'Amy played in Croke Park, maybe I could play in Croke Park' - O'Connor showing the way
-- By Daragh Ó Conchúir
If she has heard it once, she has heard it a thousand times and it really grinds her gears.
'You should transfer to a Senior club.'
'Your game will improve no end.'
'It will prepare you better for elite level Camogie.'
Even talking about it makes Amy O’Connor’s face screw up in bitter contempt.
For starters, she is doing okay, having made the transition from underage soccer international who played in a European Championship Semi-Finals at Under 19 level for Ireland alongside the likes of Katie McCabe and Megan Connolly, to winning four Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championships with Cork.
But it isn’t even that.
Gaelic Games have always been about belonging, a representation of your roots. Cork is the highest level of that but the deepest ties will always be around the streets you grew up in.
For O’Connor, that’s Knocknaheeny – Knocka to denizens of Cork city. And that’s St. Vincent’s.
She is, of course, aware of the anti-social elements that exist in Cork’s northside suburb– how could she not be? But this is her place. She is a product of it, albeit an unusual product. But her achievements point to a proof of possibility, a rebuttal to the scourge of accepting inevitability.
Apart from her sporting prowess, O’Connor is brilliant academically too. She was encouraged by her parents to dream big and not view geography as a hurdle. She got a scholarship to UCC to become the first member of her family to go to university, and in every aspect of her life she has illustrated as much.
In three weeks, she sits her last exam and all going well, will depart the Royal College of Surgeons with a Pharmacy Masters, having qualified with her Bachelors’ degree from UCC last year.
“I just want to show people that you don’t have to go down the (expected) route” says O’Connor passionately.
“Unfortunately, in our area there is terrible drugs, alcohol, lack of education, lack of people going to university, lack of people going on to do things with themselves. They just follow the cycle. It is really difficult to watch.
“I see people in my own terrace, my own area, their children are five or six or whatever, and you can nearly tell exactly how their life is going to go. It is very frustrating to watch. I just hope by (looking at) players like me, people getting involved in Vincent’s, that they can see there are other things to life than following the same cycle over and over again.
“I am very, very proud to be from Knocknaheeny. I love the place, I will probably live there for the rest of my life. There would have been talk that you would never make a Cork Senior team if you are playing Junior. ‘How could you play Senior if you are playing Junior?’
“There was talk of me going to this club or that club. But I think at the end of the day if I won a county with a Senior team, it would never mean as much to me as winning a Junior county with my own club."
“I love the club," O'Connor continues. "They couldn’t be better to me. They are so good to me. Sending busloads to every match. In a way they are trying to promote what I am doing to the kids so that the kids can see, ‘Amy played in Croke Park, maybe I could play in Croke Park’, rather than going down the wrong road.”
It is the lack of broader support that is soul-destroying, the sense of a fate accepted, as if the place and its people aren’t worth the effort. When O’Connor was doing her Leaving Cert, chemistry was not taught at her school (also St. Vincent’s). She got it added to the curriculum, having already had her career plan mapped out.
The school backed her and teachers provided individual tuition as she missed a lot of classes due to her international soccer commitments. They wanted to give her bull-headed ambition a chance but it says all you need to know about O’Connor’s mental strength, not to mind obvious ability, that she has juggled so many balls without suffering consequences.
Now 23, she yearns for more to be done to help others and believes that schools could offer greater encouragement to children with less or no drive.
“The club can only do so much. I see girls there, and I keep thinking of our one girl in particular, she is 16 now. She has so much talent and she is just after walking away. ‘She doesn’t like it anymore’ (she says).
“It is not that she doesn’t like it. She is just after getting in with the wrong crowd. She is going down the wrong road. You know exactly where it is going and it is so frustrating. There is definitely not enough being done.
“Even in the school there is not enough being done. ‘You are from Knocknaheeny, you are not expected to go to college, so just forget about it.’ In other schools you are nearly pushed to do higher level and pushed to your capabilities.”
But teachers, like good coaches, should want to improve even the least talented member of their classes.
“You should always try and make them that bit better," she adds, "It is killing it. It is terrible. I read a stat there last week. I didn’t go to the school but it would be my local school. Last year, only 11 sat their Leaving Cert, or something like that. And none of them went on to third level. It is mind-boggling.
“There are opportunities like the HEAR programme in UCC. I was on the HEAR programme. They do brilliant things. It is a higher education access route so people that go to a disadvantaged school or from a disadvantaged area may get reduced points for a course. I don’t know do people know about that. How can you apply for it if you can’t go home to your parents (for help) because they don’t know how to apply for it because they haven’t? It’s a cycle and it’s very frustrating.”
Frustrating, terrible, cycle. She repeats the words often, feeling helpless and sad and angry.
Perhaps the roots to the locality is why soccer eventually gave way to Camogie. It was always her favourite and even as she relished the coverage of the Women’s World Cup, there is no part of her that hankers for a return.
“I love Camogie. I genuinely love the game.”
So there is nowhere Amy O’Connor would rather be tonight than the LIT Gaelic Grounds (7.15pm), taking on Galway in a mouth-watering Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Semi-Final.
And after that, win or lose, home to Knocknaheeny.