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The world-class Irish internationals and the Ballinasloe ties that bind

Heather Payne, Beibhinn Parsons and many more stars in the same age bracket have crossed paths in the sporting hotspot on the Galway/Roscommon border.

emma read parsons

HEATHER PAYNE AND Beibhinn Parsons are two of the biggest names on their respective Ireland teams.

Payne, with the women’s national football team, and Parsons, with the rugby side.

They’re just 22 — as of today — and 20 respectively, but both landed Senior Player of the Year awards in 2021. There’s no doubt about it; they’re world-class in their own fields, their remarkable speed and athletic prowess marking them out as a class apart.

For both, it all began in Ballinasloe. In the same schools, on some of the same teams, crossing paths time and time again through the years.

But their intertwined rise to international stardom doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Dig a little deeper, and there’s much more top-level talent to be found in this sporting hotspot on the Galway/Roscommon border. Many more ties that bind them all together.

Particularly from a rugby standpoint, following a strong tradition in the area. There’s Parsons’ fellow Sevens stars, Aoibheann Reilly and Maebh Deely. There’s others who have played for Connacht. There’s also a group of young men who do so, making waves in the West and further afield.

All cut from the same cloth.

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The most common ground early on was Community Games, as it is for most Irish children involved in sport.

There’s two brilliant pictures of Ballinasloe U11 mixed rugby teams ready for national competition, with familiar faces in both.

ballinalsoe

With one side decked out in yellow jerseys, you’ll see a young Heather Payne on the far right-hand-side of the bottom row, while Aoibheann Reilly and her brother, Colm, who’s on the Connacht senior rugby squad now, are smiling side-by-side. Two more Connacht youngsters in Oisin McCormack and Shane Jennings are in the back row; all five having represented their country at some stage in recent years.

The cheeky grin of Beibhinn Parsons jumps right out in the other photograph; the only girl amongst a group of young boys, including brothers, Matthew and John Devine, who have also played underage rugby for Ireland.

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Though absent from those pictures, throw Maebh Deely into the mix there and you have nine fully-fledged internationals coming from the same rich vein. 

From early days, they all enjoyed Community Games success, from triumphing at Connacht level and representing on the national stage in Athlone.

It wasn’t just rugby, and the pathway from there to Ballinasloe RFC.

Athletics, swimming, soccer, GAA; you name it, and they’ve excelled.

Creagh National School Acting Principal, Áine Ní Cholleráin Bleahene, would have taught some of them, including Payne, Parsons and Reilly.

“It’s not even that they’re talented, so much, it’s their attitudes,” she tells The42. “It’s the never give up, it’s the everything 100%. They worked hard at everything that they did. No matter what it was, it was done to the best of their ability, and they just had this persistence, all of them. I think that’s what makes them stand out.

“They obviously had the supportive backgrounds and the supportive schools, but it’s their self drive, their own desire just to be the best they could be. It’s a deeply embedded thing. It’s unusual to see in such young children.

“And so happy and engaging, it didn’t affect the social side of what they were doing either. I have to say they were dream children to have in the class.”

A school intent on facilitating children to explore as many different sides of themselves as they can from sport to art, music to drama, and of course, academics, Ní Cholleráin Bleahene remembers their interests in all facets.

camogie Parsons (second from left) and Deely (third from right) pictured with their U10 Ballinasloe camogie team.

Their “extreme focus, but ability to switch it off when they need to” certainly stands out, as memories of quiz teams, choir singing, cake sales, charity fundraisers and projects on the Aztecs come flooding back.

She taught Payne and Reilly in Junior Infants, and again in Sixth Class.

“It was very interesting to see them changing,” the principal smiles. “Yet the focus was still visible at four. And then it became so much more, you could see how they were so much more driven when they were in Sixth Class.

“I remember actually mentioning to them, ‘You used to love doing art and stuff as well.’ ‘Oh, yeah?’ ‘And you’re really good at that.’ They kind of forget what they used to like doing when they were this age, because they get into a pattern of thinking, ‘This is me. I am good at this thing.’ But yeah, all round, they were just super.

“It’s that focus on wanting to do your best all the time. Sometimes when you’re 12, that can make you a little bit anxious if you want to be the absolute top all the time, you can be a bit hard on yourself. But I think it’s just a personality type.”

Their prodigious talent always shone through, no matter what sport they tried their hand at. Athletics was a big one in their younger years; Payne once winning the Fifth and Sixth Class race at the Galway Cross Country Championships, and Parsons triumphing in the Third and Fourth Class edition that same day.

The latter was predominantly a sprinter, and like all of the others, relished the relay team events.

gaa Reilly and Payne (right) after a match with Padraig Pearses.

They played Gaelic football together at school, too, though Payne and Reilly hailed from the Padraig Pearses club in Roscommon, while Parsons, along with Maebh Deely, were with Ballinasloe across the border.

And naturally, they all went on represent their respective counties at underage level.

“We haven’t won anything since 2013 [when the group had all left],” Laura Gallagher, teacher and football coach at Creagh National School notes. “They won county titles in 2012 and 2013.

“They were just really special, they were a really talented group. They were very determined and very dedicated, always at training and always had a really good read of the game.

“Their families would have been very involved in sports as well, and they were playing with their clubs. They were involved in any sport — you name it, and they would try their hand at it. You would have definitely seen the natural talent, and athletic ability.”

She remembers Parsons playing on the team, mostly made up of Sixth Class pupils, while only in Third Class herself. “Not a bother on her, like,” Gallagher grins. “That would never intimidate her or anything like that, she’d just get in and play.”

“I was just really facilitating the trainings, they knew what to do,” she continues.

“They were very determined , they they went out to win as well. They were always lovely, always very calm, always [showed] really good sportsmanship. There were never any issues or anything like that, and all real team players and they all got along so well.

“Really lovely on and off the pitch. Great self belief. They were very determined, they wouldn’t be easily intimidated. It was always great fun. And they always got involved.”

That’s something Ní Cholleráin Bleahene points out too, as they turned up to everything and anything across school life, and simply couldn’t do enough — and not just in terms of training.

“You could always count on them,” she beams. “No matter what you were doing, they would be there. Whether it was singing for confirmation or whether it was going into town, or whether it was coming here to cheer a team coming in, you could always count on them to do the stuff that you needed to be done.

“And they would do it cheerfully and with enthusiasm. And yet, not wanting to be the centre of attention either. Full of grace and humility.”

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While Gaelic football was generally the common thread at Creagh National School in the absence of rugby, the oval ball game joined it on centre stage at Ard Scoil Mhuire. 

schools rugby Deely, Reilly and Parsons after the All-Ireland Schools' Sevens win.

Payne, Parsons, Reilly and Deely won a Connacht football title together there, despite being in an array of different year groups.

But secondary secondary school generally brought specialisation for the all-rounders.

Having gone to Athlone Swimming Club every day after school — her swimming talent shone through from as young as U10 when she reached the Community Games national final in Mosney — and having flirted with rugby, Gaelic football and athletics, Payne soon parked all that for soccer.

“Sure anything with a ball, Heather was an absolute flyer like,” Gallagher smiles. “There was no catching Heather. Unreal, like.”

Parsons, on the other hand, radiated towards rugby. Like Reilly and Deely.

From U11 Community Games to mini rugby with Ballinalsoe RFC and the establishment of underage girls teams there, the trio went on to win numerous Connacht titles together at U15 and U18 level, building up a healthy rivalry with Westport of Mayo.

They also combined to lift an All-Ireland Schools Sevens crown with Ard Scoil Mhuire, while they made the Connacht U18 inter-pros squad every year from 2016 to 2018, triumphing the competition outright in ’18.

In ’17 and ’18, they featured prominently in the U18 Irish Sevens squad, and they won bronze medals at the 2018 European Championships.

A bit of research on the Ard Scoil Mhuire website throws up details on the special awards for outstanding achievements in rugby they were subsequently honoured with, while Payne collected a couple for her soccer exploits.

It also shows other interesting nuggets of information, from Payne’s involvement on the senior German debating team that made it to the All-Ireland semi-final stages of the Goethe Institute Competition, to other academic and sporting achievements earned while in second-level education.

WhatsApp Image 2022-01-24 at 12.28.42 Deely (left) and Reilly in the Blackrock RFC colours.

The rugby accomplishments have since sky-rocketed, with Parsons, Reilly and Deely representing their province and country to varying degrees at senior level, while they’ve all linked up with Dublin club, Blackrock RFC.

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That Parsons, in particular, has made such a lasting impression on Irish women’s rugby in a few short years says it all.

Having made her XVs international debut at the tender age of 16, she’s ”capable of being a world-class winger,” according to Brian O’Driscoll, and a “phenomenal talent” as hailed by Fiona Coghlan.

High praise from two greats of the game on these shores. And it doesn’t stop there.

“She’s something else. For 19 years of age especially,” as O’Driscoll said in an interview with Women’s Six Nations last April.

“She had to room on her own when she first came into the camp because she was so young! That’s when you know you’re talented.

“She was parachuted in, which shows her talent, but her physique for 19 years old – to do what she’s able to do – there’s clearly power and speed. Now she just needs to develop the other parts of her game.”

Her “X-factor” quality has been lauded by outgoing Ireland boss Adam Griggs time and time again after lighting up games, while she was labelled “the Jonah Lomu of the Irish women’s rugby team” by Greg O’Shea on SportsJoe.ie’s House of Rugby.

Parsons has enjoyed a simply incredible rise since starting out in Ballinasloe and making waves through the ranks, from Connacht to Irish teams. Part of that strong underage Sevens team, Griggs first spotted her there as the young guns finished third in Europe.

As O’Driscoll said, she was then effectively parachuted into the senior 15s team. Parsons was sprung from the bench against USA at Energia Park in November 2018, becoming the youngest player to be capped for Ireland in the modern era.

The 16-year-old’s first play alone was simply electric, and set the tone for what was to come:

In 15 Irish caps, the wing has wowed time and time again with blistering runs and sensational tries, with a total of seven bagged in Six Nations fare.

That’s having missed the 2020 campaign due to her Leaving Cert studies, a reminder of just how young she is. (She’s now undertaking a Biomedical Science degree in UCD.)

“Beibhinn would be a very caring, kind, empathetic person,” as Ní Cholleráin Bleahene pointed out at one stage of our conversation. “I see that she will get her dream of being in medicine someday.

“She is that kind of person, she has that gentle quality where you’re talking to her, and she’s giving you her whole attention and she remembers the details. She’s just such a lovely person. And on top of that then, that’s why she’s such a marvellous member of a team, I would imagine because she’s seeing what other people need.”

Named Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Women’s Player of the Year for the second year running earlier this month, Parsons has made a scintillating start to 2022 with the Sevens side in Spain, and she’ll look to play a central role once again as the XVs get back on track in the coming weeks.

7s Parsons (far right) on Irish Sevens duty with Deely and Reilly.

Bouncing back from the disappointment of 2021 is paramount; a new chapter opening under new manager Greg Mc Williams.

For Heather Payne, meanwhile, and Vera Pauw’s Irish women’s football team, the current one continues as their 2023 World Cup qualifying campaign kick-starts in April.

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During one of the last camps of 2021, Payne’s in-game statistics were shown to the group.

She was dubbed “half human, half horse” by everyone there and then.

“She just…,” Louise Quinn smiles, looking for the right words, clearly mesmerised by her team-mate. “The speed of her, how she can get around the pitch; she has just been absolutely brilliant for us.

“It’s maybe showing what’s going on, and how she’s training in America and how she’s being coached. And then just really kind of figuring out her role then in the Irish team, because I think it’s important when we play people really do have some specific roles, and you know if you can do it well, you can get to it. For me, it just feels like it’s clicked.

“It’s clicked with her, she’s a very intelligent girl and I think now she’s just gotten to the stage where, again, she’s learning the game even better and better, and learning a role and doing things so smart, and then she’s just built up so much confidence.”

Payne is now combining football with her studies in dietetics in Florida State University [FSU], a long way from Ballinasloe. It was there at the age of eight or so where she fell in love with the beautiful game, following in brother, Conor’s, footsteps to Ballinasloe Town AFC. Like most others her age, she played with boys through her youth and was soon signed up as an academy player with the Athlone District Schoolboys and girls’ League [ADSL]. She’d even religiously miss teenage discos to go training with the boys.

Impressing as she went, the next step would have been Kennedy Cup at U14 level but ruling meant a switch to a girls’ team was necessary. That’s where Salthill Devon came in, and Payne continued her upward trajectory with them until U16. Her exploits there and with the Irish schools’ team saw her called up to the Ireland U17s, and she starred at the 2015 European Championships. The following year, she was named Player of the Tournament as Galway won the Gaynor Cup, and Peamount United soon came calling.

dearbhaile-beirne-and-heather-payne Payne on the ball for Peamount in 2017. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Her focus had naturally fixated on football at this stage with her first love winning out, and after two seasons and 13 goals in the Women’s National League [WNL] during her Leaving Cert studies, she spent a year developing in England’s top-flight, the Women’s Super League [WSL] with Bristol City.

Payne was forced to grow up quickly across the water before making the move even further afield to the States to resume her education. The versatile attacker has enjoyed a successful stint at FSU since, recently helping them to National Championship glory.

That came the same December week she was named 2021 PFAI Player of the Year, Payne’s class evident on and off the pitch.

“She is a very quiet character,” Quinn picks up. “Her sister collected the award for her a few weeks ago, and Áine [O'Gorman] was there giving it to her. Áine was like, ‘The opposite… there was non-stop chat from the sister, and then there’s Heather!’

“But Heather, she’s hilarious. Her humour is brilliant, she has such a dry humour and she’s well able to stand up for herself. I just think as well she’s gaining confidence everywhere.

“To think what more can come from her? To be more than a half human-half horse, I don’t know what else Heather Payne can bring! She’s just brilliant and she just takes things on, is listening and learning and wants to learn. She’s brilliant.”

And consistently so.

Just like Parsons, and all the other Ballinasloe ties that bind.

heather-payne Payne has been electric in Ireland's 2023 World Cup qualifying campaign so far. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

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While they all find themselves in different corners of the world at times, it can be said with certainty that home is where the heart is.

“Good luck” messages from Creagh National School are always replied to, and never forgotten in a flurry of others.

Responsibilities that come with the territory of ‘Irish international’ are always attended to, whether it be something as simple as recording a video message or having a chat with a youngster hoping to follow in their footsteps.

“I remember when I wanted to get in contact with Heather for our Sixth Class remote graduation ceremony, I called down to her Dad because I didn’t have her number at the time,” Ní Cholleráin Bleahene recalls.

“She rang me from America to say, ‘Oh, I hear that you are wanting. What can I do? How can I help?’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’

“They’ve all been very giving, and they have huge loyalty to the town and the places that came from. They have a great sense of what makes them what they are.”

“We, of course, are so proud of all our past pupils,” she adds, explaining how plans to celebrate their achievements at the school have been scuppered amidst the pandemic, though they do so online.

“We try and keep it personal. But it’s two-way, and it’s authentic and real. And that’s because the the girls are like that. And I think in particular, because they are girls, it’s almost a bigger reason to celebrate because it’s a harder battle when you’re a girl to do those things.

“You have to make decisions that maybe if you’re male, you don’t have to make the decisions quite so early. You have to give up some things, and they seem to have done that really well. But they do have hugely supportive families now I have to say, and the clubs that they are in are hugely supportive.”

While others contributed to this piece off the record, preferring to offer background information and anecdotes, they all shared high praise and gratitude for the many parents, coaches and volunteers — too many to name — who facilited such progression and development in the rural community.

beibhinn-parsons-scores-her-sides-first-try Parsons en route to scoring a try against USA in November. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

They, too, all noted how grateful Payne, Parsons and co. are, and the sense of appreciation they hold for how their journeys have panned out so far.

There’s no airs and graces, no fuss, no ego.

“That’s kind of unusual, because we assume that people who are successful in sport have egos. And I think they’re almost the opposite of egocentric,” Ní Cholleráin Bleahene continues. “They’re humble and they’re grateful, which is nice. 

“You know when you think of a person — I’m a teacher, I think of people — you think of a name and it gives you a warm glow? You get that from them. They just have created all these positive memories and experiences. When they’re leaders and when they’re captains of teams that they’re so inclusive. They leave you with a good feeling.

“And your heart, you just wish the very best for them, that all that hard work is going to pay off, and all of that giving of themselves will end up with themselves having something at the end of it. That they don’t get injured, and that they have every success academically because they all have huge potential academically as well. 

“I hope they get back in spades what they’re putting into it.”

The pride shines through time and time again in this unique story.

Following so many from the same rural area within a similar age bracket tearing it up on the biggest stages in the world.

The last word goes to Gallagher, who perhaps sums up the thoughts of everyone best.

The general consensus of Ballinasloe.

“Oh my God, it’s just incredible to watch them,” she concludes, and you can almost hear her smiling down the phone. “They are just breaking ceilings all over the place.

“They are amazing, and we are so proud of them — and so happy to call them ours. I don’t know what that quality is, like, just unbreakable.

“We’re so proud of them, sure we could just talk about them all day long.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Emma Duffy

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