Newcestown are preparing for their first-ever campaign in the county senior camogie championship. In 2019 they were crowned county intermediate champions and now they’re ready to mix it with the heavyweights. GER McCARTHY spoke to Mary McSweeney, Maeve Lynch and Evelyn Crowley to chart Newcestown camogie’s remarkable rise
SUNDAY, October 13th, 2019 was a hectic day for members of the McSweeney household. Micheál McSweeney was busy getting ready for Newcestown’s first-ever Cork senior football championship semi-final appearance, against Duhallow. His sister Mary was preparing to captain the West Cork club in an intermediate camogie county final against local rivals Enniskeane on the same afternoon. Both matches were in the city.
By late evening, Mary and her teammates were back home celebrating the narrowest of victories. They were joined by the senior men’s squad despite their five-point loss to Duhallow. What followed was a tumultuous couple of days celebrating an unbelievable year for Newcestown camogie.
‘That whole week was just plain crazy,’ Mary McSweeney recalled.
‘We came back from the dead to beat Blackrock in the county semi-final on the Wednesday and then defeated Enniskeane to become intermediate champions the following Sunday. The day of the final was mad in our place as my brother Micheál was getting ready for his semi-final as well. You can imagine the intensity of the household that morning. Everyone was racing just to get out the front door.’
Thankfully, the McSweeneys managed to get to Cork in time for the first of two hugely important matches. Enniskeane were expected to present formidable opposition in the county intermediate championship decider at Castle Road and didn’t disappoint.
Cork’s Orla Croin played a leading role with 1-6 for Enniskeane but it was a future senior inter-county prospect, Ciara O’Sullivan, who picked up the player-of-the-match award and contributed 1-5 of Newcestown’s winning total.
‘Playing Enniskeane was nerve-wracking because we had come across each other so many times in the past,’ McSweeney added.
‘We worked extremely hard to get to that county final, in particular the last five minutes of the Blackrock game when we turned what looked a certain defeat into an unexpected victory.
‘Looking back, the county final day is a complete blur. Maybe that’s because of the excitement of winning the county, I don’t know. Being captain made it extra special, but it was all rush, rush the whole day because our final was at noon and Micheál’s semi-final was only a couple of hours later.
‘It was a brilliant feeling to lift that Nano Nagle Cup. Then, I had to immediately race across town from Mahon to Páirc Uí Rinn to be on time for the lads’ semi-final. I remember leaving the car on double-yellow lines. Sure, I didn’t give a damn at that stage!’
McSweeney’s account of county final day is a snapshot of what camogie means to families living in rural areas all over West Cork. Newcestown will be the first to admit that their most recent success didn’t happen overnight. Yet, that run to the intermediate title was also the catalyst for the club to prosper across all their age-grades as the Carbery club achieved a remarkable trophy-haul during that 12-month period.
In 2019 alone, and aside from the men’s achievements, Newcestown Camogie Club brought home the county intermediate, Carbery minor, U16A county plate and U16B league trophies as well as finishing runners-up in both the Carbery U13 and U14 county league finals.
So, where does the hunger, passion, dedication and drive come from within such a small village and rural area? There is no straightforward answer but the DNA for success probably lies in the fact so many of the 2019 camogie county-winning squad were pucking a sliotar around the pitch together from a young age.
Cork intermediate Maeve Lynch is currently studying Intellectual Disability Nursing in UCC and working as a healthcare assistant with the COPE foundation. She lined out at centre-back in Newcestown’s 2019 county final triumph.
Lynch’s GAA career began in her native Bandon before joining Newcestown’s camogie set-up at a young age. As someone coming in from the outside, from day one, Lynch began to understand what the sport meant to the local community.
‘I played hurling with the boys in Bandon up until U10 before joining Newcestown camogie and starting with them at U12,’ the centre-back said.
‘What I found when I started going to Newcestown is that, even though it is a small village, everyone there is absolutely GAA mad. There was and still is a real love for the game there. Coming up through the underage ranks, everyone always wanted to make the team. Every trainer drove you on. Each year, you were driving to be as good if not better than the older team just ahead of you.’
Lynch made her mark, so much so that she lined out for Newcestown in the 2015 junior A county final at the tender age of 15. Producing a blistering second-half display, the West Cork club ran out 4-12 to 0-6 winners over Watergrasshill a week after Newcestown’s men claimed the Premier intermediate county hurling title. Success breeding success and driving the club forward. That junior A victory kickstarted a golden era for the club and they've risen through the ranks since then.
‘To get the chance to play in that (2015) team was just surreal,’ Lynch admitted.
‘Again, it was the older and more experienced players that drove you on. You had to match their passion and intensity otherwise you wouldn’t be playing with them for very long.
‘I’ll never forget that day in the dressing room right before we walked out on to the pitch for the county final. Some of the girls pulled out the county medals they had won many years earlier and showed them to us. That was an emotional moment for everyone in the dressing room. But that’s the way Newcestown operates. Constantly driving you on and demanding more of those around you.’
Another county final story and another snapshot of what camogie means to the West Cork club.
Evelyn Crowley was midfield alongside Lauren Whelan during Newcestown’s historic 2019 intermediate camogie county final victory over Enniskeane. The primary school teacher in Sunday’s Well began her Newcestown odyssey over 25 years ago and is in little doubt as to where the origins and roots of their latest success lies.
‘It all started while I was still in national school, that’s where the love of camogie first came from,’ Crowley explained.
‘Why is it so popular in Newcestown and the surrounding area? I guess you would have to say that the local schools had a big role to play. Every one of our national school teachers were brilliant for bringing us out to play camogie at the earliest opportunity.
‘There was and still is a big emphasis on hurling, camogie and football too to be fair, here. The teachers' love for the GAA would have had a big influence on us as children. Our families too, there would always have been a strong GAA tradition in the locality and that’s why so many people, like myself, grew up loving and playing it.’
It is worth recalling that Newcestown also claimed the county intermediate title as recently as 2017 – again, getting the better fo Enniskeane in the final – only for the senior B grade to be removed the following year. That meant a return to the tier that the Carbery side had just conquered. Yet, the desire to mix it with the best at senior level has only served to spur Newcestown on – and this season they will campaign in the county senior camogie championship for the first time in the club’s history.
The Carbery club’s achievements did not go unnoticed at inter-county level during the past three years. Ciara O'Sullivan recently made her debut appearance with Cork seniors in the national league having previously won back-to-back All-Ireland minor medals alongside club-mate Emma Tarrant. Add to that, Maeve Lynch lining out for the county intermediates and Grace Ryan helping Cork end a 16-year drought for a U16A All-Ireland title.
So, it is fair to say that Newcestown camogie has never been in such a healthy state as they embark on their first county senior championship campaign. Covid-19 means a reduced timeframe to complete this year’s competition but a reinvigorated Newcestown are ready for the challenge.
‘It has been a difficult time for everyone during Covid,’ Evelyn Crowley said.
‘Thankfully, our new trainer Declan Crowley kept everyone going with training plans and WhatsApp chats which was brilliant. Obviously, we missed the girls’ company when training as a team, but then every team was in the same boat.
‘It makes it all the better being back out on the pitches again now after the lockdown. The return of GAA also represents a major boost to the local community. I hope that we prove that we are worthy of being senior. We are going to give it our all and put our best foot forward.’
‘We knew that we were an up-and-coming club over the last couple of years,’ Maeve Lynch added.
‘There are some young 16-year-old girls in our squad right now playing like they are in their mid-20s. The likes of Grace Ryan, Emma Tarrant and the other younger girls are already vital members of the team now. Then you have Ciara O’Sullivan who has made the Cork senior team as well.
‘Working with vulnerable adults, I haven’t been involved in any team training sessions and working away on my own thanks to a training plan from the Newcestown management team. Covid-19 has been a very strange time and it is tough to know what will happen. At the end of the day, we must remember that every club in Cork and the rest of the country is as unprepared. That’s a good thing in a way and should drive us on even more to succeed. We are entering the championship with the intention of giving it our best shot.’
Newcestown’s success, both male and female and at adult and underage level, is nothing short of sensational over the past 24 months. In comparison to city clubs with huge playing numbers, for a rural West Cork club drawn from such a small population to be punching above their weight at senior level is the stuff of dreams. The club now has senior camogie, football and hurling teams.
No one knows what the immediate or long-term future holds with fears of a second wave of the pandemic looming large on the horizon. In the interim, all GAA clubs can do is play as many matches as possible and try to get back to some semblance of normality.
It would be a shame for Covid-19 to interrupt the Newcestown football, hurling and camogie juggernaut for a second time. That’s what makes the connection between community and GAA club so important, especially living through these unheralded times.
‘You could walk up to the Newcestown pitch any night of the week and there will be something going on, a match or just a training session,’ Maeve Lynch said.
‘As well as that, there are always enough coaches and parents around and willing to help out. The community drives this club. There are people up at the GAA club who don’t have kids helping out in whatever way they can.
‘Competition between the boys and the girls is definitely still there and as strong now as when I first started out. Everyone is delighted at the success our U21s and men’s teams have had but that also drives the camogie on to try and achieve the same.
‘Last year was just fantastic and the lads seemed to be winning all around them. It shows that the foundations are there for the club to build on and achieve even more. In the middle of it all, the local community keeps rowing in behind us and they are absolutely fantastic the way they come out and support so many different teams across all the age grades.
‘Everyone in Newcestown is willing to do whatever it can for their GAA club.’
Against that positive backdrop, Newcestown camogie are ready for their first campaign in the county senior championship. They’ve drawn Killeagh in the opening round. It’s a tough task, but Newcestown are ready, they’ve waited long enough for this chance. The club’s underage structure has attracted huge numbers once again for 2020 and beyond, suggesting a positive future is attainable. It’s time to brew up a storm once again.