- Lifestyle & Sports
- 17 Jun 21
Tribesmen defender Shane Cooney and goalkeeper Sarah Healy sat down (over Zoom, of course) with Hot Press to discuss this Sunday’s eagerly-awaited final of the Littlewoods Camogie League, with 3000 spectators set to fill the stands.
The St. Thomas’ club members, as athletes, have had a surreal 15 months as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with players forced to train in pods and zero crowds allowed at the matches. Uncertainly reigned throughout the last year in terms of sports, which were hugely missed by players and fans alike. The pair have an undeniably rich family history of dedication to hurling and camogie; with Shane Cooney’s sibling Conor on the Galway pitch alongside him and sister Heather also on the camogie team. Sarah’s father Vinnie Healy was also a club manager, encouraging her to play from the age of just 3.
It’s understandably clear that competitive players are eager to see the topic of Covid move to the bottom of the conversation pile as they prepare for the exhilaration of playing the beloved game for fans.
“The same level of enjoyment just wasn’t there over the last year,” Shane confesses. “There was a lot of rain and bad weather towards the back end of the year, and you’re getting your gear out of the boot of the car rather than having the craic with your groups inside the club. We worked through it and now it’s looking brighter, so we’re all thankful for that. We’ve been through a lot over the last year, so it’s great to be getting back out there.”
“I was lucky that Covid didn’t affect anyone close to me,” Sarah says, reflecting on the impact of the virus. “Galway and St. Thomas’ were fortunate that we didn’t have many people leaving the club. We did have one retirement, but I think everyone is eager to get back on the pitch and start playing. That’s what we love to do - no one wants to train by ourselves out in the back field.”
“I’m the same, no one close to me had negative outcomes,” Shane adds. The 26-year-old works as an engineer for a Galway med-tech company, while Sarah was picking up hours in a local bookstore. “I had to collect my desk and start working from home in March 2020. The silver lining is that the pandemic has forced us to change certain things that needed adaptation - it was a social experiment in a way. Normally, my job would be very hands-on, but the company was great with working through the restrictions and accommodating everyone’s needs. It was a different environment.”
“A lot of local businesses in the Galway areas give jobs opportunities to club teams,” Cooney adds, noting his locality’s support of their athletes off the pitch. “We have around seven players working for one company alone.”
How did the pair keep on top of stress levels and mood, when sport was taken away temporarily?
“We were still training by ourselves, and the gym sessions made it easy enough to keep on top of my mental health during Covid,” Sarah tells me. “You had to just take it one day at a time because you never knew what restrictions were going to be put in place week-by-week. I tried to keep in touch with people as much as I could. Sending texts or picking up the phone really helped me get through it.”
“Mental health is becoming a bigger and bigger topic, especially among younger generations,” Shane says, after a pause. “Off the back of a pandemic, it’s only going to gain more focus. The last year has been intensely stressful. No one knew what was going to happen, and it was hard to digest all of the information being shared. We got through it together, and it might even strengthen a lot of relationships. Hopefully, mental health will improve for everyone as society opens back up again and services might come back.”
Given the wide-reaching Cooney hurling family tree (with enough branches to lose count), how did the family cope without the sport for a few months?
“Growing up, hurling has been a central part of the house, but there are other things going on, like work or school. Dad’s a farmer, so there’s always something wrong in that sense,” Shane laughs. “There’s a lot happening outside of the sport, we can have the craic without it. There were never any big fights between the siblings due to competitiveness, surprisingly.”
“When we were playing games out in front garden as kids, there was a lot of competitive energy, but as we got older that became more focused on helping each other out,” the defender continues. “In training games with Galway, I do find myself marking Conor, which is interesting. I try to take the family side out of it during the game. But you nearly try to avoid going home after a game because mum or dad will be asking a million and one questions about it! That’s just because they love the game and they get such joy out of watching us succeed. It’s brilliant to have such a strong family backing.”
“I couldn’t imagine not having that conversation in the house at home,” Sarah says, smiling. The young sports star was part of Galway camogie’s All-Star team in 2019, which led to an “unforgettable” trip to New York.
“There are a lot of GAA clubs outside of Ireland, it’s a great way to hang on to the interest,” Sarah says, on the issue of emigration in Ireland and the sport’s impact abroad.
“People who go away for a year or two often use sport as a way to keep that link with home, by playing hurling, camogie or GAA in places like Australia, New Zealand, the US,” Shane enthuses. “If there’s ever a game on, it gives anyone who emigrated a chance to reach out to friends and family to discuss it. One lad on our club team went off to Australia for a few years but won the county title when he came back. He rekindled his connection with the team, which is always good to see.”
“I had been to New York three times before the All-Stars trip, but I would have never experienced America in that way,” Sarah interjects. “Going over there with 40 people who all have the same interests, playing matches and meeting new players was just incredible. We were pucking the ball around in Central Park and strangers would approach us to ask about what sport we were playing. Seeing the look on their faces when we’d describe the game of camogie was just lovely.”
“I went to San Francisco with the Galway team a few years back,” Shane grins. “It’s great to be able to get the opportunity to see different cities and cultures with a group that you work so hard with. You hold on to those memories for life.”
“Those YouTube videos where people have never seen hurling or camogie before are always really interesting,” Cooney notes. “Audiences are always blown away by it. That in itself is justification for people to give it a go. One thing that both sports have going for them is the speed-factor, there’s 100% pure entertainment there. That’s why it’s brilliant to have sponsors like Littlewoods, because they’re putting an equal amount of effort into promoting both sports instead of just hurling.”
Having sponsored the league for the past five years, Littlewoods recently released concerning statistics on the public’s viewing habits of the game. While one-in-two people have watched a game of hurling in the last 12 months, just 19% have sat down for a camogie match. Even worse, 89% of the public couldn’t name a single camogie player.
“It didn’t surprise me,” Sarah said, sighing. “But since they found those statistics, sponsors like Littlewoods have really been pushing the promotion of the sport to the public. The fact that RTÉ are televising both camogie and hurling - in an equal setting - is great. The sponsors are honestly really dedicated to the sport’s future.”
“Does the 1-in-2 versus 1-in-5 statistic surprise me? Not necessarily,” Shane posits. “The fact that 89% of people can’t name a camogie player does shock me, though. It’s an alarming number, but it’s great to see companies focus on eradicating that. It comes down to promotion. We know that there’s a definite gap in terms of promotion and funding. Over the last couple of weeks, the Government has announced that they’ll be putting more funding into the female game, which is great to see. We hope more efforts will be made along those lines in the future, so we know it’s not just a temporary fix.”
Shane expects to be ready to face Dublin or Antrim on July 3 in O’Moore Park after missing last week’s game against Cork due to a thumb injury obtained while playing Waterford. With Galway camogie slated to face Kilkenny in Sunday’s league final, Sarah’s raring to feel the energy provided by fans in Croke Park.
“We would have had spectators at the semi-final there last week, but that was only a few hundred. 3000 people is a big jump, but it’s great that bigger crowds are allowed back into stadiums,” the goalkeeper tells me.
“It’s big news, even just for your family - the people have sacrificed so much for you. It’s so hard to leave them at home when you go out to play. It’s great for them to be able to experience the whole game and occasion with us. We’re all looking forward to Sunday. We have a few things to work on from the semi-final, but we can’t wait to get out there.”
What would Sarah say to members of the general public who have never watched a game of camogie?
“I’d probably say to just give it a go. It might just take one match, but you’ll get something unexpected out of it. You’ll enjoy the family aspect of it too, there’s great opportunities there to bond with kids in front of the screen. You may as well explore new interests. See what you think, but it's addictive.”
The Division 1 Littlewoods Ireland Camogie League final will be live on RTE this Sunday the 20th June at 7.30pm, and will also be played in front of 3000 spectators at Croke Park.
The Division 2, 3 and 4 finals will be streamed live on @LWI_GAA Twitter.
The All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship begins Saturday, 26th of June.
Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
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