Hurling and camogie

Katie Mullan: “Camogie had saved me, It helped ease the pain I was suffering after being dropped from Irish hockey''

Ireland hockey captain Katie Mullan, pictured at Glenanne Sports Club in Tallaght, Dublin. Picture by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Séamas McAleenan

“EOGHAN RUA taught me so many lessons. It is my club. My friends are there. I would love to give something back to the club in the future.”

Irish hockey captain Katie Mullan hasn’t played much camogie for a while now and she won’t get the opportunity to bury a sliotar in a net for another few years.

But she still feels a pull towards her Coleraine camogie club and the game where she experienced her first major sporting successes.

“I played for the club hurling and camogie teams right through until under 16. There was a few of us girls did that, Megan Kerr, Maria Mooney,'' said Mullan.

“The three of us were on the hurling team that went down to Kilkenny, in 2008 I think, to play in the All-Ireland Féile and I was staying in Clare Phelan’s house.

''We have crossed paths over the years. Clare won her second All-Ireland senior medal with Kilkenny there before Christmas.

“Grace Walsh had a great game at midfield in that final. I met Grace on our first day in UCD and shared accommodation for the rest of the course.

''We are very close friends. We even played against each other in inter-provincial hockey through our teens, me with Ulster and Grace with South-East.

“Megan (Kerr), Maria (Mooney) and I, played under-age county with Derry. They both went on to play senior county and there is a part of me that still wants to do that too. But I don’t think that is practical.

“I might manage a season or two with Eoghan Rua though, but it would depend on a lot of things, how my body is when I am at a stage to step down from hockey.

“Eoghan Rua is my club. I know I would be welcome there any time.

''They gave me so much experience, brought me on a fantastic journey at a young age, taught me so much about having a shared goal and making nothing get in our way to achieving that goal.

“I would love to bring some of the experience I have gained through hockey and give it back to the club.”

Hockey of course is the focal point of Katie Mullan’s life at the moment.

The captain of the Ireland team that reached the 2018 Hockey World Cup final, runners up once more in the 2019 FIH Series finals, she aims to lead the team to the Olympic Games for the first time later this year.

Immediately after the 2018 World Cup final she took up a full-time contract with Alstar in the German hockey league and they promptly won the Division One title.

“It sounds a bit like “Ulster”, doesn’t it? And they also wear red and white. I would have liked to stay with them and they also wanted me to stay,'' said Mullan.

''But we were entering Olympics’ year and anyone playing abroad was brought home to put everything into an Olympic effort.

“So I am using my Biomedical Engineering degree from UCD, working part-time at the moment with Axial 3D, a company based in Belfast that produces 3D anatomical models for surgeons. That’s Wednesday to Friday.

“Mondays and Tuesdays are spent in a full-time training camp and I would do extra training when I can other days of the week and at weekends. There would be a good bit of travel involved up and down to Dublin.”

The farmer’s daughter from between Coleraine and Portstewart went up the hockey ladder fairly quickly.

Her coach in Dalriada Grammar School in Ballymoney was Bridget McKeever, a former hockey international. Soon she was playing with the Ballymoney club.

Inter-provincial recognition followed and by the time she started her degree course in UCD in 2012, she had represented Ireland at the Youth Olympic Games in 2010 and become a full Irish International.

Success followed with UCD teams winning Irish Senior Cup titles in 2014, 2017 and 2018. Mullan was also a member of the UCD teams that won Irish Hockey League titles in 2013–14, 2016–17 and 2017–18 and she played for UCD in the 2015 and 2018 EuroHockey Club Champions Cups.

But there was one significant hiccup along the way: “Hockey had become my Number One sport by my late teens.

''I wanted to play both and knew I was welcome in the camogie club any time I could make it. But the demands of hockey were too much to fit both in with equal commitment.

“Eoghan Rua had serious ambitions after winning their first Derry title in 2010. I tried to be there when I could and it sometimes worked when summers were free from hockey.

“But when Eoghan Rua won Derry, then Ulster, well the camogie season was just running on into the winter months.

“That first year I was about a good bit and I have to thank Joe (Passmore) and the girls for accommodating me as much as they did.

“I was 16 at the time and there were fine margins between making the team one day and not making it the next day. I understood it was hard to keep my place especially when I wasn’t always there at training to defend it.

“Anyway we got through to an All-Ireland semi-final against Lismore from Waterford. The game was in Cloughjordan and I had a hockey match the day before.

“They told me I wouldn’t be starting and I was OK with that.

''I had to play the hockey match and then to add to the problems I got food poisoning or something on the Saturday after the hockey game. I was so ill all night and couldn’t eat a bite the next morning.

“It was a really close match and I was put on during the second half. I managed to kick the sliotar over the line in the last few minutes to score the winning goal to take us to Croke Park.

“I came on again as a sub in the final against The Harps from Laois. Eoghan Rua won and it was an incredible day for the club.

“We won again the following year too beating Ardrahan from Galway in the final.

“Those two years were so important in my sporting development. They gave me my first full experience of what a group of girls could achieve when they bought into a collective goal.

“We all worked so hard. Everyone was so competitive. No one would miss training. This was about the team.

“Like there were two or three of us 16 years of age that first year and Eilis McNamee and Roseanna McAleese were just 14. Fourteen year olds can’t play senior now.

“But it was the leadership of players like Gráinne McGoldrick, what a player! Grace McMullan putting her arm around us in the forward line, guiding us, talking to us. Just everyone being so supportive of each other.

“But on a personal level, my best camogie experience was yet to come.”

Having become a hockey senior international at 18 years of age, it came as a shock to the now inter-varsity player when she was dropped from the Ireland panel for the Europeans in 2013.

“That hit me hard, really hard. I knew I hadn’t been playing particularly well that year, but it still was a huge shock'' she stated.

''I was devastated. I had put hockey as my Number One sport, got to international level and now I was dropped.

“As soon as I got home, I went down to camogie training and just pushed myself really hard.”

Slaughtneil had taken the 2012 Derry crown to end Eoghan Rua’s bid for a third successive title at all levels.

But with Mullan on board the team from the triangle regained the county title with an emphatic 2-11 to 2-4 win over the reigning champions in the final and the hockey reject scored two goals and a point.

“Camogie had saved me,'' she disclosed.

''My confidence was back. It helped ease the pain I was suffering from the hockey. I had something to fall back on.

“It also shows that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in the one basket. Play different sports as long as it is possible to do so.

''Some time you might have to prioritise one over another. That is OK. Get as much as you can from all sport.”

Following Eoghan Rua’s back-to-back All-Ireland Intermediate club titles in 2010-11, Derry’s championship winners were now through to the senior competition and after steam-rolling Rossa (4-10 to 0-3) in the provincial final with Mullan hitting 1-1, there was an All-Ireland semi-final against Milford from Cork.

Milford included Cork’s All-Ireland winning captain Anna Geary, the Watsons and the brilliant Aisling Thompson.

“That was one that got away from us,'' recalled Mullan.

''Milford were the best in the country at the time and they went on to win three of the next four All-Irelands. But we were going toe-to-toe with them all the way.

“Maybe we were a little nervous, snapping at things on occasion. There wasn’t much in it at the end (1-10 to 0-8). We could have won it. Small margins.”

That was to be the club’s only tilt at an All-Ireland senior title. The following year, they again beat Slaughtneil in the Derry final with Mullan this time shooting 1-4 and picking up the Player of the Match award.

“That 'Player of the Match' award means so much to me. It sits in my room and you could catch me just looking at from time to time.”

However a career-threatening injury to Gráinne McGoldrick in the opening minutes of the Ulster final in Owenbeg saw the champions lose by a single point to Loughgiel.

Since then Slaughtneil have taken over in Derry, going on to win four Ulster and three All-Ireland club titles: “Slaughtneil have what we had – and more. They are committed, driven to succeed. Their whole being is focussed on getting the best out of themselves for the team.

“Those were tremendous lessons to learn during my teenage years and they are so applicable to any team sport.

“This was what we (Ireland) managed to build up for the 2018 World Cup and it was why we were so successful at it.”

The Olympics should have taken place last year of course.

What was a 12-months’ run-in of semi-professional training has turned into a two year spin while the European Championships in June make 2021 a really key year for Irish Hockey.

“We have to peak twice this year as the Europeans are also a qualifier for next year’s World Cup and we really want to get back there,'' she stressed.

''We have been working hard and the training has been quite demanding.

People gather for the Ireland World Cup Silver medal winning team home coming in Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday August 6, 2018. See PA story HOCKEY Ireland. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

“Coming from being a full-time player in Germany to this situation where I am mixing training and work is quite demanding.

“We train in Dublin on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday and I am working Wednesday to Friday with some more training mixed in there as well. Essentially I am working on my days off which should be for re-charging the batteries.

“It is all about time management because you have to rest and re-set to get the best out of yourself. It helps that I am working a good bit from home though.

“Time with our families is compromised however and you don’t have much of a social life. But in fairness nobody really has a social life at the moment with all the COVID regulations in place.

“We know that we are in a privileged position compared to everyone else. We can get to train together a few days of every week. That training is our social life and we are aware that no-one else gets those chances.

“I feel sorry for our club players who are stuck at home, some of them with young families and they are denied that social outlet that training with their friends provides.”

Should they go ahead, it will be Ireland’s first Olympics of course, but the team captain is setting the bar higher than most first time qualifiers: “The dream was to get to the Olympics. But having won silver at the World Cup I think our ambitions now are to make an impact when we get there.

“Same with the Europeans. We need to be looking at a semi-final spot and then seeing what we can do from there. That will be incredibly difficult as Europe would be the strongest of the continental groups in hockey.”

Like most top sportspeople Katie Mullan is pretty determined to make the present count, knowing that there is a limited window of opportunity in any player’s career.

“I miss having that family time, that social life that people of my age have. But my friends know that there is only a short time for me to achieve in my sporting life.

''I am following my dreams now. After a few years, I won’t be a top tier athlete, I will be back with my family and friends making up for lost time.”

Joe Passmore (Eoghan Rua senior camogie / hurling team manager)

''When she was available to play matches or train Katie was never anything but welcome.

''The other players loved to see her arrive. Yes, she was a quality player but more importantly, she is one of their own.

''We’re a dual club (hurling/football) and the way I looked at it was Katie was balancing two sports similar to others in the club; she’s part of our club and when she wanted to play, we gave her that chance to get her place on the team.

''For sure Katie played a very important role in some big games in Derry, Ulster and All Ireland, but she also played, when hockey duties allowed, in games that were less glamorous too.

''We got to a Derry minor A final once. It was totally unexpectedly and we were heavily beaten by a good ‘Screen outfit. Katie came and played.

''It was her age group but with a lot of much younger players, and she knew we’d be up against it, big time. She plays because she genuinely enjoys it and these are her friends she’s playing with.

''I always worked with her, and Katie was always open and honest in return. There was never any question of forcing her to choose codes, and I think there’s a lesson there for all coaches.

''Don’t force a player to choose between sports because they may not make the choice you’d like them to make.

2014 Ulster Club Senior Camogie Championship Final: Eoghan Rua (Derry) v Loughgiel (Antrim) Eoghan Rua's Katie Mullan with Bernie McGarry of Loughgiel during the Ulster Club Senior Camogie Final at Owenbeg on October 26 2014. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

''For Katie, hockey is Number One and I knew that. But she was a serious asset for our camogie team; she brought a lot to the team with her attitude especially as she grew older.

“She’d strike terror into the opposition with her strength and athleticism. Her game sense improved with playing hockey.

''She was naturally very skilful, but the hockey maybe affected her striking so we’d have to work on that occasionally.

''It’s been brilliant to watch her career in hockey develop, and to see her become a real national role model. She was one of very many quality people among that group of players.

''I think they all influenced one another in different ways.''

CHAMPIONS: Katie Mullan (right) with Rosanna McAleese (No 15) after they had helped Eoghan Rua, Coleraine win the 2011 All-Ireland Intermediate Camogie Club title at Croke Park, Dublin

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Hurling and camogie