Catherine Neary (the e vowel is more important than the a vowel) is a lady with the requisite hurling pedigree, a pedigree inherited from her forebears, writes Barrie Henriques.
Whenever hurling people speak of the greatest field game in the world, the name Neary will almost certainly be referenced.
We are not solely referring to Catherine’s dad, Mick, but to his father before him. In modern parlance the maker of the tools of the trade is the keystone between wielder and success. How often - boringly in most instances - do we read of this racquet, or racing machine, oar, boat, golf club, bat or ball being the dark destroyer of one’s ambitions?
Sports pages are franked with the production costs of golf clubs, for instance, that would probably go a long way towards solving the national debt of this little country. To reach the pinnacle of sporting excellence, sportsmen need, demand, the best that man and technology can supply by way of sporting tools.
The science of producing such perfection has gone a long way towards achieving the requisite exactitude.
Catherine Neary grew up in a world where perfection was demanded by the craftsman, her father Mick, for the marquee sportsmen that relied on him to provide them with the tools that would afford them the edge. Often I would hear the great man tell about Keher (he never used first names) being in for a touch.
A hurley that suits
“He would come up during his lunch hour and get me to give a touch of the sander to a handle, or the bos, and he might be back again the day after for something similar,” Mick relayed. “But that’s what made him the player he was. It is my job to give him what he feels is right, and he relies on me to give him the hurley that he feels suits his every need.”
Time and again, whilst still in school gymslips, Catherine Neary would sit and listen in awe to the chat that would ensue between her dad and the hurling giants of the time. As she grew older, she would sand the hurleys for her dad, who would be doing the necessary chatting with the customer.
“But I didn’t mind,” Catherine smiled. “I thought that it was all so exciting. Mondays’ were the best and the worst of times. The post-mortems would start early in the morning, and even when my mother, Mary, would call in daddy for the tea at 11(am), there would be at least four or five more coming in with him. ‘Fan’, Pat, Ger and John Henderson, Jim Treacy, Noel Skehan, Ger Fennelly, ‘Chunkey’, Martin Treacy, Pat Delaney, Dermot Healy (for the Offaly lads) and then the Hennessys’, Joe and the rest of them, Flor, Kevin and Milo would all be around the table still talking.
“They mightn’t go back out to the shed for at least an hour. Often I’d hear my father say that he had work to do, but he still wouldn’t get back to the shed for ages. The result, of course, was that come weekends, when the pressure would be on for hurleys, he’d be still trying to get them out at midnight on a Friday night for Saturday, or Saturday night for Sunday. But it was great.
“And then you would have lads calling for hurleys for America. They would be going back. It costs so much to post hurleys that lads in America would wait for a lad coming home and get him to bring back a couple of dozen. The same thing for Australia and England. There were an awful lot of hurleys going out from the shed all over the world, but we still had the stories of the weekend on Mondays’,” she said happily at the recollections.
Then it was the case of getting a busy man to perform miracles!
You could only smile really when you reflect on how some lads thought that a Neary hurley would make them an Eddie Keher, or a ‘Chunkey’ O’Brien. Sure it’s the same in golf clubs where the talk might be about a Nike, Taylor Made or Pro-Staff club as if having them would make the player a McElroy or a Woods, when in real terms they wouldn’t, or couldn’t.
Back to the world of Catherine Neary! Have served camogie as player and official at virtually all levels in club and county, and at provincial level too, she is now putting her hat into the ring for the position of President of the Camogie Association.
Catherine grew up in the family home in Kickham Street in the City with her sisters, Rita and Margaret and her brothers, Paddy, Michael and Tom. Going to school in the Presentation Secondary School, there was not a pronounced interest in camogie, a game she has loved all her life.
The school had history in camogie which had waned somewhat as Catherine Neary arrived on the scene.
“There was a tradition at the time, but there had been little success prior to my time,” she explained. “Gerry O’Dwyer took charge of the game in the Pres, and he worked stoically to promote it in the school. As we speak (Langton’s on March 7) the Pres are in the All-Ireland final this weekend.”
The school won the final, claiming their fourth All-Ireland title.
The emergence of St Brigid’s College, Callan and the Presentation Convent (as it was then called) in the winners enclosure in the sixties led to a re-invigoration of the game in Kilkenny. From such success came a tremendous vein of golden camogie talent.
The Downeys’, Liz Neary, Teresa and Helena O’Neill, Bridie Martin, Ann Carroll, Mary Fennelly, Mary Conway, Teasie Brennan, Bridie McGarry, the Holmes sisters from Tullaroan and others provided the nucleus of one of the most potent and powerful club teams in the land. St Paul’s from Kilkenny City won their first club All-Ireland senior title in 1968. It was not to be their last.
In fact, our guest this week would move from being a young, enthusiastic admirer and supporter to a Celtic cross winner on three occasion in 1987, 1988 and 1989 having played in five finals. From a success driven club base, Kilkenny camogie has been invigorated over the years since those halcyon days of 13-a-side and double crossbars.
“We now have 33 clubs in the city and county, and the game locally has exploded beyond our wildest dreams,” said Catherine.
Her footprint in that development has been considerable. She has travailed the full gambit of camogie administration; starting as secretary of her beloved James Stephens club in the City.
When she got involved in the mainstream of club camogie, there was little or no under-age competition. There were, at best, three senior club teams -St Paul’s, James Stephens and a South combination with the likes of Biddy O’Sullivan involved. Catherine concedes that the prowess and subsequent astonishing success of that St Paul’s team was so instrumental in the subsequent inter-county success, which led to Kilkenny amassing so many All-Ireland titles.
“I also believe that such success created an amazing awareness of our game in a county where hurling was king,” she continued. “People in this county sat up and believed in the acclaim being heaped on Kilkenny women. With due regard to others, Kilkenny were producing camogie players of such stature that they were sharing the headlines with the likes of D.J. Carey, Joe Deane, Tomas Mulcahy, Joe Cooney, Ger Henderson and the rest.
“Our super Kilkenny camogie players had earned their right to be on the front pages of the sporting sections of national papers. One would even hear, in a condescending fashion in some cases, Ann and Angela (Downey) being compared to the hurling greats of the era. And it was our Kilkenny women who were doing it.
That was some boost to the game locally, but it was also a boost on the national front as well,” she beamed.
When the great St Paul’s team faded, others stepped into the breach and took up the camogie challenge.
Catherine agreed: “That is very true. An example of what I mean would be the development of my own club, James Stephens. Breda Ryan (Coonan), Mary McCorry (Conway), Bridie Martin were all star camogie players on St Paul’s teams. I won three All-Irelands with them, but we got together and organised camogie in The Village and so there was now another club in the City.
“Others went to Lisdowney, and they won All-Ireland club finals. Gillian Dillon, a marvellous county player, was central to the St Lachtain’s (Freshford) teams that won All-Ireland titles as well. They were particularly brilliant with the Kennedys’, Costelloes’, Dowlings’, O’Connors’ and Connerys’. Tullaroan too were great, as were St Brigid’s in Ballycallan. So as well as winning titles, St Paul’s were so instrumental in spreading the camogie gospel to the four corners of the county.”
Catherine was quickening into her observation that besides all of the star camogie players getting involved in their own patch, there was a ready-made workforce of GAA people only too delighted to put a hand on the wheel. She mentioned names like Fennelly, Aylward, Frisby, Quilty and more. How did she take the often spoken observation “ah sure it is only women trying to hurl” when she heard it?
“I feel that as time went by, women in every sport had to fight for recognition,” Catherine replied. “Certainly the paucity of media coverage was a problem. Without being too disingenuous, it was not proper for ladies to be hurling. Sure they were saying the same thing about Nina Carberry or Katie Walsh racing with men over jumps.
“Were they not offering long odds about Katie Walsh finishing a Grand National? She did! You heard many say that there was no place in a boxing ring for women fighters. When Katie Taylor won the World and Olympic gold, the country went gaga. Now the big sporting story revolves around the Irish women’s rugby team that won the Triple Crown last season.
“Women were not supposed to play that man’s rough game. It was not lady-like. You see, as long as you have two genders nothing changes, and everything changes. In these modern times all games are competing for the same buck. The big hurling counties are continuously in the public eye, and big business is queuing up to sponsor them.
“The challenge for us in camogie is to create awareness of the game; improve the profile of the game; make it attractive to a sponsor who feels the necessity to have his name branded on the best team in the land. That is what we must strive for.
“For instance, after the Wexford/Cork All-Ireland final when Ursella Jacob clipped the ball off the ground to score a marvellous goal, there were lads in The Village club arguing whether it merited the goal of the year award.
“Ten years ago most of them wouldn’t remember a goal from any camogie match. We need more of what television is presently doing for us. We need more of, and better radio and newspaper space. We are getting there, but we need a bit brostaigh,” she smiled. Catherine was at pains to tell us that in those modern times it would be naive to think that you can grow camogie without sponsorship. She contended that the game presently was in a very good place, still growing from a very substantial footing, a solid base. “Of course sponsorship is necessary,” she went on. “As we have become more professional, and as we improve our marketing strategies and become more confident in the way we do our business, everything follows on. We have shown over the last number of years that we are very much focussed on administering our responsibilities with confidence and determination.
“In conjunction with the GAA we have managed to convince the AIB organisation that sponsorship of the camogie club championships is a worthwhile investment. Then we have Liberty Insurance on board on a national level. All of those people would run a mile from us if they thought for one second that we were a lost cause.
Investing in image
“They are investing in their image, and we are using the money to invest in the promotion of the game. It is a two-way street,” said Catherine.
What would be her opinion about where camogie is in her native county? How is it developing? Going forward what needs doing?
“The game in the county is very healthy,” she responded. “We are particularly strong at under-age levels, winning under-16 and minor All-Irelands with regularity. The colleges scene is vibrant, particularly when looked at through the Loreto eyeglass.
“They have had a phenomenal few years recently. Castlecomer Community School too have enjoyed their time in the sun, as have Johnstown. At club level we have a thriving situation with action, very impressive action on a number of fronts.
“We had the success of Mullinavat and Shamrocks last year in Leinster club competitions, which tells us something. And that is where the big concentration of resources must remain, because without the grass roots, the clubs, there is no Leinster championships, and obviously there is no big day in Croke Park.
“We must never ignore the clubs. They are the lifeblood of the game. It is incumbent on the leaders of the game never to forget the source of the camogie stream. Without the stream we would not have the river Nore. It is a very simple anomaly. We must continue to grow our player base, our volunteer base, and maintain the focus on the needs and sustainability of the grass roots of the ’Association.”
It is a well-known fact that Catherine will be a runner in the upcoming election for President of the Camogie Association. That will be a difficult undertaking. Catherine is presently employed by the Health Board based in the Waterford Regional Hospital.
That is a responsible position. Is the Presidency an appointment by secondment?
“I am going to have a crack at it, because I feel that I can enhance the Presidency with some new thinking, some different direction maybe, and make my own contribution in the development of the game,” Catherine replied. “I have done my stint at club, county and provincial levels. I feel that I have gained enormously experience through that journey, and I feel that my input could be rendered valuable in the continued improvement of camogie.”
“Only a short few years ago we had a national championship of five teams. Now we have a nine-team competition. We are making progress. I feel that I can continue in like vein.”
The Presidential hopeful started on her journey in the James Stephens club. The pinnacle in her chosen sport beckons. The Camogie Congress is in Armagh on Saturday, March 29.
Mary Fennelly was the last Kilkenny lady to hold the prestigious office. If the James Stephens club woman manages to step up, they will be very proud of her in The Village, where her niece, Orla Neary is treasurer, and her sister, Rita is secretary. He brother Paddy, a former All-Ireland club and county winner with Kilkenny and James Stephens, will be delighted, as will Mick and Tom (Johnny).
I can assure you dear reader that a certain man will be doing handstands of pride and delight in the Croke Park in the sky.... Mick Neary will be a very proud man if the “young wan” (he often referred to her as the young wan) has the medallion of office pinned to her lapel in Armagh on Saturday week.