SINEAD O’Reilly is a frontline hero who will guard the backline for Courcey Rovers in the upcoming county senior camogie championship.
In sport, she’s Courceys goalkeeper. By profession, she’s a nurse at Bandon Community Hospital. It’s been a demanding few months for the Ballinspittle woman (28), as the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the country, but this week she was back training for the first time in months, making Monday’s night session before heading into night shifts. Being back on the pitch felt like a step forward.
The draw for the senior county camogie championship was made last week and Courceys drew Cloughduv in the opening round – that felt like another step forward.
‘You can drive past the pitch now and the gates are open, and it’s that bit more welcoming,’ Sinead says.
‘It has been a super hard time for so many people. It was very stressful for people and the unknown was hard to deal with – is it going to come? Is it going to happen to us? What will happen if we do get it? There was a lot of worry for people, and for some there still is.
‘We are not out of it yet but we are on the other side of it. Hopefully we are through the worst of it.’
That’s why the return of the GAA feels like an important milestone in the country’s recovery. The GAA is engrained in every community in the country and the opening of pitches and return of teams to training and games is a boost for the physical and mental health of so many. Sinead agrees.
‘We are going to have a strange normal now for however long it’s going to be, but having the GAA back gives so many people an outlet to get out again to meet and interact with people,’ she says.
‘Our mental health is so important and there’s no denying that it’s been a very stressful time. It’s been hard for people so if having the pitches open will see someone head down there on Sunday morning to watch training up in the bank in Courceys and chat to someone five metres away, that’s great.
‘Even for us, it’s great to be able to meet up with all the girls again, have a catch-up in person and go for a puck-around at the pitch.’
Sinead is luckier than most in that regard. She has three younger sisters who are all on the Courceys camogie team with her, so she wasn’t short of options when it came to a puck-around in recent months. There’s Catriona (24), Eimear (22) and Deirdre (20), and the four O’Reilly sisters are also on Courceys junior C football team. Add in their first cousins, Elaine and Aisling O’Reilly, who are also involved, and it’s a family affair for the O’Reillys.
There have been highs and lows on the pitch over the years. The biggest high, Sinead recalls, came in May 2017 when Courceys won the county camogie senior league final against Glen Rovers. That was a breakthrough moment for Courceys, the camogie club’s first adult silverware.
‘We always say if there is any weekend we could go back to, it’s the weekend that we won the league. We had Sarah Hayes on our team, that was her first silverware for Courceys and she was playing for 17 years. That was a super, super weekend,’ Sinead recalls.
The following season, 2018, had highs and lows. The high was Courceys qualifying for their first-ever county senior camogie championship final after beating Milford in the semi-final. The low was the loss to Inniscarra in the county final.
‘I often think about the lead-up and the week before the county final and how many things I would change if I got the same opportunity again,’ Sinead says.
‘I was working, I took a few days off and maybe I was off for too much and thinking about the game too much. If I could do it again, I’d be more relaxed and try not to think about it too much, but for all of us it was our first county senior final. Even when they played the national anthem before the game, we were all looking around at each other because we hadn’t experienced that before and it was all new to us.’
Courceys now have that experience in the bank. The hope is that they will get another crack at a county final. They’re genuine title contenders again this season. County finalists in 2018, semi-finalists last season, they’re knocking on the door. They have players with Cork experience. Linda Collins, Saoirse McCarthy and Fiona Keating are with the Cork seniors, while Ciara Hayes, Ashling Moloney and Grainne Hannon are with the Rebel intermediates.
There’s a certain degree of the unknown heading into the championship too, as there’s no recent form to gauge teams on. Momentum will be crucial.
‘Every team is in the same boat this season. We all thought that there would be no season and here we are, preparing for one. The draw has been made and it has given us all some bit of structure for the next few weeks,’ Sinead says.
‘All teams are striving for the same thing, it’s hugely competitive, you can never underestimate anyone and you have to mind your own corner. We beat Milford last year and then got beaten by the Barrs in the semi-final. We have Cloughduv in our first game later this month and that’s our focus now.’
When the championship does throw-in, Sinead will be a familiar sight in goal for Courceys. It can be a lonely position, she admits, but she’s played a starring role in their rise in recent seasons. Think back to the 2017 league final success against Glen Rovers when she pulled off a crucial save from Lydia Cunningham in the closing stages as Courceys were holding on to a one-point lead.
‘I’ve had some good days and bad days in goal – and it’s after the bad days that you feel really accountable if goals go in. Even when the others are saying it’s not your fault, I’m saying “but I was the last person”. You have to pick yourself up and go again.
‘We’ve a good team and there are some great young players coming through, some nippy forwards, and we’re all looking forward to getting back out playing again.
‘A couple of months ago there was no way there was going to be anything played but look at us now, we’re preparing for the championship. It’s good, I think, that we don’t have to wait until next year to play because a lot of people might have dropped out or retired and people might have found it hard to come back after a year out.’
For Sinead, it’s back to juggling her job as a nurse and the commitment of training, but given the last few months she’s not complaining. When she drives past Courceys pitch in Ballinspitle now, the gates are open. That’s a welcome sight, another step in the right direction. She hopes Courceys will make more strides in the right direction this season too.