THE inspirational captain of Ireland’s hockey team, Katie Mullan, was back in Croke Park last week — but not to speak about the day she helped Eoghan Rua GAA club from Coleraine, Co Derry, win the 2010 All Ireland Intermediate Camogie title at the iconic stadium.
Instead, she was the guest of honour at an awards ceremony hosted by the Irish Angus Producer Group, organisers of an annual schools competition promoting the celebrated breed of black cattle.
The biomedical engineering graduate of University College Dublin, aged 25, was chosen to address students from around the country for more reasons than her many sporting achievements. She also happens to come from a farming background and has links with the agri-food sector.
As captain of the first Irish field sports team to qualify for the Olympic Games and the first to reach a World Cup final, she said her farming experiences impacted positively on her career and sporting achievements by instilling in her a strong work ethic.
“Growing up on a farm taught me many valuable skills which stood to me on the hockey pitch. It made me fearless,” she said.
“Getting out on a farm and standing between two gate posts with a stick in my hand is something many of the city girls on my team never experienced.
“At the start of my career as a player I was never the most skillful, but I was always hard-working and that is something I definitely picked up on the farm.”
Katie said the dedication and commitment it takes to run a farm is a value she learned at a young age and one she brought to hockey.
The schools competition, created by Certified Irish Angus ABP and Kepak, challenges students to rear five Irish Angus calves for beef production.
It aims to promote the brand while communicating the care and attention required to produce quality beef for consumers.
Five students from the Royal School in Cavan — Rachel Alexander, Barry Stratford, Sophie Reilly, Lloyd Hastings, and Kelvin McNally, won the calf- rearing competition, now in its sixth year.
While doing so, they also raised mental health awareness among their local farming community, holding a ‘Walk in my Wellies’ fundraising event in their school for Pieta House.
They even wore wellies to school, encouraging their peers to join them in the fundraising, to draw attention to the cause.
The students explored how the Angus breed could provide an opportunity for beef farmers in Cavan, where the sector is predominantly part-time.
In the course of the project, they recognised that there is still a need to promote positive mental health to address challenges faced by farmers in the region.
Irish Angus Producer Group general manager Charles Smith said the students displayed excellent team work and enthusiasm and faced up to the challenges with confidence and a maturity beyond their years.
The group was driven and knowledgeable and this, coupled with an excellent health promotion focussed on the farming community, made them the worthy winners of this competition, he said.
The runners-up were Amy Everard, Francesca McKenna, Saidhbh Gaffney-Bent, Ciara Smith, and Katie Tully of St Joseph’s Mercy Secondary School in Navan, Co Meath.
They explored the theme of women in agriculture and, alongside promoting their project, raised funds for a former teacher recovering from an acquired brain injury.
The judges said these ambitious, curious, and proud young women were impressive in their confidence and ability to influence policy-makers.
In their school, they lobbied for agricultural science to be added to the curriculum, and they were proactive in identifying opportunities to promote their project.
An additional award recognised the personal contribution made to the competition by one individual, with one student shortlisted from each group.
It was presented to Keelan Gallagher of Roscommon Community College, who, in the words of the judges, “demonstrated a can-do attitude, displaying courage and determination throughout the competition”.
The organisers are now in the process of selecting five new schools from a shortlist of 35 who presented their project ideas at the Croke Park event.
Those chosen will be announced in April and will receive their calves at the National Ploughing Championships in September.
Angus cattle, which are the focus of the competition, have been synonymous worldwide with beef of the highest quality.
They have long endeared themselves to farmers for their easy breeding qualities, docile nature, and ability to thrive and mature early on simple, natural, and homegrown fodder.
Visitors to any of the agricultural shows that take place countrywide each year are inevitably attracted to the Angus rings, where the finest of the breed are on show.
Breeding these fine animals is a passion for many beef farmers. That was reflected in a decision by six breeders to establish the Irish Angus Producers Group in 1995.
Their aim was to co- ordinate the production and marketing of their product on the domestic market.
They later formed an alliance with meat processors ABP Food and Kepak, and a partnership with Tesco Ireland.
One of the key factors behind the success of the certified brand is the commitment of farmer breeders to improving the quality of their cattle and adapting to ever-changing specification requirements while maintaining traditional farming systems.
That dedication is not lost on Mullan as she prepares for the Olympics with the history-making Irish women’s hockey team.
“Farming is something which is just not there on the sunny days. It is there on the bad days as well.
“We’ve had a couple of tough weeks training, with all of the storms,” she said, adding that the skills required to go out in those conditions are ones she learned on the farm.