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'One of the all-time greats in Cork' - saluting the career of a nine-time All-Ireland winner

The42 looks back on the inter-county career of Cork legend Gemma O’Connor.

OConnor (1)

AT THE END of it all, it seems there isn’t one game that can sum her up.

Nine All-Ireland medals and a record 11 All-Stars — in both attacking and defensive positions — goes some way towards illustrating her distinction. But it still only scratches the surface of Gemma O’Connor’s imprint on camogie.

Three people from her county and club camogie connections were consulted for this documentation of her inter-county career, as well as one of her colleagues in the Defence Forces. And none of them could identify just one game that captures the depth of her quality.

There’s long pauses and racking of brains as they go back through the archives in their mind, trying to muster an answer that can do her justice. Instead of a game or a memory, they each settle on one word to cover the spread — consistency.

Because O’Connor didn’t just perform once in a while. Or even every couple of games. She was stepping into the breach game on game before anyone needed to look for her help. A colossus of her sport in every way.

“You were actually afraid to come up against her because you would literally be blown out of it,” says four-time All-Ireland winner, and fellow Cork legend, Jenny O’Leary about the towering strength of her former county teammate. 

O’Connor’s recent decision to retire from Cork is not hugely surprising given the length of her service that stretches all the way back to 2002. She’s the latest from her generation of talents to step away as the conveyor belt keeps churning out fresh rebel blood.

But she will be a notable absentee when the 2021 season gets underway.

The St Finbarr’s star will be regarded as one of Cork’s “all-time greats,” according to another one of O’Connor’s Cork teammates and coaches, Fiona O’Driscoll.

And when you retrace the steps, it’s clear that the growth of O’Connor’s status was years in the making.

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One To Watch

O’Leary is a few years older than O’Connor, but for the most part, their Cork careers ran alongside one another. They were both starlets on the 2002 team that defeated Tipperary in the All-Ireland final. 

It was their first time to taste O’Duffy Cup success, with a 17-year-old O’Connor starring in the half-back line. The match report in the Irish Independent, written by Cliona Foley, reads that O’Connor “refused to give any quarter” in that game. Even as a teenager, she was catching the eye.

O’Leary’s memory of her talent goes back even further than that.

“I remember her even at underage and people were talking about her. I think it was U12, people were talking about this young Gemma O’Connor and she’s one to watch.

gemma-oconnor-and-briege-corkery-take-to-the-field Gemma O'Connor storming out onto the Croke Park pitch. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I used to watch her myself and she was just so skilful. She had it from a very young age, she just had it. People always talk about people who have a bit of magic and she definitely had that.”

O’Driscoll was the star of that 2002 All-Ireland, pocketing 3-2 in a nine-point victory over the Premier County. After retiring from inter-county camogie, she later joined the Cork backroom team following an invitation from then-manager John Cronin.

Coming from a PE teaching background, she was initially recruited as a physical trainer. That later developed into a coaching role which ran for the 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons. Cork won two more All-Irelands during the time of her involvement.

“I suppose you have such confidence as a young player when you come onto a team and nothing seems to faze you,” O’Driscoll recalls of what she saw from O’Connor from her sideline view.

Intemperance of youth may have been a slight issue in her younger years but she grew out of that as time went on.

“She seemed to be confidently developing her skills and her striking,” O’Driscoll continues.

“Temper would have been one of her bigger challenges earlier in her career. She might be easily riled which could end up distracting her.

“The other thing that was huge [for her] was her ability to play in so many different positions. She ended up in the half-back line, half-forward line, the full-forward line this past year and she could play in so many different positions.

“She was willing to take that on and that was a big thing for me.”

Good Soldier

When former Galway camogie player Claire Spelman was sent to Cork to be stationed at the Collins Barracks, she didn’t know what to expect.

O’Connor was based at the Barracks too but the pair didn’t know each other. Not yet anyway.

At Cadet school, Spelman was always told to familiarise yourself with the local area of your Barracks and integrate yourself into the community. She started that process by purchasing the Evening Echo and getting to grips with the Cork way of life.

One day, she received a call inviting her to join the St Finbarr’s camogie club. It seemed like a strange fit according to some of the soldiers she was working with at the time. Spelman was based on the north side of the city and the Barrs is situated on the south.

But the woman on the phone was offering her a home to play camogie and she was eager to try it out. That woman who called was Gemma’s mother, Geraldine O’Connor.

“It would have been a bit daunting because you didn’t really know anyone, you’re settling in,” Spelman remembers.

“So joining the Barrs helped submerge me into Cork life and the culture. I remember the accent even is a strong Cork accent and I wouldn’t be used to it. It was a great way to meet people.

Gemma O'C DFTC O'Connor decked out in her army gear Source: Sgt Rena Kennedy

“That phonecall from Gemma’s mother impacted majorly on my life because I wouldn’t have made the friends [I have]. I’ve lifelong friends from the Barrs now and I played with the Barrs up to 2016 which was eight years, nearly nine years.”

Spelman turned out to be a good omen for the club. After years of trying to become senior camogie champions in Cork, they finally triumphed in Spelman’s debut season.

The locals tell her that she’s “haunted” with the luck she brought to them in 2006 as they defeated Imokilly in the final.

While Spelman was new to the scene, she could appreciate the impact this achievement was having on her teammates.

At the barracks, Spelman and O’Connor were working in different departments. They didn’t serve together on the same missions overseas either.

But they gradually got to know each other through playing camogie with the Barrs and the Defence Forces.

“They were all so welcoming. Now it would have been difficult for Gemma and the county players to balance both. She would have been training away with county but I would have gotten to know her later on as time went on.

“Even professionally as well. She works in the central medical unit in Cork and I’m based upstairs so our paths cross on stuff to do with work now. And we played camogie for the Defence Forces as well.

“She was as determined as she is now, as she always will be. She had a drive inside her to push and get the very best out of the players around her.

“She would have had a lot of players who had gone before her, would have played before her and she was nearly wise beyond her years on the pitch. Winning an All-Ireland at 17 in 2002 would have shaped her in terms of not being scared or stepping up to the mark.

“I think in the Defence Forces, there’s such teamwork and such camaraderie within a team spirit. It’s so transferable and one feeds into the other.” 

Claire and Gemma Claire Spelman and O'Connor representing the Defence Forces camogie team. Spelman is standing beside O'Connor on the far right. Source: Sgt Rena Kennedy

Never Beaten

The 2017 All-Ireland final was one of O’Connor’s finest hours. Prior to the decider against their old rivals Kilkenny, O’Connor was not expected to start.

She had previously limped off during their semi-final victory over Galway with knee ligament damage. It was a fresh injury concern, exacerbated by a pre-existing ankle problem. She was looking at a recovery time of about six weeks and she only had three to get fit for the All-Ireland final.

In short, she couldn’t play. At least that’s what manager Paudie Murray told the press right up until the final moments before they took to the field in Croke Park.

But one person wasn’t buying their story. Then Kilkeny boss Ann Downey refused to believe O’Connor was fully ruled out “unless she’s after losing a leg.”

O’Driscoll laughs when Downey’s take at the time is put to her.

“That would be a fair assessment. Gemma would go through a brick wall for ya and she wanted to be playing.

“There’s been so many times during her career when most ordinary people wouldn’t get through what she got through in terms of injuries, and come out of it to play so well in games where she wasn’t expected to play at all.

“That comes down to her involvement in the army and the mental toughness and physical training they would go through. It’s not a quality that everybody would have and I think, as a supporter in more recent years, if there’s any player injured and you’re thinking will they make it, won’t they make it?

“You’d be giving Gemma every chance of making it.”

Downey’s prediction was an accurate one. Not only did O’Connor start that final in 2017, she excelled throughout with a heavily strapped knee and capped it off with a powerful long-range point in the final stages to draw the tie.

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Julia White popped up with winner for Cork shortly after.

Retirement naturally came to O’Connor’s mind in recent years. She’s never been afraid to talk about the end publicly before, mentioning it as far back as 2015.

Speaking to RTÉ Sport’s Jacqui Hurley at the time, she name-checked her old Cork teammate O’Leary as an inspiration and a player she continues to aspire to be.

“I suppose we had a good friendship and camaraderie,” a humbled O’Leary says about the bond they shared in a Cork jersey. She now lives in Armagh and plays club football with the Emyvale club in Monaghan.

“We both worked really hard on and off the field and we had that mutual respect for one another as well. Even when Gemma retired, I sent her a Twitter message, and I always remember her using the term, ‘We are Cork.’

“It sounds very simple but when you’re in a team huddle and she’s grabbing onto her Cork jersey and her eyes are nearly bulging out of her sockets and she’s like, ‘We are Cork!’ She has that affect on everybody and I suppose I was drawn to that as well. I had the utmost respect for her and you’d listen to her when she speaks.

“She’s just the kind of person that will say the right thing and knows how to play and how to drive everybody else on. It’s quite humbling for her to have said that I drove her on but in fact, she keeps driving me on as well.”

O’Leary can relate to O’Connor’s journey to retirement, having effectively called time on her Cork career twice before finally finishing up at the start of 2015. Her first brush with retirement was in 2013 when a question about her intentions for the future caught her off guard.

She knew it wasn’t the end, coming back for one more rally with Cork the following year and ending the 2014 season as All-Ireland champions. She bowed out on a winning note, in addition to all the other successes she earned during her career.

But, no matter how satisfying the end, there is still a sting that comes with retirement, one that O’Connor may well feel as the distance grows between her and the Cork dressing-room.

“I’m sure Gemma will agree that she loves training and loves being fit. She loves the camaraderie with the girls and everything that goes with being a county player. I missed all of that and I did find it very difficult to accept that. But I just kept myself very busy. I took up football here with Emyvale in Monaghan.

“I was able to focus on my club camogie a little bit more. I had that outlet as well. You just kind of have to keep yourself busy. County is such a routine and it’s such a big part of your life.

“It directs what you do every single day but when that’s taken away, you have to find a new routine. It’s difficult and I suppose it took a couple of years before I was fully away from it. The girls got to the final in 2015 and I had mixed emotions around it. But once I got to Croke Park and sat in the stand, it was then I [realised] I don’t miss the pressure of all this and the stress of a big game.

“It’s kind of a year later that you process it enough and accept it enough.”

At the time of that RTÉ interview in 2015, O’Connor was dealing with the loss of her mother Geraldine who had passed away from cancer. She had a great relationship with her mother who was one of her first mentors in camogie.

In a previous interview with The42, O’Connor talked about how she felt lost after her mother’s death and admitted that she started losing her love for camogie during this time and would have to wait until 2017 to rediscover her passion again.

Her Barrs teammate Spelman is indebted to the O’Connors for linking her up with the club after her move to Cork, and she can remember the impact Geraldine’s death had on the family.

gemma-oconnor-with-julie-ann-malone A heavily strapped O'Connor playing in the 2017 All-Ireland final. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“Gemma’s parents and her brother Glenn were coming to everything. I couldn’t get over the commitment they had. Even now with the ‘Can’t See, Can’t Be’. Especially for female sports, it’s so important to have role models.

“Her mother defies that and then how she was there for her all the time. And so proud of her. She was so strong, and it was very difficult. It was 28 September 2015 when her funeral was. It was a very difficult time for Gemma, my heart went out to her even at the funeral.

“Even the eulogies and the way herself and Glenn spoke about their mother with such heartfelt respect. I know it’s difficult for everyone to lose their parents and I would understand that, but I just think the love and respect in that family.

“They were just so strong as a unit, all of them.”

O’Connor didn’t say much in the dressing room, according to O’Leary. But the times she did speak were purposeful and left the group with something to think about. Coaching could well be in her future if that’s what she wants, and O’Leary hopes she remains involved in some way to nurture the young talents that are coming down the line.

Under O’Connor’s wing, they couldn’t be in safer hands. A rebel legend always.

“Definitely in Cork she’ll be remembered as one of that all-time greats anyway,” says O’Driscoll about how O’Connor will be remembered in camogie circles.

“Just to do what she did for so long at such a high level.

“She had a huge impact on the players around her and her team-mates. Just for camogie people or sports people watching somebody… I remember a friend saying to me when people refer to a person by just one name, she’s just known as Gemma.” 

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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