Queen’s Ashbourne Cup heroes prepare to reunite 30 years after decisive triumph

For some, the love affair would not have started until four or five months earlier, for others it could have lasted four or five years. The second weekend in February was always going to be decisive.

But for most of these girls in their late teens and early twenties, Valentine’s Day weekend came and went and the dream was shattered – for another 12 months at least. But, for some 20 Queen’s University players in February 1991, that dream came true and the Ashbourne Camogie Cup was won for the first time.

On Saturday, November 27, members of this victorious and so far unique Queen’s University Ashbourne Cup team will gather at the university for an anniversary dinner.

A Whatsapp group has been formed and stories and trivia have been exchanged as the excitement builds over the reunion dinner. Of course, 1991 was in the pre-mobile era, a point illustrated in one of the stories.

“Siobhán McErlean was our goalie, I mean our goalie to the end and we never needed to use a second goalie,” recalls manager Bernie McNally.

“The morning of our semi-final, we came out of the hotel to strike. There was a bit of frost on the ground and Siobhán fell. I saw him arrive and immediately knew his wrist was broken.

“While others were working with Siobhán, I called Lorraine[Finn[awaytotellherthatshewassupposedtobeontheteamHerfirstreactionwas’OhmyGod!”Butinafewminutesshewasready[Finn[asidetotellherthatshewasgoingtohavetocomeintotheteamHerfirstreactionwas’OhGod!’Butwithinafewminutesshewasupforit[Finn[àpartpourluidirequ’elleallaitdevoirintégrerl’équipeSapremièreréactionaété« OhmonDieu ! »maisenquelquesminuteselleétaitprête[Finn[asidetotellherthatshewasgoingtohavetocomeintotheteamHerfirstreactionwas’OhGod!’butwithinafewminutesshewasupforit

“So we got on the pitch and we rushed over for the warm-up and you could hear people asking where Siobhán was. Her parents, family, friends had all come for the game and couldn’t see her. Nobody. was not able to inform them.

“For the others it was a big shock to see Lorraine score goals and they were worried it would disrupt our plans. But Lorraine did well and played brilliantly in the semi-finals and the final.

“But it was heartbreaking for Siobhán.”

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“We had grown closer for a few years before that. I think the change in status from Jordanstown to university has helped the general camogie in Belfast.

Social worker McNally has always been able to analyze the situation clinically.

A former Ulster Polytechnic player at the turn of the 1980s, she enviously considered that only universities competed for the Ashbourne Cup, the oldest competition on the Camogie calendar, dating back to 1915.

“In my day all seven universities played for the Ashbourne Cup, Cork, Galway, UCD, Trinity, Maynooth, Queen’s and Coleraine. Poly and St Mary’s had their own championships, although they faced league universities and often beat them.

“Jordanstown achieved uni status in the mid-1980s and the rivalry escalated and pushed the two camogie teams. I have to say that St Mary’s were also very competitive and that meant Queen’s and UUJ were going to the Ashbourne Cup well prepared through practice and derby matches.

Queen’s had made the final at Ashbourne in 1984, the 50th anniversary of their entry into the competition, and again in 1986. But UCD beat them each time.

Beating UCD was always going to be a turning point and it was achieved in a Dub Championship match. Indeed, Queen’s won a high score and it was a monkey on the back.

UCD was able to help Queen’s challenge in another way.

Hailing from Tipperary, Joan Henderson had been a thorn in Queen’s side during her time in Belfield, but she came north to complete a Masters degree and her addition to the QUB Ashbourne cause was perhaps the last piece of the puzzle.

“Joan gave us something else,” McNally said.

“She had the experience of winning Ashbourne to start. I think she took the team to a higher level of success.

“She was, and still is, a sociable person and she fitted in perfectly from the start. She was able to convince the rest of the players that they were good enough to win. You could have played her in most positions on the team and she was a hard worker during games and on the training ground. She was the first to train and the last to leave.

Tobin, now Joan Henderson, recalled those days earlier this year in an interview with the Irish News.

“Bernie was a very innovative coach. We would have played a lot of challenge games in preparation for Ashbourne, like going down to Dublin and playing a couple of games against county or club teams, one game on a Sunday morning, then a stop at Clogherhead beach on the way to the back for a full workout, ”she said.

“We needed that endurance for a weekend tournament. It was a really tough Ashbourne in Galway. I was double rated all weekend. I guess I was one of the few Queen’s players that the other varsity teams knew, but they soon found out that we had a great team.

“Deirdre O’Doherty was a great leader – she was the first camo player I saw catching high balls in black leather gloves! You had the McCorry sisters, Mary Black, Monica McCartan. Big, big players.

The Ashbourne Cup quarterfinal took place in late January 1991. UUC came to Dub and left a very moderate squad with a 20 point margin between the teams.

“Bronagh McCann was our complete striker. She scored three or four goals that day. She hadn’t been a camo player before coming to Queen’s. She was and still is an excellent golfer. She had a very quick ground strike. The game at the time was really a ground game and she was the fastest player.

“Anyway, we went to Galway on Friday for the semi-final the next day. This match was also much easier than expected and we beat UCD quite comfortably.

“The other semi was played at the same time between host club UCG and Jordanstown and it was in overtime before Galway went through.”

Galway and Queen’s therefore arrived at Claregalway for the final the next day only for McNally to discover that the pitch had been “rearranged” to suit the home side.

“It was the era of 12v12 with a shortened pitch. Not only did Galway shorten the pitch to minimum length, but they also narrowed it down by introducing the sidelines. Our play was based on rhythm and space and we wanted at least full width.

The result was a stalemate that lasted about half an hour. McNally, a member of the Board of Education, pleaded his case and stood firm. Finally, the Council gave in and had the land widened and replenished.

“When the game started we were ready and Mary Black scored a free kick very early. Bronagh (McCann) scored a few goals and we won by 3-6 to 1-3, ”said McNally.

“In my mind, Galway has it all wrong. They brought back their full attacker in defense. They came to prevent us from playing and Róisín O’Neill found herself alone at the back. We won well at the end.

Queen’s won the Higher Education League with a victory over Waterford IT. But there was quiet recognition of their achievement from the University itself.

“We received a letter from Gordon Beveridge, the Vice Chancellor, telling us that he had read our success in the Belfast Telegraph. None of the players got the “Blues” that year. We had not yet reached a point where camogie was recognized within the university.

However, the success of QUB had a positive impact on camogie in the province.

The next two Ashbourne Cup finals were Ulster derbies won by UUJ. The “Poly” were in another final before winning their third title in 1997 under Jim Nelson.

McNally, who also doubled as Down’s manager, felt the Queen’s success really helped her as a manager.

“I half believed in what I was doing before Ashbourne. But winning really helped my confidence as a coach, ”she said.

Down, under McNally, won the All-Ireland junior title that summer at Croke Park, beating a Tipperary side that included Joan Tobin. Then Armagh followed them with junior and intermediate titles and Antrim won the junior in 1997, Jim Nelson replicating McNally’s double in the Ashbourne Cup and All-Ireland in the same season.

“It was not a question of very good players coming from one source. They came from all over Ulster – and also from Tipperary. They met at the same time at Queen’s, Jordanstown, even St Mary’s and Coleraine as well. Coleraine won the Dúthracht (the Shield) the same day we won the Ashbourne in Galway.

“These players then went on to their county teams and success followed, probably because the level they reached in college camogy gave them the confidence to compete at the inter-county level.”

This is Bernie McNally’s take on the events of February 1991 and their impact on the years that followed. When the players of this Ashbourne Cup-winning team reunite on Saturday night, they may well have a different view.

They will come from abroad, from distant lands in Ireland. All cherish their medal, the memories of this weekend delivered. Stories will be told, many of them embellished after the 30-year gap. There is no doubt that they left the Queen’s club camogie in a better place, that they innovated.

Is there any chance that the heady days of the 90s can be reproduced by players from the underage system right now?

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