By Daragh Ó Conchúir
As a history teacher at her local secondary school of St Peter’s College in Dunboyne, Ellen Burke has a particular yen for the events that this island.
Her proximity to the capital enables her to visit various sites of import and exhibitions focused on the national story but there seems one glaring omission, particularly for one who has given so much of herself to the ancient Gaelic games as a lifetime camog with St Peter’s and for the last ten years at senior level, with Meath.
“I do like my Irish history and because I can’t get away during the summer, I do like to go into Dublin and do a few tours around the place,” Burke reveals. “The one spot I haven’t done is the GAA Museum and the Skyline. You’re in there for so many matches you overlook it.”
It will have to wait because the recently-turned 28-year-old will have other priorities on her next visit to Croke Park as captain of a team of Royals attempting to overcome Derry in Sunday’s Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Intermediate Camogie Championship (2.45pm throw-in, live on RTÉ2).
She played there first in 2017 when Meath drew with Cork in the final before coming out on top in the replay at the Gaelic Grounds and was back this year but Kerry denying her the opportunity to get her hands on Very League Division 2A silverware by the odd point in 27.
“For myself, the 2017 final went over my head and that’s one of the things I said to the girls, be present in the moment and try as much as you can to enjoy it. I would have been serious and superstitious with things but I’ve definitely just learned to enjoy the big days.
“Having the League final there this year is a massive advantage to our girls, particularly the younger ones. They weren’t fazed at all when we were up there in April but it’s great for them to have that.”
The scale of the senior challenge was too steep and they were relegated in 2019 but have been competitive at intermediate since, reaching the semi-final every season. They had failed to surmount that particular hurdle however, until seeing off neighbours Westmeath in a fierce tussle at FBD Semple Stadium 12 days ago.
It put to bed any notions that they would not cope without the legendary Jane Dolan and Aoife Minogue, who stepped away after years of service.
Both are still attending games, supporting their friends and former teammates, and Dolan still sends the odd encouraging text that Burke appreciates. But there is no shortage of know-how in the team.
“We’ve been the bridesmaids the last three years with semi-final defeats and there was a lot of noise around players we lost at the beginning of the year and people thinking we might be going through a rebuild. But the core group of players is still very experienced and in every line on the pitch there is a leader there that stands up.
“People lead through their actions on the pitch so we never really need to say a whole lot. But we’ve spoken about being a resilient group and the importance of the top four inches so definitely having the likes of Claire Coffey, Aoife Minogue and players like that is important. They know how to steady things.
“I do think the restructuring of the Leagues was a fantastic boost to teams at the start of the year and that gave us a good platform to build a quiet confidence in ourselves. That’s reflective in Waterford too, winning 1B.
“Looking back at our semi-final defeats, the last two years we’ve lost out to second teams, Cork and Kilkenny. But the second teams had to play in their own divisions in the League and we got a good run at it. And this year, it is two first teams in the final.”
Among the many positives to date is the emergence of young talent in the likes of Aoife Carey (Na Fianna), Emma O’Connell (Ratoath) and the twins Grace and Katie Connolly (Killyon) all in their first seasons.
They are a similar age to Burke when she was called up in 2013. She is impressed by how other counties have shown that it’s possible for an intermediate-winning outfit to cement itself at senior level if everything is right but emphasises the importance for Meath not to be thinking about that over what is a primary objective, winning an All-Ireland.
“There’s a lot of learnings from seeing the likes of Waterford and Antrim. Antrim have definitely been impressive to be able to make it stick. There’s something there in how they’re structuring things and the development they’re bringing through that has to be admired. They’re setting the bar because it is disappointing that we went up and quickly came down.
“The gap to senior, it is a massive bridge, so we’re enjoying what we’re doing now and will take it as it comes. There have been more losses than wins but that’s the same as most people in sport.”
Walking away was never an option for the player who because she is a ciotóg, has a left-over-right-hand grip but is comfortable striking off either side.
“I can’t say it was, just because I’m sport mad. I’d watch any sport but camogie has always been my grá, the small ball.
“This is what we choose to do. So even though we make sacrifices and our families make them with us, it’s something that we wouldn’t change for the world.
“I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to get away for a sun holiday or that. I opted this year to just go away for Christmas and try something new, so I’m going to do Christmas abroad instead.”
Such is the mindset and lifestyle choice of the high-performance sportsperson, without any guarantees. But the fairytale conclusion is in sight.