Jennifer O’Leary loves a challenge. She always has. It motivates her. After having her first child, Lauren, last December, Jennifer is keen to prove that she can hit top gear again and inspire her Armagh club, Middletown, to their first county senior camogie title. KIERAN McCARTHY caught up with the Barryroe legend
GIVEN everything she’s achieved in camogie, nobody would have thought any less of Jennifer O’Leary if she didn’t return to action following the birth of her first child, Lauren, last December.
If any player deserves to sail off into the sunset, then it’s the Lislevane legend.
Her camogie CV is stacked: four All-Ireland senior titles with Cork, six National Leagues, eight All-Stars, countless highlights. She is one of the greats. She’s 36 years old, too, and that will turn to 37 in October. Perhaps she might have felt it was time to wind down. Think again.
Last Monday week, O’Leary was back on the pitch with her club, Middletown, in Armagh for their first training session ahead of the new season.
She’s not back to make up the numbers either. She means business. Middletown have never won the Armagh senior camogie championship. They’ve come close though. In Jennifer’s first season Middletown won the county intermediate final and she was player of the match. They found their feet fast at senior level, but lost the 2015 and 2016 county finals, and again came up short in the 2018 decider. They’re close and Jennifer thinks they have a chance this season – that’s one of the reasons she’s laced up her boots again.
‘I knew Jen would go back after having Lauren and I bet she will be their star player for the year too,’ says her former Cork team-mate Joanne Browne (O’Callaghan). These two have been close friends since they started played together with Cork when they were 14 years old. Nothing Jennifer does surprises Browne anymore.
‘I can honestly say she got better with age. She pushed herself harder and harder every year because she always wanted to better herself,’ Browne explains.
No shock so that over the last few months, Jennifer was pounding the ball off the wall at home, trying to get as many touches as possible. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. It’s all about repetition. That skill base is there but she wants to get up to speed fast so she feels confident and has that trust in herself.
‘I just hope it will come as good as I want it to be. I know it will never be as good as before but I have to be satisfied that I can get it as best as I possibly can and hope that’s enough to get us over the line. I’m going to have to work even harder, especially as I’m getting older,’ she explains.
Hard work has never scared Jennifer. She loves a challenge. It brings out the best in her.
In her last season (2014) with the Cork senior camogie team, Jennifer had already swapped west Cork for south Armagh. That’s home now. She lives in Middletown with her husband, Paul Curry, and works as a teacher at St Louis Secondary School in Monaghan.
That final year, she regularly made the 480-mile, eight-hour round trip to training sessions in Cork city and she also trained a lot on her own.
One time, as her Cork team-mates ran a beep test together, Jennifer had to do it on her own in Armagh. She sent the results to Cork’s fitness trainer and the numbers were so impressive that he was convinced Jennifer had measured it wrong.
A few weeks later when she was with the Cork squad they all did another beep test. She hit the exact same score and beat everyone else. No-one could keep up with her, but that’s always been the way with the Barryroe dynamo. A lot of players are either fast or fit but, as Joanne Browne explains, Jennifer was unusual because she was extremely fast and extremely fit.
‘She would kill teams with her pace and then she had an engine to keep going at the same pace she started the game with. No-one could keep up with her for a full game. Usually the player marking her was either substituted or they would change halfway through the game,’ Browne explained.
One constant throughout the years is her competitiveness. It hasn’t waned. Even now, at 36, there’s a bite to her. She senses an opportunity with Middletown this season and she’s keen to grab it. A lot of players have returned to the set-up. The management team that was in charge when they contested those first two county senior finals are back. Three of her four sisters-in-law play camogie and all three (Oonagh, Orlagh and Stephanie) are around this year, too. The stars look to be aligning.
‘I think we have a very good chance,’ Jennifer says.
‘Over the next six weeks we have to train very hard, really improve our stick work, get up to speed and get match fit. Do that and I think we have as good a chance as everyone else.’
Middletown’s West Cork import will lead the charge and they know that. Her team-mates know what Jennifer Curry, as she’s known in Armagh, brings – high standards, commitment, determination and a match-winning ability.
And then there’s her competitiveness. It’s in the O’Leary’s genes, she laughs. Eight kids – an even split of four boys (Michael, twins Damien and Joseph, and Ryan) and four girls (Carol, Jennifer, Paula and Debra) – in the one house meant you fought hard for what you wanted. Her parents always banged the same tune: go out, you’re not staying inside, go outside. And they did. There were obstacle courses where only the strongest survived. There were puckarounds where every goal mattered.
‘I don’t know if it comes from my mom or my dad, but it’s there, and it will always be there,’ Jennifer explains. Her sister Debra ran quite a lot during lockdown and really improved – and that spurred Jennifer on, even though she’s in the opposite end of the country.
Paul Curry was well aware of Jennifer’s competitiveness before they married. They met while they were both in Australia and both played with Central Coast GAA Sydney. He is a hurler, she is a camogie player, and it clicks off the field too.
‘Paul would say to me that I am very competitive,’ she laughs. ‘We were doing certain runs over the lockdown, we were timing each other, putting it up on an app, comparing and contrasting. Maybe there was a certain week when I didn’t get up to speed and I was like, “Oh, for God’s sake!” and Paul would be like, “You’re supposed to enjoy this, Jen!”, but I would be very competitive.
‘It’s an innate competitiveness that drives me on; it’s just a part of who I am. No matter if it’s sport or other facets of life, I think I just have that in me, it makes me work hard.
‘I just like to be doing something all the time. I know it’s harder when you have a child, and they will always be number one, but I wanted to get a little bit of me back too so if I can get back this year I’d feel very satisfied and that I have achieved a lot in the past year – bringing Lauren into the world, bringing her up with Paul, making sure she’s healthy and then it would be a dream to fulfil my camogie dreams with Middletown.’
By now you know that Jennifer loves a challenge. She sets them up as targets to motivate and drive her on. Lauren Curry is only seven months old and has already set her mom a challenge.
‘You hear a lot of athletes struggling to come back after having a baby and I want to see if I can do it,’ Jennifer explains.
‘Thank God, I feel good and I feel fit at the moment. I have more to do, but I just wanted to set myself a different challenge.’
It was always in Jennifer’s plans to get back playing.
‘I will play for as long as I can,’ she says. ‘I played one league game last year, against Crossmaglen, and that night we found out I was pregnant with Lauren so that stopped our plans in a great way.
‘If I feel okay and if I feel I have the time I will play as long as I’m able because I’ll be retired long enough and I’ll miss it long enough. If I can contribute in anyway and help and encourage young players coming up, that’s important to do.’
Don’t underestimate Jennifer’s influence either. In the dressing-room everyone listens when she talks. It was the same when she played with her home club Barryroe and with the Cork senior squad. She has earned that respect by her actions on and off the field, in training and in matches.
As Lauren grows up there will be no shortage of stories about her mom’s camogie heroics, her glorious career, those All-Irelands and those All-Stars, her journey to becoming Barryroe’s most decorated player and the greatest camogie player ever from West Cork. Twice, she was crowned West Cork Sports Star of the Year, the second time was in 2014 – the most challenging year of her life.
There’s a picture in Jennifer’s home in Middletown of her late sister, Paula, in a Cork jersey, taken during the 2014 championship campaign. Paula tragically died on September 1st, 2014. A few weeks later, Jennifer took centre stage in Croke Park as she inspired Cork to the All-Ireland senior title, the fourth of her career. Early in the second half, the Barryroe woman burst through the Kilkenny team to rifle home a goal that gave Cork the lead for the first time in the final. They never looked back.
‘I will never forget that goal, we were down at that stage, she broke through two players trying to pull her down but they hadn’t a hope of catching her. I just knew when she got that goal that we were going to win. Everyone that day wanted to win it for her,’ her Cork team-mate Joanne Browne recalls.
In the stands in Croke Park that day, her husband Paul watched Jennifer’s goal with her family. When the goal went in, everyone cried. It was a release of emotions. Her mom, Kathleen, had passed away earlier that year. Then Paula died, too. It was a lot to deal with. Jennifer was travelling up and down from Armagh to Cork for training. Emotionally, physically, it was demanding.
‘I definitely think I was lucky to have camogie that year because it helped to block out everything that was going on but at the same time deal with it,’ she reflects.
‘My team-mates were brilliant, I remember them all being at the funeral home dressed in red and they showed their support – and that made me want to get back and play. My family were very supportive too and they wanted me to line out in the final. I know other families might find it too difficult and that physically they wouldn’t have the energy but somehow I found it.
‘I had a feeling it would be a good year for Cork. I felt that Paula wanted me to play in the final and I felt strength knowing that she was above with mom and that they were looking down on us. It’s Paula that gave me that little bit of energy to get that goal when so many people were trying to block my way but I felt I had a strength that I never had before.
‘Paul often brings up what it was like in the stand with my family after I scored that goal. When you hear things like that it makes it all worth it. If you can bring joy to peoples’ lives at a time when it was so difficult, that’s very satisfying.’
Jennifer knew too that it was going to be her last match for Cork. She had retired from the inter-county game in 2013 but always knew she’d be back in the Rebel red. In 2013 she had moved to Armagh and it seemed like the trip up and down was too much – but then she saw that as another challenge, took it on and won.
‘I didn’t want to miss out, I didn’t want to have any regrets and I had a feeling that there were good times ahead and that there was a good team there. I felt I still had it in the legs so I wanted to go again,’ Jennifer explains.
‘I was living in Armagh then but I saw that as another challenge. You need something different every year to keep you ticking over, to motivate you. I was a bit premature that year when I said I was retiring but I knew in the back of my mind that it wasn’t the end. I just needed a bit more time to think it through in my head but I’m glad in the end that I did return and I got that extra medal.’
That All-Ireland medal in 2014 was followed by her then record eighth Camogie All-Star Award and her second West Cork Sports Star of the Year Award (she’s the only woman to have won this award twice). Given her glittering career, and it’s not over yet, Jennifer was a shoo-in to be amongst the 16 local sports star shortlisted in the recent Best in the West competition, the search for West Cork’s greatest sportsperson.
In Cork and Armagh, huge numbers voted for her on Twitter, including her dad, Joe, who signed up to his own Twitter account to follow Jennifer’s progress. In both rounds she was involved in, he stayed up until 2am, cheering on his daughter, like he has done since she fell in love with camogie in national school. All these years later, she’s still bringing happiness to her family and friends – and she’s not finished yet.
Jennifer wants to add a new picture to her wall.
‘In the last few years I always envisaged lifting a cup and having a son or a daughter to have in the picture. I know that sounds really cheesy and corny. I have seen people in the past with a family around them and I wanted to build my own family and have that lovely picture to put on the wall,’ she says.
‘Definitely, Lauren is a big driving force this year and I have all of Paul’s sisters around too. It would be lovely to have that picture of us celebrating, all the Curry sisters together.’
She’s determined. You can hear it in her voice. She’s working extra hard to get back up to speed. She’s pucking around at home, doing her own circuit training and her own gym work.
‘Building up the speed is the hardest thing, but I’ll get there. I don’t think I’ll be like I was in the past but if I can keep up with the younger players around me then I’ll be happy enough,’ she says, modestly, but the odds are that everyone else will have to keep up with her. That’s the way it’s always been. Fingers crossed, Jennifer will get her Armagh senior camogie medal this season. She’s motivated by the challenge – and we all know how competitive she is. Just watch her go.