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Dublin: 9°C Friday 23 October 2020

'I'm aware that she's not there. It's just the habit of after games I have to ring my Mam'

Eight-time All-Ireland winner Gemma O’Connor speaks to The42 about the loss of her mother and her All-Ireland winning 2017 with Cork camogie.

CORK’S GEMMA O’Connor lined out for the 2014 All-Ireland final with a lot on her mind.

Gemma O'Connor with Julianne Malone Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The eight-time All-Ireland champion is renowned for being a consistent performer, and she describes herself as a player who doesn’t do ‘half-arsed’ efforts when it comes to sport. She’s all in all of the time.

O’Connor was still able to hold her own in that All-Ireland final and was named on the All-Star team at the end of the season. But she couldn’t shrug the despair swirling in her head before the throw-in.

“My legs were like jelly out on the pitch, which normally doesn’t happen,” she tells The42.

“I was a small bit of an emotional wreck. And obviously we won but it was bittersweet.”

When we meet, O’Connor has a slight limp on her left leg as she walks into a city hotel in the days leading up to Christmas.

But the weight of that physical pain stemming from a knee ligament injury, is an easy burden to carry compared to the emotional load inflicted upon her three years ago. That’s when she experienced the true depths of pain.

A fortnight out from that All-Ireland final in 2014, O’Connor’s family received some news that changed their lives forever.

Her mother Geraldine had been unwell with what she thought was a muscular problem in her back. Her doctor initially suspected that her gallbladder might be the root cause of the issue but after some further tests, they discovered that the situation was considerably more serious.

IMG_2298 The O'Connor family. Gemma's mother Geraldine is second from the left. Source: Gemma O'Connor.

And then the news came – stage four lung cancer.

O’Connor played the final only knowing the nature of the diagnosis, and discovered that the condition was terminal in the days that followed.

She was with her mother when she got the news, and the fatal implications of it. It was one heart-wrenching bullet followed by another for the O’Connor family.

“It’s not operable.

“There’s nothing we can do,” they were told.

Geraldine was diagnosed at 54 and passed away at 55, shortly after the 2015 All-Ireland camogie final between Cork and Galway.

“It was like our whole world was turned upside down,” O’Connor recalls.

“I was thinking, ‘how the hell am I going to line out here with my head all over the place?’

“My Mam went to the final but she was extremely sick that day, she was in an awful lot of pain. It was a really strange time that normally everyone is so excited about but everyone was so emotional and didn’t know how to feel about it.

I wanted to win for my Mam because she never got to go up to Croke Park again.

“Even that night when we went back to the banquet, she’s normally there having her few drinks and having the craic, but she went to bed because she was really sick.”

Gerladine was O’Connor’s first mentor in camogie. She hailed from the Glen Rovers club and was keen to get her daughter enlisted with them when the time came for her to start playing competitively.

Those plans unraveled however, as the Glen Rovers grounds were too far away from the home house in Ballyphehane. She eventually found a home in her father’s club St Finbarr’s.

Her mother played a key role throughout O’Connor’s development at both club and inter-county level. She instilled all the core values of the GAA in her daughter and helped her understand who and what she was representing whenever she took to the field.

The pair would always talk on the phone before and after training, and as GAA parents tend to do, Geraldine was full of questions about everything connected to the team whenever those conversations took place.

O’Connor works in the army, and while on overseas duty in Liberia in 2004, her mother attended the All-Star award ceremony to collect the accolade on her daughter’s behalf. The Cork defender was later presented with the award in Liberia by then President Mary McAleese, who was visiting the troops at the time.

Geraldine O'Connor Geraldine O'Connor. Source: Gemma O'Connor

“My mother was the driving force behind it,” she explains. “At the weekends, we’d go to the back field in Stiofáin Naofa and we used to go pucking there for half an hour to an hour.

“Sometimes I wouldn’t be talking to her coming back because she’d be saying, ‘do this, do that.’

She just absolutely loved the game of hurling and camogie. She was obsessed with it to be fair. She used to take me out at every opportunity to go for pucks and talk to me about games.”

Hurling was always a core theme in the O’Connor household. The 10-time All-Star is close with her brother Glenn, and the pair have always bonded through hurling. They’ve lost sliotars together and broken a few windows too. They’re each other’s worst critics, which often sparks rows between them.

They even played against each other when they were young, and the rivalry got quite hostile on that occasion.

I think their U15 or U16 team ended up playing the girls team out in the Barr’s and myself and Glenn ended up marking each other at one stage. We ended up flaking each other. I think I threw the hurley and all at him at one stage. It was good craic.

“There was always hurleys everywhere (in our house), there was always training and going to the club games.”

Camogie has helped shape O’Connor’s identity, but during her mother’s illness, she lost some of her some affection for the sport.

She was unsure as to whether she should be going to training while Geraldine was sick. Questions about what her priorities should be raced through her mind.

Essentially, she wasn’t enjoying her camogie at the time and would have to wait until 2017 to rediscover her passion for the small ball game.

She was conflicted and felt duty-bound to be at training. But there was a greater desire to be at home, where she could take care of her mother for whatever time they time they had left together.

Gemma O'Connor appeals a decision Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

During that period, O’Connor’s mother offered her some reassuring words to help her along.

“She was saying, ‘it’s your own call girl, whatever you want to do, that’s fine,’” says O’Connor.

“She was involved in the club committee for years.

No matter what I’d always see her head at games. She’d be coming down to the odd training session and I still sometimes — even though obviously I’m aware that she’s not there, — it’s just the habit of after games I have to ring my Mam.

“On the way to training, I’d ring her. After training I’d ring her and she’d be asking about training and the girls and the set-up.

“You miss that. She’d discuss games and say, ‘oh you had a great game girl,’ or she might say ‘oh you were a bit tired today.’ That would be her subtle way of saying you weren’t so good today.

Even after she died I hated going training. I suppose I felt a bit lost or something. I resented kind of going training and that it took up almost my time, even though I wasn’t forced. It’s like you have this commitment to do it, you’ve committed your whole life to playing that I knew nothing else.

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“I felt if I wasn’t going training, I’d just be sitting at home pondering on things so it was like a double-edged sword. I didn’t know what to be doing.

“As time goes on, it gets a bit easier but it’s still kind of strange not having her around.”

Cork worked their way back into the All-Ireland final in 2015, but O’Connor’s mother was a notable absentee in the crowd.

She had been to every one of her daughter’s games up to that point and this was the first time she was unable to attend.

For the second year in-a-row, O’Connor soldiered through the game despite the emotional upheaval in her life. Cork were victorious in the end, and O’Connor paid tribute to her mother in a post-match interview just moments after the final whistle.

Geraldine watched her daughter play for the last time from Marymount hospital in Cork, after her health had quickly deteriorated over a short space of time.

“During the championship in July,” O’Connor says, “I have a video of her in Regional Park in Ballincollig just shortly after her birthday. The sun was shining and she was out pucking the ball. She had her bandana on.

“She looked fine and then when we got to the final and the build-up, they were talking about whether she’d be able to go. Then all of a sudden she went really downhill and palliative care was called to the house.

I don’t know if she was fully aware that she wasn’t coming home,” she adds. “I didn’t really know either that she wasn’t coming home. She went into Marymount and was told she could go home for a night here and there but was too sick to go home.

“When she went into Marymount, I knew she wasn’t going to the final. She was in Marymount for two weeks. One minute she was fine and the next she’d be in really bad pain.

“After the final, she just went downhill shortly after that.”

O’Connor was hit with more devastating news in the final days of her mother’s life following the death of her cousin by suicide.

Her father and brother attended the funeral, while O’Connor held a bedside vigil at Marymount along with some relatives.

She previously brought the O’Duffy Cup into the hospital to share the victory with Geraldine, and given how soon she passed away after the final, O’Connor has considered the possibility that her mother waited until after the game before succumbing to the cancer.

“You think of all those things. I’m not religious but I believe in something. Even the power of the mind, no-one knows what your body is capable of doing still at that stage when you’re dying.

“It was almost like she held on for that. My cousin’s funeral was on the Thursday and my Dad and Glenn went and I stayed with Mam.

My Dad’s family were with me. I knew at that stage she was dying. Just when the funeral had finished, my Dad and Glenn were on the way back and the minute they walked in she took her last breath. Things like that, you can’t really explain.

“Something in that condition and what they hold on for. I don’t know what was going through her mind but it was like she waited for the whole thing to be finished and waited for my Dad and Glenn to come into the room.”

“It’s crazy what they hold on for before they feel like it’s time to go.”

O’Connor might not be religious in the conventional sense, but she knows she believes in something. There might not be a name for it, but she has faith in some form of higher power.

Her mother had a miraculous medal with her before she passed away and O’Connor has held onto it ever since.

She wears it while she’s playing camogie, pinning it onto her sportsbra where it sits close to her heart.

The last few years have been ‘an emotional rollercoaster’ for the towering centre back, but after coming through that period of indifference towards camogie, she’s back enjoying the sport again.

The 2016 season ended on a disappointing note for Cork when they surrendered their All-Ireland crown to rivals Kilkenny. The defeat was particularly miserable for O’Connor after she was sent off with two yellow cards.

Players from both teams after the game The inaugural Camogie All-Stars tour in Madrid last month. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

O’Connor enjoyed some slagging with the Kilkenny players about all that at the inaugural camogie All-Stars tour in Madrid recently.

But she wanted to make things right this year and she earned her redemption back in September. The victory was all the sweeter for her, given that she had been ruled out of selection due to a serious knee ligament injury she picked up in the All-Ireland semi-final.

The typical recovery time for a torn Medial Cruciate Ligament (MCL) injury is six weeks.

O’Connor did it in just three.

The doubts over her fitness was a cornerstone feature of the build-up to the game, and it was difficult for the centre-back to avoid all the coverage.

When people say they don’t take any notice, you do notice certain things on social media or the paper. You just try and not get sucked into it.”

There was uncertainty right up until the final moments before throw-in, but with some heavy strapping on her left knee and a lot of recovery work in the legs, she backed herself to play, and lasted the full game as Cork collected a 27th All-Ireland crown.

She even managed to fit in a monstrous equalising point from the half-way line in the 60th minute of the game, before substitute Julia White emerged with the winning point.

But all these rewards came at a price for O’Connor. Her knee swelled up in the aftermath of the game and she has some stiffness and soreness to deal with now.

“Yerra it’s grand, it was worth it,” she says.

A Cork camogie fan of an older vintage beckons O’Connor over as we make our way out of the hotel.

“Will you be back next year?” she asks. It’s the question both she and every other follower of the Cork team will be asking as the new season draws near.

O’Connor is 32 now and is still working on the answer to that. She needs some time to weigh up the situation before making a decision.

Her love for the sport is back in full bloom and thanks to her mother’s advice down through the years, she’ll never forget what she’s playing for.

It was almost as if she trained me up for that moment. I play for her, my family. You play for the love of your game and your teammates and I think it becomes a bit bigger than just playing sport.

“Any time I play, I always have her in the back of my mind.

“I make sure that I never forget why I’m here or what I’m playing for. It’s probably what started the drive in me to continue playing the last few years.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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