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'What I did learn after Brother Damien passing away is there is a lot more to life'

Camogie – and winning – went from being the be all and end all, to meaning so little in the grand scheme of things for Grace Walsh.

F**K IT. THERE is more to life. 

Grace Walsh’s first thought after Kilkenny’s 2019 All-Ireland final loss.

grace-walsh-dejected-at-the-final-whistle Grace Walsh after 2019 All-Ireland final. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Heartbreak at the final hurdle for the third consecutive year. Two late, late one-point defeats to Cork preceded in the years before, and Walsh dropped to the ground immediately after, sobbing uncontrollably on the Croke Park turf.

Galway were six-point winners this time around. Walsh’s reaction wasn’t just as dramatic.

Some might think it’s because it didn’t come right down to the wire, the last few seconds weren’t just as frantic, and the loss wasn’t just as gut-wrenching as Kilkenny were well beaten. 

But Walsh will tell you differently.

The death of family friend, renowned Kilkenny hurling mentor and manager Brother Damien Brennan, earlier that week made it slightly easier to process this defeat than any of the others.

Camogie, and winning, went from being the be all and end all, to meaning so little in the grand scheme of things. 

“I would have won a lot underage and you wouldn’t be used to losing,” she explains. “So at the beginning, you’re just so gutted with every loss. I think something that I learned, especially in the last year, is we all play camogie for the love of the sport.

“Don’t get me wrong, I would do anything to win an All-Ireland… and there is no better feeling than lifting that cup. But at the end of the day, you can’t let one match define your whole year, with a bunch of girls that you’ve put in so much work and so much commitment with.

“And I actually thought last year that we played really, really well for the whole year and it was just the last hurdle that caught us.”

Her eyes gloss over slightly, but she keeps talking. 

And you’re left hanging on her every word.

“What I did learn… Brother Damien, after him passing away, there is a lot more to life.

“Even though GAA is a huge part of a lot of our lives, you can’t let one game ruin that whole year. I don’t know where I’m going to be tomorrow. So, even though we lost and I was gutted, I was like, ‘I’m going to enjoy this moment with this bunch of girls that I’ve got a better friendship with.’

“We’ve built a better spirit in the group and a better bond. I’m on the panel a long time now. It just comes with experience. You learn to enjoy the moments that you can.”

Just like she enjoyed those treasured moments with Br Damien in his final weeks, and days.

kk2 Source: Kilkenny GAA.

Walsh is a nurse in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, so she spent plenty of time with the late Laois native, who’s regarded so highly on Noreside by the likes of Henry Shefflin, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh and the rest of Grace’s brothers.

“Br Damien was sick, he was in St Vincent’s Hospital for three months,” she continues. “I was lucky enough to really get to know him in that time.

“The days that I was working, on my breaks and stuff, it was nice for me to be able to go up and see him. I learnt so much from that man in the three months that he was there.

“We knew when it was coming near the end. We got called up the night before he died to see him and it was something we were expecting. It was something that I was prepared for.

“It was tough and even [Kilkenny camogie manager] Brian Dowling would have been very close to Br Damien as well. It was tough but it was something you had to get on with, life does move on.”

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Life moved on, and the Walsh family moved with it. 

The Tullaroan hurlers went on a dream run, bridging a 25-year gap for Kilkenny intermediate championship glory, before entering bonus territory with momentum on their side.

It all culminated in a remarkable All-Ireland final win in Croke Park, in which they triumphed in Br Damien’s memory.

“He was with the Tullaroan team the year before,” Walsh notes. “Shane, my youngest brother, he would have a built a very close bond with Br Damien. One thing he promised him was that they would win the club county final.

“He was in all their minds in every game from the county final up to the All-Ireland final. It was nice, you would feel him with you, whether you are a supporter or a player. It was special for them.”

Walsh can’t but smile when she looks back on her club’s journey. Her pride in her four brothers, Tommy, Padraig, Shane and Martin, shines through with every word.

A roller coaster of emotions, she beams.

“Jesus, I didn’t know what I was feeling in Croke Park because the match was going one way and then another way. You thought they were going to win and then it was, ‘Oh my God, are they going to lose this?’

“Their goal was to win the county final and that was the most special, anything after that was a bonus. Even just playing in Croke Park was class because there are lads there that will never, ever get that chance again.

tommy Tommy Walsh celebrating at full-time. Source: TG4 Youtube.

“After them winning the All-Ireland final, it was surreal, it was so special. At home, I see what they put into it, the hard work and the dedication; what it means to them and the Tullaroan supporters as well.

“It doesn’t matter that I had four brothers playing, the person next to me might not have had anybody playing and it meant as much to them. It was a proud moment.”

She laughs that her speech wouldn’t be just as entertaining as Shane’s: “That lad could come out with anything! Between talking about AIB giving him money now and Tullaroan people buying him pints, I’d say he got a nice few days out of it. He’s in training with Kilkenny now so he won’t be buying any pints for a while I’d say!”

But she’s hoping that she could be in that speech-giving position in the near future. 

Seeing their success just drives her on. 

“Absolutely,” Walsh nods, agreeing that the joy and excitement that is captured in victory — and the feeling of hard work paying off, and making it all worth it — is a motivational factor.

“The joy that they got out of that, both with Kilkenny and the club, it would drive me on more so even for the club for the coming year.

“As a supporter, I felt like I nearly got the same feeling the boys got on the pitch. It would drive you on to get that winning feeling again. Hopefully now, this year…”

Hopefully, indeed.

- Originally published at 07.45

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Emma Duffy

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