Ann Byrne has settled in East Meath as a St Colmcilles legend but her journey to retirement would make any GAA fan stand up and take notice. While Ann travelled the world she doesn’t seem to have been able to stop playing the sport she loved. Once she moved to an area she sought out the local GAA club and signed up. Now in retirement, after playing for 7 clubs and 4 counties Ann speaks to us about how she got started, her career, who has impressed her and how things are developing for ladies football.
Hi, I’m Ann Byrne (Hunt) from a small village in Co. Sligo called Gurteen. I left Sligo in 1995 and moved to London which was my home until 1999. I then moved to Dublin before touring Australia for a year between 2000 and 2001. I returned to Dublin which was my home until 2004 when I moved to the North East where I finally settled and met my husband Thomas!
I developed an interest in sport and football early, walking home from school we played football in a neighbour’s garden which had makeshift goals in front of their house. Also on our school lunch break it usually involved kicking a ball in front of the school. A local farmer TJ Murphys Dog was an excellent footballer and his speed on the ball kept us on our toes!
Ann Byrne (4th from left, front row) with her St Colmcilles Teammates
I ran the 100 metres in the Community Games from u6 and would have represented the area on many occasions in the County Community Games. As I got a bit older I was deemed as having a better flair for longer distance. I was involved in longer distances, cross country, relays and track events. In secondary school I was on school volleyball, indoor soccer, basketball and track and field teams.
Sligo started ladies football in 1993 and my club Eastern Harps formed a team. My maths teacher Christy Gallagher was the manager. The team was made up of a lot of girls from my school as well as a few from the other areas in the Parish. This was my first proper Ladies Gaelic team and developed my love for the game. We won the championship that first year and the team photo is still hanging in the Crossbar pub in Gurteen! I also played soccer with Gurteen Celtic at this time. It’s interesting to note that while football for ladies came to Sligo in 1993, the team I would later represent in London (Fr. Murphy’s) were playing football from 1988, impressive that ex-pats were playing long before many at home were.
Championship in the bag!
There wasn’t many sports I wasn’t involved in at school but Gaelic football was my first love and that love continued till i retired at 41 years old! I have had quite a few people I would admire or look up to in sport. Cora Staunton is a brilliant player and continued to play at a very high standard until her recent injury. She works very hard and is completely dedicated. I also met some amazing other players throughout my years playing. There are too many to mention.
I have played with a few clubs throughout my career and as I moved around the world I made sure I found myself a Gaelic Football Club. My clubs were Eastern Harps (Sligo), Parnells (London), Fr Murphys (London), Na Fianna (Dublin), Morley Gaels (Perth), Seneschalstown (Meath) and St Colmcilles. I played with Seneschalstown during a time when there was no ladies team in the Cilles.
Ann in her ‘Na Fianna’ jersey
I’m a blow in to this area but lots of Thomas’s relations have been and are still involved with the club. When I first started playing with the Cilles, we had a group of players who had all played at different levels and we went to many matches with the bare 15 players. Sometimes we only had 12-13 players. It took a few years to get the team working together and gelled as a unit. We won our first championship in 2011, something I was delighted to be a part of. My son Dáithí was only 10 weeks old when I went back training at the end of January and I felt we got our just reward by winning the championship after actually contesting the final for the third year in a row. We now have two adult teams competing at junior and intermediate level which is a great achievement
I am lucky to have won some honors during my time playing football, County championship and league wins with Eastern Harps, Father Murphy’s, Na Fianna, Seneschalstown and St Colmcilles. I also played county with Sligo, London, Dublin and Meath. I played at both senior and junior level with Dublin and Meath. I think I played my last intercounty game a few weeks after Tomás was born. I just couldn’t give the time commitment at that point. The championship wins in 2011 and 2016 with the Cilles were very special.
I played in Leinster finals with Seneschalstown and Na Fianna and in an all Ireland final with DCU. My first championship medal was with Eastern Harps in 2003 and my last was with the Cilles in 2016!
I would like to think that my work rate and ‘never give up’ approach would have positively affected my younger teammates with St Colmcilles and shape their attitude when it comes to playing Matches. I have always found that hard work wins matches. When we talk about never giving up or people that inspired me I think of Angie McNally. Angie was a Dublin team mate and had a real do or die attitude. She never gave up and was a very strong athlete.
Mayo mainstay, Cora Staunton and Dublin’s Angie McNally
I joined my first ladies team when I was 17 years old and i am delighted to say as a club we have girls teams playing now at under 8 all the way up to senior level. This gives the kids such an advantage as they are now playing on a level playing field and not trying to get a pass from the boys!
I still think that attitudes towards ladies assisting within the club are sometimes in the past. Only the mammies can make the tea! There is not enough emphasis on Ladies matches being reffed or officiated by Ladies either. I help out with the schools coaching and the school blitzes. I also help out with the coaching of the now U10 and U11 boys. Because of my job which involves shift work i find it difficult to give full commitment but enjoy helping out whenever i can.
I think it has taken some time for ladies football to get where it is now but I really feel that the ladies game is getting a lot more media attention and recognition these days. I love nothing more than seeing a ladies game reffed by a lady and all the officials being ladies. Playing in Croke Park is a very achievable aspiration for all our girls. Some have already played there when the kids get the opportunity at u 8 to play over the Easter Holidays the year before last. Nothing made me more proud than running out onto the pitch in 2018 with Dáithí and the under 8s.
I feel there are too many people to mention who are involved in coaching both football and hurling and give of their time voluntarily it would be impossible to single out any one person.
Good times with family, friends and teammates.
Playing in Croke Park was something I always wished I could do but my opportunities were limited. The first ladies All Ireland in Croke Park was in 1986 and I did not have a ladies team to play with, never mind a county team until 1993. I am delighted to see over the last year that some ladies league matches are being played as curtain raisers to men’s matches and some of these are played in Croke Park. This gives the ladies game a lot more recognition and brings in a lot more support.
My worst moment in football was when I was taken off during the 2005 Dublin final. We lost and I felt absolutely awful, like a complete failure. But it was just after that that time I moved to Meath and it was the start of a whole new football chapter for me.
Is there anything you would like to portray to people in the locality about St Colmcilles People moving to our area here in East Meath need to know that St Colmcilles is a great club and portrays all that is good about community participation and community spirit. Within the club we have people from many countries in the world and they are all united through the gaelic games. There are so many people involved and activities for all ages including Football, Hurling, Special Needs Coaching, Gaelic for Mothers and Others, Gaelic for Dads, Irish Classes, Relaxation Therapy, Mens Shed’s etc. There are so many ways for all ages to get involved in what is one of the biggest Clubs in county Meath.
I got involved with the ladies committee and fixture committee of the county board about 5 years ago as, although i still played at the time. I wanted to give something back to all the coaches who had coached and mentored me over the 25 years I played.
I also feel that it is very easy to give out and criticise from the sidelines but it’s not until you get involved that you realise the obstacles that stand in the way of change and the politics involved.
For all young girls Gaelic football and Camogie are a great way to make new friends and also have some fun and get some exercise while getting some fresh air.
It’s important to remember that there would not be a club without volunteers. They’re an integral part of the club and the amount of volunteers involved is huge. There are 4-6 volunteers involved with kids teams and Coaching from age 3, with matches for boys and girls at u 8, 9, 10 and all the way up to senior level in each of Girls/Ladies and Boys/Men. It involves more than just doing a bit of training and coaching. There is organisation of matches, liaising with opposition and sending in results etc.
My mantra for every game i played was to work hard and not leave anything on the field. To walk off the pitch knowing that there wasn’t anything else you could do. I also firmly believe that there is an element of luck involved in every game. The bounce of a ball, change in the weather or the rebounding off the crossbar can change the result. Not everyone can be the most skilled player on the team but everyone can work hard and that hard work wins games. Most importantly though, have fun!!
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Words: Ann Byrne
Photos: Ann Byrne, Kieran Moloney, Maeve Connell and Ladies players from St Colmcilles. Thank you all!
Interview: Brian Mulligan