When the captain of the Ireland women’s hockey team was little, she did not dream of World Cups and Olympic Games. Instead, growing up on the family farm between Coleraine and Portstewart, her life beat to the rhythms of hurling and camogie, mixing it with the boys right up to 16. It was family and friends. It was Eoghan Rua.
In time, Katie Mullan’s ability with another stick pulled her away and she has led her country to phenomenal success, earned a huge profile and became a role model not just for young girls but anyone with big dreams. And done it all with that broad, beaming smile that just lightens up the day.
The 27-year-old has led her team to a World Cup final, to an Olympic Games and is now in the middle of preparations for this year’s World Cup in the Netherlands and Spain in July. They aren’t the only preparations taking place, however.
Mullan is now just two caps shy of a double century for Ireland, having made her debut in August 2012 against Wales as an 18-year-old. She had garnered a second AIB All-Ireland intermediate club camogie title with Eoghan Rua the previous March but the focus on hockey reduced her to a substitute’s role on both occasions, though that didn’t stop her scoring the winning goal in the 2011 semi-final.
The bonds were never severed. So when she needed them, they were there and she invariably repaid that with a reprisal of the nose for goal that has characterised her entire camogie career.
When her world was rocked by being dropped from the national squad for the European Championships in 2013, she was a key part of the team that secured the Ulster senior title – scoring 2-1 in the final – and they gave All-Ireland champions Milford the fright of their lives before the Cork side completed a two-in-a-row at Croke Park. The following season she was named player of the match after scoring 1-4 in the county final to see off a Slaughtneil side building towards history as All-Ireland senior three-in-a-row champions.
In an interview with Séamas McAleenan in the Irish News this time last year, Mullan said that camogie had saved her at this time, had massaged her bruised ego and rebuilt her confidence. The game and the people brought respair.
This time around, it’s different. She needed a break after the rewarding but tiring Olympic cycle, and the World Cup qualifier that followed Tokyo. And so, having attended the county final, conversations took place. Ireland’s head coach, Sean Dancer was amenable. It was an early Christmas present for Eoghan Rua manager, Brendan McLernan and Mullan has been crucial in helping the team reach today’s junior final against Clanmaurice of Kerry at the O’Raghallaighs grounds in Drogheda (12.30pm – livestream Camogie Association YouTube), earning a place at corner-forward in the Gaelic Life club team of the year.
“The Olympics is a four-year cycle and for us it was a five-year cycle with the delay so it was very intense,” explains Mullan. “A lot of the team took time away and a break. For me, to pick up my hurl and play camogie with my close friends that I grew up with was a really good way for me to find that freshness and renew that energy towards the busy hockey calendar this year. It’s been fantastic.
“I watched the girls play in the county final in September, and just really got an itch to be back playing camogie. So that was when the wee seed was planted, and it’s been quite a good year and quite a good run. It’s in the last month that it’s sort of really clashed for me, but with an understanding coach, with it being an All-Ireland, he’s been very supportive in that.”
Eight of the team that won the first All-Ireland are still involved. These include elite talents such as two-in-a-row captain Méabh Duffy (née McGoldrick), her sister Gráinne Holmes and goalkeeper Grace McMullan. McMullan scored a hat-trick of goals when The Harps of Laois were defeated in 2011, having previously won her first provincial title with her native Loughgiel Shamrocks way back in 1993 and won an All-Ireland junior medal with Antrim in 1997. She only made the transition to goalie for the current campaign as she closes in on her 50th birthday.
“Those girls were role models to me as a 14-, 15-year-old and I learned as much from them back then as I’m still learning from them now. The characteristics in them as players and as leaders, I have been able to take into the hockey environment. I would use Gráinne as a sounding board time and time again when in that hockey environment. These are girls I have been in constant contact with and been learning from over the last ten years, when I haven’t even been playing.
“So to be back in a changing room with them is fantastic. Sharing the experiences that they’ve had, and a lot of our squad have had, at All-Ireland level, with our younger, less experienced players has been something we’ve talked about over the last couple of weeks. At the same time, it’s so refreshing when you have that youth in the dressing room, that real excitement and buzz that they bring to their first All-Ireland. We’re feeding off that as well.”
She has noted not just the increasing physical contact of camogie but the endurance as well, with the days of being stuck in one position consigned to the past. The change in rule relating to dropping the hurley has caused her some problems, given her instinctive reaction as a forward who last played when you could still do it to get your hand-pass away.
Meanwhile she is combining part-time work with Axial 3D in Belfast as a medical visualisation engineer with the two-to-three-day weekly hockey camps – they travelled to France the day after the Ulster final. Some might view the camogie as an unnecessary complication but that is to miss the point. This stint is probably concluding at just about the right time, with major hockey internationals coming up later this month against GB and the Netherlands, the best side in the world who are in their World Cup group, but thanks to cooperation from all parties, it is working.
And while there is a marked difference in resources and funding between the set-ups, what they have in common is notable.
“The big similarity is a group of strong, independent females that are very much committed to a unified goal and that’s a type of environment that I really enjoy and thrive in. That’s a huge similarity, to have that feeling, and bond and strong culture in the changing room, whereby everybody is committed to the one thing.”
And something too many forget when it comes to value and importance, that one environment is with one of the best hockey teams in the world, and another a junior camogie squad, makes no difference.
“It’s what it means in that moment,” is Mullan’s sage observation, “and it’s a huge moment for the club this week. It’s what it means to us in this moment and that’s an awful lot, especially off the back of the struggles of the last two, three years. It’s been hard for clubs to stay connected and we found the last couple of months, and the little journey we’ve been able to take the club on is fantastic, and I’m just delighted to be a small part of that.”
Eoghan Rua, and camogie, are the better for it.