Bye-bye Barbie... Niamh Marley ready to answer Ireland's call

After 15 years of Ladies' football with Armagh, Niamh Marley is now established as a marauding Ulster Rugby winger. Picture: Mal McCann
After 15 years of Ladies' football with Armagh, Niamh Marley is now established as a marauding Ulster Rugby winger. Picture: Mal McCann

BARBIE got dumped when the football started.

Never mind the dream house, the back garden was the theatre of dreams and the game was always the All-Ireland final.

Niamh Marley, Armagh’s last line of defence, against her brother Patrick.

Seconds left on the clock, he shoots, she saves!

That was the start of the journey that led Niamh to Croke Park for real one day.

At the age of 12 she was playing senior football for her club Lissummon, she was in the Armagh squad as a 15-year-old and an All-Ireland winner by the time she was 21.

Because her life was devoted to Gaelic Games, she discovered rugby relatively late but, at 31, there’s plenty left in the tank and she’s now an established try-scoring winger for Ulster Rugby and hoping to earn a place in Ireland’s Six Nations team.

Sport has always been front and centre in her life to the extent that she has never – ever – been on a holiday.

There just hasn’t been time.

“I’d say I’m an honest player,” says the 31-year-old PE teacher at St Ronan’s College in Lurgan.

“I would die for the jersey. It’s a bit of a cliché but you always want to leave the jersey in a better place than you were given it. I try to lead by example and I’ve never been on a holiday because it’s always interfered with some sort of season – either pre-season or in-season.

“Maybe I need to get out more? I don’t even think it would be me to go and lie in the sun for a fortnight, I’m not really a lounger. Growing up, there was always something on in terms of football – either daddy was managing, or we were playing so there was never a time when we could say: ‘Right, we’re all going on a holiday’.

“Mummy and daddy instilled that in us – if you’ve committed to something fully then you see it through. It’s a great mindset and it has really stood to me.”

So where did it all come from, this devotion to sport?

You don’t have to drill down too deep to find the source.

Read more: 

Andy Watters: Our GAA clubs are pillars of strength in a cruel world

Cavan champions Ballyhaise stand in the way of Cullyhanna's Ulster title dream

The man with the plan. Noel Marley (front row, left) played in the All-Ireland final for Armagh
The man with the plan. Noel Marley (front row, left) played in the All-Ireland final for Armagh

Her dad Noel was one of the stars of Armagh’s All-Ireland final team of 1977 and by the time Niamh was alternating between Barbie dolls and back garden classics, he was managing local club sides and on training nights some or all of his four daughters - Niamh and her sisters Caoimhe, Sarah and Catherine - went along for the spin.

“We wanted to be like Daddy,” she says.

“We would watch the clips of him playing on the ’77 team with all these Armagh legends from back in the day – Joe Kernan, Jimmy Smyth, Colm McKinstry… I could name them all. I wanted to be like them.

“He managed a couple of clubs in Armagh and mummy chased us all out of the house and we went with him. There’s five of us and we were all sport mad and probably annoying her head so it gave her a bit of a break. 

“That was my first introduction to football.”

Caoimhe, the eldest, blazed the trail for her three sisters. Ten years older than Niamh, Caoimhe (also a PE teacher) set the tone as she made her way from club to county and her younger sister regards her as the best role model she could have had.

“In terms of dedication and commitment she was brilliant,” says Niamh.

“Mummy would have said to us on nights when it was raining: ‘You’re not going out to train in that?’ but Caoimhe would have gone on. So it was just expected when I started because Caoimhe set the standard.”

It was a standard she followed and she wasn’t long out of primary school when her precocious talents was spotted by the Lissummon management.

She was thrown into the senior side.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she says.

“I thought it was just such an honour to be asked at such a young age and I would get to play with Caoimhe and Sarah and all these big names like Orla Murtagh. I was thinking: ‘Wow, this is where I want to be’ and I just wanted to push myself on.

“I suppose having played so much football with Patrick, who’s four years older than me, meant I was able to deal with the contact. I had trained with the seniors and the manager spoke to daddy to see if I would be interested. Daddy was like: ‘Yes, go on ahead, it’ll not be any worse than playing with Patrick’.”

A couple of seasons later she was established in a club side that would go on to reach the Ulster junior final. With every game she became more confident, quicker and stronger. She was determined to improve and follow her older sister into the county panel, but even she didn’t think it would happen quite as quickly as it did…

“Caoimhe came home from Armagh training and told me that James Finnegan, the manager, wanted me to join the panel to bolster the numbers for the championship,” Niamh explains.

“I thought she was joking at the start. I was so proud – it was all I had dreamed about.

“I had a very good foundation with the club and I felt like I could master anything. Being so young and playing senior football for Lissummon, I’d never been involved in a team and not started, so I expected to start. 

“But then Bronagh O’Donnell, who was a brilliant Armagh captain, phoned me and said: ‘Sorry Niamh, we can’t play you this year – you’re too young’. It turned out I couldn’t play because I was U16 and you can’t skip two age groups. I was devastated because all I wanted to do was play for Armagh but I just stuck to the training and I made my debut against Mayo the following year.

“I remember I did ok, I was able to hold my own. They played me in the forward line even though I’m not a forward. The amount of brilliant players I can say that I played with – the O’Donnell twins, Caroline O’Hanlon… They were coming off the back of getting to the All-Ireland final and the culture they established in the team has become what Armagh is renowned for.”

There were a few injuries along the way but she has played 15 seasons with Armagh, most of them as a strong running, right half-back. She joined a side that had come within a point of beating Cork in the 2006 All-Ireland final. Although they’ve come close, the Orchard girls haven’t been able to get back to the national decider. 

In the thick of the action as Armagh battle it out with Kerry at Croke Park.
In the thick of the action as Armagh battle it out with Kerry at Croke Park.

“It’s been a rollercoaster throughout my time,” says Niamh. At the beginning we were coming off the back of 2006 and it was brilliant, training was something that I hadn’t been used to – it was a step up to see if I could make it with the big-hitters.

“We took a bit of a dip and we got relegated to intermediate but then James Daly revolutionised everything. He was very strict in what he wanted and I liked that, he got full buy-in and we won the All-Ireland in 2012.

“I was 21 then. Michelle Ryan was the big player for Waterford and the whole talk was that I had to mark her out of the game and it was make or break for us… There was a lot of pressure on me but I like that, I relish that challenge.” 

There were All-Ireland semi-finals against Cork (2014) and Monaghan (2015) and after a period of Donegal dominance Armagh completed a three in-a-row in Ulster last season. Success has been great but, for Niamh, the family ties are what has made it really special.

“The best thing has always been playing with my sisters,” she says.

“You have people there who always have your back and we’ve come through it all – all the wins and the losses together.

“There’s never a time when we don’t talk about football in our house. We analyse and then micro-analyse games! It’s great to have that kind of bond. When I started out I had Caoimhe there, then Sarah came back on board and Catherine has come in. You know they’re going to go to war for you, they will battle for you and I know how much effort that put in.

“We train collectively on a Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday but we would be doing stuff every other night of the week. So I know Catherine is going to make that extra run, Caoimhe is going to put that tackle in…

“They’re never going to let me down.”

THE pitch of her voice changes slightly when our conversation turns to rugby. You detect an extra octave of excitement in there because the oval ball is her focus now.

Gaelic Games aren’t in the past, nor will they ever be, but she needs to concentrate on rugby if she’s going to break into the Ireland team for next year’s Six Nations.

Rugby started as a bit of craic but it has grown into a consuming passion and she traces her path to this level back to an unexpected call from Dungannon Rugby Club coach Ronan McIlmeel back in 2020. 

“I know my physique and my style of play in football really lends itself to rugby but I didn’t see it coming,” she says.

“It has opened massive doors for me and raised my profile and it’s just nice to be able to play another sport and shine somewhere else.

“Conor had seen me play football. He was really complimentary – he said I could push on, I could play for Ireland one day… It was stuff I had never dreamt of because all I’d ever dreamt of was playing for Armagh and wearing that orange jersey.

“So I was like: ‘Right, I’ll give it a go’. I loved the fact that I had to go back and learn a new game and to be honest I thought it would take me a lot longer. Gaelic Football gives you such a good grounding for so many different sports and if you have a bit of speed that helps.”

She brought a combination of speed and power that opposition tacklers couldn’t handle. Try followed try and news of the flying winger soon spread. Less than a year after starting with Dungannon she was contacted by Ulster Rugby.

In this season’s inter-provincials she scored Ulster’s only try against Leinster and added a brilliant individual effort in the win against Connacht.

“I couldn’t see it working out,” she admits.

“I knew it was a massive step up to Ulster and I didn’t think it was for me – I was playing club rugby for a bit of craic.

“I’m very honest with myself and I think I’m self-aware in terms of what I’m capable of but I spoke to the Ulster head coach, Neil Alcorn, and he sold the dream. He was very complimentary and Ulster have really pushed me on. They’re very player-centred and they want you to do well and push on.

“He wanted me to play for Ulster and push on to Ireland and Neil and Conor have been brilliant for me.”

It’s in her nature to keep pushing. She feels she’s in better shape than ever and has all the big-game experience behind her to handle expectations and the training load. She’s hoping to be selected for a combined provinces side - the best of the Ulster and Leinster teams – who will play games in Wales, Scotland and England in what amounts to a trial for the Ireland Six Nations squad.

“It was never on my radar – ever – that I could play for Ireland,” she says.

“Since I was a child, all I thought about was playing for Armagh. When Conor (McIlmeel) told me I could play for Ireland, I didn’t believe it but the harder I work I do see it as a possibility now and it would be unbelievable.

“The biggest thing for me is being a teacher and a role model for the kids because they tell me more about myself than I know. I remember I was playing against Tyrone at the Athletic Grounds and I heard somebody shout from the crowd: ‘Go on Miss Marley!’

“I’ve started rugby in school and it’s the first time we’ve ever done it. It gives the kids an opportunity to shine on a different platform and I’m delighted I can do that.

“If I can push on and play for Ireland, it would be great for people to see that you can do GAA, you can do Ulster rugby, you can do whatever…”

Dumping Barbie worked out well.