The Cats are back

Shelly Farrell and her Noreside sisters matching the men to put Kilkenny camogie on the map

The reigning All-Ireland champions kick off their league campaign against Tipperary on Saturday.

Shelly Farrell celebrates her goal Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

WHEN YOU THINK of sport in Kilkenny, one springs to mind.

When you think of sportspeople from Kilkenny, names like Henry Shefflin and JJ Delaney are just two that you think of instantly, among many others.

Hurling is a way of life for the Cats, and following the inter-county men’s hurling side is their religion.

Not that it lives in its shadow, but there has been much less hype surrounding their female counterparts in recent times.

Throughout the 1980s, Kilkenny dominated the All-Ireland camogie championship, and they continued their winning form up until the mid-90s. Starting in 1974 and for the twenty years that followed, Kilkenny won 12 All-Ireland titles. 1994 was to be their last for a long time as they suffered heartbreak after heartbreak and slipped under the radar.

As the Brian Cody era took over, the men took centre stage. Of course, the girls were still there or thereabouts but their lack of silverware meant that all of the attention was placed on the men’s hurling side.

Until now.

2016 was the year in which they came back with a bang. Under the watchful eye of 1994 captain Ann Downey, both the All-Ireland championship and league titles returned to the south-east.

With the double came pride, belief and a sense that they were no longer second best to the male hurlers.

“It’s brilliant,” Shelly Farrell smiles.

Kilkenny celebrate after the game Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“The men have achieved so much in Kilkenny and they’ve drove on hurling so much. It was great to actually bring that buzz with Kilkenny ladies. The support this year for the homecoming, it was unbelievable the amount of people that came out.

“Camogie is getting a lot more recognition in Kilkenny now. It’s great when you win, the people that would get behind you.”

Off the pitch on a fine spring afternoon in Dublin and without the hurley in hand, you’d easily miss last year’s All-Ireland final hero. It was Farrell who scored the goal that left Cork with too much to do to reduce the deficit last September, and ultimately sealed a historic win.

“I didn’t really think about it at the time, it was great to win,” she continues at the launch of the Littlewoods Camogie League.

“It was only a few days later, you kind of look back on it and think that it was brilliant to score the goal. It was the play the whole way up the field by the girls, I was only there at the end of it really to try hit it into the net. It was a team effort at the end of the day.

Littlewoods Ireland Camogie National Leagues Launch Shelly Farrell, Kelley Hopkins, Anna Geary, Siobhan Flannery and Sarah O'Donovan at the Littlewoods Camogie League launch. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

“It was unbelievable to win the league and the All-Ireland. It was brilliant to do the double. This year now, we just have to forget about that really. Start the year again, but we know what it takes now to win an All-Ireland so we’ll have to drive on a lot more now this year.”

Like every great sportsperson, the Thomastown clubwoman is always looking ahead. What’s in the past is gone, no matter how remarkable it was.

Hurling is all Farrell has known all her life, as most people in Kilkenny do. With sisters Anna and Meighan also on the senior panel, and her older brother Jonjo making a notable impact for the Kilkenny men last year, the Farrells’ is a typically Irish GAA house.

Her younger sister Caoimhe is also involved with the minors.

“Hopefully she’ll be playing with us too in a few years. It’s great that we all play together — and Jonjo on the hurling panel. It’s great at home and my parents really do drive it on. Only for them really we wouldn’t be playing.

“Sure we were dragged to matches when we were younger. And trainings then, we’d be at every single one. My mam and dad trained us from I’d say U8 the whole way up, we couldn’t really get rid of them. Only for them though, we wouldn’t be where we are today. It’s great to have them and the belief they have in us.”

Belief is a word she uses when she talks about Downey and the work she’s done for Kilkenny camogie. Having played in Kilkenny’s 12 All-Ireland camogie successes and captained the side to glory in 1994, she’d done more than enough for her county.

Littlewoods Ireland Camogie National Leagues Launch Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

But Downey felt that she had more to give. Returning as a manager, she shaped and moulded the team into the machine they are today, helping them regain their place at the top of inter-county camogie.

“It’s brilliant. She’s instilled a lot of belief in us in the last year and I think that’s really what got us over the line — how much she wanted it — and it really portrayed through our team then, things that she tells us and how much she believes in us. It’s great to have her there.

“She reminds us so many times how many All-Irelands she has herself and Angela [Downey] too, it’s great to have the two of them in there. We really did look up to them when we were younger. They’ve achieved so much in camogie, and they’re just brilliant players and brilliant managers.”

From speaking to Farrell, it’s evident that the belief is still there and stronger than ever, and the drive for two-in-a-row, both league and championship, is well and truly alive.

The preseason grind is coming to a halt, and the trainee account technician can’t wait to be back out on the field on Saturday afternoon against Tipperary, doing what she does best.

“Everyone is giving it their all anyway. Since last year, you can’t fault anyone ever. Everyone just gives 100%.

“[The preseason] is only to get the best out of you. You’d know you’ve done that on the field in the latter stages, if you’ve put in that effort. It’d only be yourself that you’d be codding if you don’t put in that effort.

“If you want to be playing in an All-Ireland final like we did last year, you have to put in that effort at the start of the year, in December and January.”

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