By Daragh Ó Conchúir
We can be fairly confident that not many players involved in championship fare over the weekend, in either of the four main Gaelic codes, will be milking cows prior to donning their county jersey in the cauldron of competition
Wexford ace, Áine Lacey is already in a select grouping as a dual player but while more women have managed to maintain their involvement in camogie/hurling and football, what is very much common to both gender is the fall-off of farmers being able to commit.
The time required to be a high-performance sportsperson doesn’t fit in with an occupation that has a round-the-clock element to it, is assuredly not in the nine-to-five window and doesn’t offer a guaranteed period of holidays on an annual basis.
Wednesday, when this conversation was shoehorned into the half-hour drive home to Screen from training at the Halo Tires Wexford GAA Centre of Excellence in Ferns, began for Lacey with a 6am alarm call. The day included milking her herd of 135 cows in the morning and evening, with the time in between spent on silage. The St Ibar’s/Shelmalier ace got in the door at 6pm and was rushing back out ten minutes later for Ferns. A dip at Curracloe Beach before turning in was still under consideration.
The recently-turned 29-year-old struggles to explain why she puts herself through such a hectic, wearying and at times stressful regime. In fact, in what she describes as an act of madness, she added to her burden this term when accepting an invitation to join the ladies football squad, having impressed as Shelmalier retained the county title last year.
It wouldn’t be possible without the help of her parents, Kathleen and John, and the occasional necessary leeway offered by respective managers Colin Sunderland (camogie) and Lizzy Kent (ladies football) but at its core is a grá of playing and of representing the Model County.
Lacey joined the camogie panel in 2013. That was the season Wexford were going for a four-in-a-row and the likes of Lacey’s clubmate and neighbour, Kate Kelly and co were in their pomp. She never dreamt that a decade later, she would still be waiting to be part of an All-Ireland-winning squad.
By the time she earned her call-up, she was already fully immersed in the farm. Over time, she took its full-time operation from her mother, who had in turn succeeded her own father at the wheel when he became ill. Kathleen still steps into the fray when her daughter needs a dig out, as does Lacey’s father, John.
“When they rang for the football, I knew it was madness, but I kind of said, there’s not that many years left and I’d go at it for one year at least and I could say I’d done it,” says Lacey as she winds her way back towards Screen.
“You know no different ‘cos you’re at it the whole time; since I’m 18 or that. You do find a little more the body isn’t really able and you’d get tired of rushing the whole time, evenings going to training and the weekends.”
For example, Lacey dons the yellow and purple this evening as Wexford begin their Glen Dimplex All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship with a trip to the lion’s den, taking on champions Kilkenny at UPMC Nowlan Park (6pm throw-in – live on the Camogie Association’s YouTube channel). Tomorrow, it will be the same jersey but a big ball.
The games are one thing but the training requirements have multiplied over the past ten years, which is why Lacey is such an outlier.
There has to be a little give and take given that clogged routine but at least she has undergone a lifelong level of natural conditioning that will always trump anything done in the gym. Nature helps with easing the ache and inflammation of muscle and joint too, with Curracloe no more than ten minutes from her front door.
And while it can be mentally taxing, there are benefits for the mind too, in terms of outdoor living and playing. And one offers a distraction from the pressures of the other.
“We’re playing Kilkenny and it’s on at six in the evening and I will probably work away until two o’clock. I’ll do the milking and then I won’t do anything too hard but I’ll do a few bits, check on the sucklers and a few other things. So I probably won’t think about the game till I’m finished, whereas someone else could be thinking about it all day. Even with a club match during the week, you’re milking and heading out the door. You’re only thinking, ‘I only have five minutes to get out of here!’ You don’t get nervous.”
That said, the difficulties are evident.
“I can get to the training and I’m doing all that but it’s things like group recovery sessions and at certain times of the year, that extra hour or two you need to do on your own time. That’s where I get caught but both sets of management have been good to me.
“A lot of the work I’d do would be manual so if you were doing any bit of gym at all you’d be fairly all right that way and being only five or ten minutes from Curracloe Beach is great. I would be there the three or four days before the weekend if I can.
“Sometimes you’re just really tired, you’re thinking, ‘Is this worth it at all?’. Last year I was giving up but Colin rang and sure I went back in and I love it. And a month ago, I was definitely giving up football but I didn’t and I’m still there and love that too. I don’t know anything different. I’ve been playing all my life and farming all my life and I don’t have a whole lot of time left playing for Wexford so we’ll enjoy it while we can.”
The current dry spell makes training and playing more pleasant but isn’t good for the agriculture sector. Lacey acknowledges the clear evidence of climate change, is dealing with its impact on her industry as well as very personally, working hard to reduce emissions research suggests is contributing to the phenomenon. However, some of the more severe proposals regarding farmers culling their livestock herds have not been thought through, she argues.
“If it doesn’t rain soon, it’ll be bad, especially down in our area in Wexford. Tillage is going to be seriously affected. The climate obviously is changing and I don’t know where it will go.
“You have to cut down on your carbon emissions, your numbers have to match up on your nitrates and all that. It’s really tough to be honest with you but we do it. They are trying to get farmers to cut their herds but how are they going to implement it when people are living off them?
“If you have a hundred cows but your loans are all off that, how can people just say, ‘You need to get rid of so many.’ How do you survive? People will end up losing their farms and houses so there are a lot of angles to it.”
On the pitch, the challenges don’t get much bigger than the Cats in the Marble City, particularly with Brian Dowling’s squad beginning the defence of their title.
Wexford are in reasonably good shape, having reached the Division 1B League final in Sunderland’s first season.
“We’re happy with where we are going into the Kilkenny game. We’re obviously rebuilding after we won the All-Irelands and then went down fairly steep, so we’re slowly coming up.
“But if you look at the team from last year, we’re after losing six or seven starters, so you’re building up again. Colin has brought in a good few players. There’s still a core that have been there a good while but at the start of the year, most teams would only be bringing in two or three players every year into the starting team but we’ve a good lot again. It’s a pity we lost so many. If we had them, we’d have such a strong panel and we do have a strong panel this year but you’d love to have everyone available.
“As a group, we’re hoping to push all the way. I think if we could get some type of a result (against Kilkenny) it will grow confidence. It’s like anything, when you get confidence and momentum, you could end up anywhere but to get out of the group is the first step and then God knows where you’ll end up. It’s all about belief and getting a bit of momentum.
“It’s gonna be busy but time is flying by. In another two months, it’ll be nearly over so you’d be looking forward to it. This is why you’re training, to be playing big games.”