’s siblings at this stage, in a family where the entire focus is on Gaelic football at the minute. 

“Gaelic has always been the number one,” the youngest refers to her in her case anyway, despite flirting with soccer and basketball in school. Anything to get out of class, she grins.

But it was Ciarán who well and truly switched his focus from their beloved native sport to pursue another. ‘Casey’ forged an Aussie Rules career Down Under after exploding onto the inter-county scene and then signing for Carlton in August 2013.

afl-tigers-blues Ciarán 'Casey' Byrne in action with Carlton. Source: AAP/PA Images

A six-year stint there ended in October 2018 after a string of bad luck and injury struggles, and Byrne returned to the Emerald Isle. Since, he has returned to his first love of football — and made his highly-anticipated inter-county comeback in recent weeks. 

“Ah, it’s fantastic,” Eimear’s face lights up. “It’s great to have Casey home, obviously.

“He’s a good buzz around the house and obviously then you have him to tell you what to do on the field. He doesn’t be long telling you what you’ve done wrong and that! It’s great to have him home so the four of us are back together again.”

While he was away, he was certainly missed around the house, but the excitement of it all was like nothing the family had ever experienced.

Eimear vaguely remembers a two-week trip over with her parents in transition year, but it’s the tuning in from home she recalls more vividly.

“It was something to look forward to every weekend, he obviously had the Aussie Rules matches and you’re watching your brother on TV,” she reflects. “It was surreal, him playing in front of thousands of people.

“You might get that once a year if you get to Croke Park, but we had that nearly every weekend when he was playing. It was amazing for him, and an amazing experience that I don’t think he would ever regret.

“He’s back now playing with Louth and he seems to be enjoying it. It’s good to see him back in the GAA gear again!”

While her brother’s return to home soil has been nothing but pleasing, the departure of a star team-mate and friend to the Land Down Under has been a slight challenge football-wise. 

Kate Flood has starred for the county through the years, grabbing 1-8 in an All-Ireland final individual masterclass last September. But instead of lining out in the league, she’ll be donning the Fremantle colours in the AFLW this spring. 

kate-flood Kate Flood in action in the final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It’s bittersweet when you’re missing someone like Kate,” Byrne concedes. “She’s a phenomenal player and she was probably hitting the form of her life at the end of last year, especially going into the All-Ireland.

“We seen her playing some of the best football from a women’s footballer I think I’ve ever seen. Obviously we’re going to be missing her for the league this year, which will be new to get used to not having her in there.

“But there are girls stepping up in training; the likes of Lauren Boyle and Niamh Rice; phenomenal players themselves, and they’re starting to step up I think because Kate’s not there. 

“It’s going to be tough to not have that target in full-forward, but hopefully we’ll have her back for championship and the training she’s doing over there, she’s going to be in serious nick coming back.”

While Flood is enjoying footy in the Australian sun, Byrne is gearing up for a manic few weeks on and off the pitch. A trainee PE and Biology teacher, she’s facing into her final year placement and working out how to balance that with all the football to be played.

“Balancing it all, I’m not looking forward to that part of it,” she admits, but takes solace in the fact that she can use one to counteract the other in stressful times. “You use both.

“And because I’m quite young as well, I’m only out of school myself so you kind of relate to what the students are feeling. You might have sixth years who are 18 and there’s only a couple of years in the difference there.

“You remember very much what it was like to be in their shoes and how to balance things. You’re kind of like a helping hand there for them, lending advice and that.”

lidl-ladies-national-football-league-launch-2020 Louth face Antrim in their Division 4 league opener on 2 February. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

On the football front, it’s another period of adjustment as Kildare native Wayne Freeman takes the reins from Bishop. He’s joined by Dubliner Lee Hunt, while the backroom team is familiar.

“It’s nice to have fresh faces in,” she adds, as Louth look to continue their progression and the upward trajectory they are enjoying. As our conversation comes to a close, Byrne is keen to point out the ever-rising profile of ladies football, and how much things have come on since she started out. 

“A massive differences,” she nods. “Even in the last two or three years. Lidl are obviously doing phenomenal work, they’re pumping money in behind it. That’s what you need.

“The coverage we’re getting is just phenomenal. Even in our own county, our own reporters have something in the paper every week about ladies football. They definitely don’t leave us out by any manner or means. They’re fantastic, it’s great.”

And Eimear Byrne is hoping they’ll have plenty of positives to write about from the Louth camp going forward in 2020.

“Ending off on a good note last year winning the All-Ireland, you can’t get any better than that,” she concludes. “But we’re looking forward to starting the league this year.

“We have some unfinished business there in that we need to get out of Division 4. That’s our main aim for this year.”

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Emma Duffy

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