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Dad's death hit me hard, now I'm out to win more for him: Eilis


Stuck in: Eilis Ni Chaiside is hoping to land back-to-back All-Ireland Club crowns as a tribute to her late father Thomas
Stuck in: Eilis Ni Chaiside is hoping to land back-to-back All-Ireland Club crowns as a tribute to her late father Thomas
Eilis' father Thomas
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

This time last year, Slaughtneil camogie player Eilis Ni Chaiside was preparing for the biggest game of her life - an All-Ireland final against Sarsfields of Galway - but her personal preparations were below par.

The reason behind that was the loss of her father, Thomas, some months before. As the main man in the revival of hurling and camogie in the club, his shadow cast long over the build-up.

Reminders were everywhere. Even their joint-manager, Antrim's hurling boss Dominic 'Woody' McKinley, was an old friend of Thomas' and got involved with the club camogs on his request.

"Even the week before the match, I was really, really feeling it due to the fact he wasn't there and the amount of work and effort he put in, but I think that is a reflection of the work that went before that," the school teacher in Dungiven's Gaelscoil Neachtain explains.

"I don't know why but I felt really weak in the lead-up to the match but the day of the match, I was fine. I felt really strong."

Strong enough to put in a big performance as they edged out a narrow tussle and became the first club from Derry, and only the second in Ulster after Antrim's O'Donovan Rossa, to land a senior All-Ireland Club title.

Yet there wouldn't have been a camogie team to represent the club if it hadn't been for her dad Thomas' efforts in reviving the small ball codes. And Eilis achieved an All-Ireland with sisters, team captain Aoife and Brona, while brothers Sean and Eanna have been prominent hurlers in the club in their meteoric recent rise.

"I know all my life, we would have been encouraged to play hurling as well, because he would have been the manager," was her reflection on how she started playing camogie.

"There are a lot of the players that would have played under him in one way or another, so he would have been heavily involved."

That journey comes into sharp focus on weeks like these, when the prospect of playing for it all in Croke Park beckons as they meet Sarsfields for the second consecutive club final tomorrow.

The wing-forward said: "You go out to play at the highest level and you win a County Championship and last year, going on to win Ulster, which was a massive win.

"We would have been beaten before in finals and we just couldn't get over that line of the Ulster final. We went on to win the All-Ireland and it was the Holy Grail really. It's something you dream of but never actually think you will actually get there."

The dream began in the back garden. Growing up, the Ni Chaisides needed plenty of room for their seven children and so their lawn became a mini-hurling field.

Mother Anne Marie had been a player of some renown in her youth for Slaughtneil and taught the basics to her children.

The game of camogie has been steadily gaining mainstream respect over the last few years. This week, the ever-popular TG4 series 'Laochra Gael' featured Cork icon Aisling Thompson and the reaction on social media was phenomenal.

It has been through those mediums, believes Ni Chaiside, that camogie and ladies' football have made strides in promoting their games rather than fighting for space in more traditional forms.

"Social media and that side of promotion has really done its job in that people are talking about it more often," she pointed out. "It is publicised in a way that affects everybody and so people are aware of when and where matches are on, who is playing.

"Whereas in the past, people would have been relying on the press or club notes, either of the match just played or a forthcoming match. So I think anybody who lives in the 21st Century, everything is accessible at the touch of a screen.

"The highest-ever attendance was held there for the ladies' football finals in Croke Park, the biggest attendance in Europe, even bigger than the (women's) World Cup so I think that is a massive reflection of the work that is ongoing."

If camogie is getting more respect, it reflects the work that the players are putting in. In getting themselves right for this game the Slaughtneil players have been touring round Ulster, training at venues such as Magherafelt and the Dunloy Centre of Excellence.

Just like the hurling fraternity, they had their weekends away to play challenge matches. They are training three times a week on the pitch and on top of that, there is an expectation that they would fit in two gym sessions.

The margins between the top teams are wafer-thin. All four All-Ireland semi-finalists this year were the same as last.

Slaughtneil were brought to extra-time by Kilkenny's Thomastown and there was a point in it between Sarsfields and Tipperary's Burgess-Durrha.

They say it is easier to chase than to set the pace, but Slaughtneil are fuelled by the desire of what back-to-back titles mean: universal respect.

"We are in a very strong position," added Ni Chaiside. "For a number of years, the input from others has allowed this to come to fruition. Last year was amazing. To come back this year has been unbelievable, you couldn't have imagined it. So we will be out there with all our might to win it back-to-back."

Slaughtneil vs Sarsfields

All-Ireland Club Camogie Final:

Croke Park, Sunday, 3.30 pm

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