Sister Act

Family affair as four Sarsfields sisters and their dad eye historic All-Ireland glory

Managed by their father ‘Hopper’ McGrath, the Galway side face Slaughtneil in the senior camogie club final.

IT’S NEVER UNUSUAL for siblings to line out side by side on the biggest stage in gaelic games, Croke Park.

Orlaith McGrath Orlaith McGrath. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

The club scene brings family links to the fore, with siblings playing alongside each other week in, week out.

But this Sunday brings a rather special family affair.

“Four of us on the team is probably too much sometimes for everyone to listen to, but I suppose that’s how it is,” Sarsfields’ Orlaith McGrath laughs.

21-year-old Orlaith starts alongside her sisters Clodagh (22), Niamh (24) and Siobhán (16) as they enter battle with Slaughtneil for All-Ireland club glory.

Both Orlaith and the youngest of the four, Siobhán, start in the forward line, while Clodagh marshals centre-half back and Niamh plays midfield.

They’ll all be key components if the Galway side are to make history and win their first senior All-Ireland title, having just won their maiden county championship in the same grade in October.

And not only are the quartet of sisters central to the club side, their father Michael — or more commonly known as ‘Hopper’ — manages the team.

Under a legendary county hurler and back-to-back All-Ireland club winner with Sarsfields in 1993 and 1994, the Galway and Connacht champions are in good hands, and his daughter Orlaith knows it.

“I can’t fault him as a trainer, as a manager,” she tells The42. “He has some ability to get momentum going in a team, to get a bit of spirit in a team.

“All the girls have a huge time for him, and I treat him as a manager on the pitch as well. You have to have respect for him too, you can’t take advantage.”

Growing up, camogie is all the McGrath sisters have known.

“We grew up with hurleys in our hands, we were at matches every weekend. We always had to be minded at training sessions or be minded on the pitch, we were never anywhere else.

Thomastown's Sally Teehan and Sarsfields Orlaith McGrath 'Nobody remembers who gets to a final.' Ken Sutton / INPHO Ken Sutton / INPHO / INPHO

“There was always such a massive influence from both of my parents because they’re such GAA people, but I suppose when we were growing up we would have been going to all of the Sarsfields club matches and they were unbelievable when we were younger.

“I wasn’t around, but I would have heard of the 93/94 All-Ireland back-to-back clubs but even though I wasn’t there for the match, like we didn’t see anything, that was always such a tradition throughout the parish.

“Even as far back as 2001, their last county final appearance, I remember going to that and thinking ‘Jesus, wouldn’t it be great to be there or thereabouts and emulate what they did.’ They were just hailed as such heroes in the parish, everyone wanted to carbon copy what they did.”

And now comes their chance.

With two younger sisters in the house too — Ciara (11) and Laoise (9) — McGrath thoroughly enjoys lining out alongside the other three.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever play with them but maybe when we’re coming towards the latter stages of our careers. If there’s a stage where there’s six of us on the field, it’ll be something else!”

For now though, she laughs that four is enough. Understandably, it can get heated at times but it’s all part and parcel of the family affair.

“We’ve been known now to be loud enough at times. Niamh, the eldest, would be guilty for throwing out comments at a few of us alright but other than that — me, Clodagh and Siobhan rarely pass a word. But I suppose when she does it, it’s for the good of the team.

“If there was ever one of us to say anything it would be her, but it’d never be too bad. It’s all thrown aside when we get home though. If you can’t take a bit on the pitch you’re going nowhere. You’re not playing sport for no reason.

In general though, playing with club is so much more special as opposed to playing county, it means a lot more. You’re playing with your best friends and your family. I suppose in that sense, there’s that extra bit of heart in club that you just wouldn’t have in county. It’s not like it’s created, it’s just the way it is.”

And Sarsfields is a special club.

2010 saw the ladies win the county intermediate title, and a good bulk of the present crop would have been involved in that victory. In fact, that was the first year McGrath, at the age of 15, lined out for the senior side alongside many of her friends.

From there, they made the leap to senior and struggled for a period: “The difference was absolutely outrageous. The first three or four years we were just getting absolute hammerings in every game, if you could keep it to about 10 or 15 points you’d be doing well.”

Fast forward to the present day and they’re an extremely young side, with that original group merging with the recent influx of minor players.

“We have about six minor players starting on the team now and they would have all played county U16 and county minor. Even though they’re young they have a wealth of experience playing at the top level.

“We all know each other inside out.”

Sarsfields have had quite a bumpy road to Croke Park. The semi-final clash against Kilkenny’s Thomastown threw up some controversy.

With both teams at the venue in Birr and ready for throw-in, there was a question mark over the fixture with the pitch apparently ‘unplayable’.

A new venue was sourced, and from there, they went five points down at half-time. Things went from bad to worse and it looked like it may have been the end of the road.

Orlaith McGrath McGrath in action for Galway. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“It was an absolute shambles of a pitch, you wouldn’t put an U10 final on it. But we just wanted to play it to be totally honest. The conditions I don’t think favoured the game of camogie. If you were a neutral there you’d be coming away saying ‘Jesus Christ, that standard was poor’, but at the end of the day all we cared about was winning.

“We didn’t start well at all, we were down five points at half-time, which in the nature of the game was huge — it was so low scoring. I think we’re like that as a team, we let teams dictate us in the first half and then whatever it is about us, we always come back in the second half.

“I think we got lucky on the day as well, they could have maybe got a free towards the end to level it, and had a few wides. I think it was just pot-luck on the day that we came out the right side.”

But how and ever, they made it.

Now in their way of the prestigious Bill Carroll Cup stands a side that everyone is talking about — Slaughtneil.

The Derry side have been the talk of the country over the past few months. They completed an historic Ulster treble before Christmas, crowned champions in men’s football and hurling as well as camogie.

“I think Slaughtneil are up there on a pedestal at the moment in every grade and the camogie is no different,” the PE and Irish student in UL tells The42.

“They’ll be going into it a lot more confident that we are — there’s a lot more around them, everyone is backing them to be totally honest. Sure that suits us, we’re coming in as underdogs which is grand.

“It’s our first time to win the county, and first time to contest the All-Ireland final so I’d say we are that bit more under the radar. But it’s up to us to match Slaughtneil, they’re more or less hot favourites. But it’s not a bad thing either going in as underdogs. We’ll give it everything and see what we can do.”

Galway clubs have contested, but lost, the last four senior finals. On the other hand, the last time a Derry club made the last two was 2000.

The standard of the opposing counties is something that McGrath is not taking into consideration for Sunday however.

“Club is a lot different to counties. The club scene in Ulster is outrageously strong. You can’t label it or stereotype it as ‘Derry county’, it’s a club team at the end of the day. I think the county status goes out the window.

Louise Dougan with Orlaith McGrath McGrath with Slaughtneil's Louise Dougan at the media launch. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“It is an added pressure that we’re the only Galway team left to win a club title. It’s good pressure. Pressure’s always good, it’s what you make of it, you can’t let it get to you.”

Involved with the Galway senior panel since the age of 16, and now alongside her three sisters, McGrath has played in Croke Park before and is relishing her return to the big stage.

However, it’s not just a huge day for the players and management, it’s one that the entire community is anticipating. But McGrath knows that once the sliotar is thrown in, it’s up to the 15 girls on the pitch as well as her dad, his management team and whoever they decide to play as subs.

“Once the whistle goes, it’s the same as any other pitch. You have to that out of your head once the match is on.

“Christ, Sarsfields, it’s a small little parish but there’s such a strong hurling tradition. I think everyone in the parish will be here.

“Genuinely, it’s just unbelievable how much they have gotten behind us. Everyone is just excited and happy for us, but I suppose there’s no point being excited and happy if we don’t actually win it on the day.

Nobody remembers who gets to a final. It’s up to us to win it on the day.”

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