GAA star Rena Buckley on work, love and levelling the playing pitch for women

One of the country’s most decorated sports stars talks to Donal O’Keeffe about life off the pitch — and what it feels like to be a modern-day work of art.

Rena Buckley, one of the most decorated players in GAA history, has lately reached new heights of fame. Joining local icons like Roy Keane, Rory Gallagher, and Karl Marx (per The Sultans of Ping FC), she has been honoured by Mad About Cork’s guerrilla art campaign — her face now adorns an electrical box on St Peter’s and Paul’s Place.

On a rainy Monday afternoon in her busy Macroom physiotherapy practice, Rena laughs with delight when asked how she feels about this newest decoration.

“I think it’s class,” she says.

It’s strange to have something like that about yourself, you know, but it’s great for women in sport. I hope too many people aren’t laughing at me

It seems unlikely many would laugh at someone with 18 All-Ireland medals. With six camogie and football doubles, Rena remains the only GAA player to captain her county to All-Ireland success in both codes.

The soul of modesty and fairness, she is quick to correct her interviewer when told she is “unique in Irish sporting life, in having 18 All-Ireland medals”.

“Briege Corkery does as well,” she says. “And Briege is still playing with Cork, so she could very easily pass me out. In fact, she has a great chance, because Cork are going well this year in camogie.”

BreigeCorkery and RenaBuckley

Rena retired from inter-county competition almost a year ago, but the 32-year-old still plays camogie with Inniscarra and football with Donoughmore. She trains twice a week with both clubs, although she says she has seen a slight drop in her own levels of fitness.

“I wouldn’t be quite where I was at inter-county, but I won’t be breaking the weighing scales anytime soon either. The standard of training in Cork is very high, and it’s hard to maintain that if you’re not playing at those high levels.

“But I would take club level very seriously. Inniscarra is a senior camogie club. We got to the All-Ireland semi-final last year. We were beaten by St Martin’s from Wexford. Donoughmore is a junior football club — we’re a competitive junior club.”

Physiotherapy was something Rena always hoped to work in: “When I was in school, I always loved sports, and I always loved science, so I just hoped to put them together.”

Approximately a third of her work is sports-related, the majority from footballing and hurling. Of the rest, she says, back injuries would be the most common, some down to lifestyle, and not getting enough exercise.

Rena advises clients to try to get, when possible, 30 to 40 minutes of exercise, five times a week: “Ideally, you should mix it between cardiovascular training, like walking, cycling and swimming, and then a bit of resistance training, exercises using your own body weight. Press-ups, squatting, lunging, bridging, step-ups.

“To do both types of exercises is important for your health, especially as you get older in life.”

In an age of social media, every negative voice can seem amplified. Rena isn’t into social media and says it’s important to tune out the negativity. “What’s very important is that you have a couple of people around you that will support you no matter what, and if they need to give some constructive feedback, take it from them, but Joe Soap on the street? Don’t take as much notice.”

When asked about her partner, Freemount GAA player Páidí Collins, and their long-term plans together, Rena laughs and says she saw another GAA star “get caught with a question like that one time”. She recalls an article where the player’s relationship status became the focus of the headline and says she has no intention of that happening here.

She says she and Páidí are in a good place, and long may that continue.

We’re just enjoying life and enjoying our time together. Sure you never know what’s around the corner

When it’s put to Rena that she is one of the greatest athletes the country has ever produced, she demurs modestly that she is very lucky to have been part of some great teams.

“I’ve been on brilliant teams with brilliant people. I’m talking about the whole set-up — management teams, players. And, like me, those players would have had great family support.

“To become a successful player, you need support as a person. The players who tend to play for years at a high level tend to get great support from the people around them.

“My family has been hugely supportive, and I think family support is something you’ll see with most sportspeople, especially those who play after school level.”

Her parents still come to her club games, and that family support has made all the difference to her.

Since retiring from inter-county competition, weekends have become more flexible. She is grateful that she now can devote a little more time to her clubs, and notes that her social life is a little freer too.

“Obviously, if you put a lot of time into sports, you have to put less time into everything else. That can affect your work situation, your social life, your relationships, and it can be tricky, for both males and females, to get that balance right.

“A male sportsperson can sometimes be celebrated that bit more, so it can be a bit easier for a man to commit more time to his sporting life. Girls who are involved in sport are very dedicated, but there definitely would still be a higher recognition for a male than there would be for a female, but I do think that’s changing.”

Rena notes that for female teams, the All-Ireland final can often be their first visit to Croke Park, something she says can be a pressured situation.

“If you’re a male team, you’re there for the quarter-final, you’re there for the semi-final, it’s the same routine, whereas for a female team it’s such a big deal to get to Croke Park. And then it’s a pressurised situation of an All-Ireland final as well.”

So what can be done to support female players?

“I think we’re going in the right direction, but the momentum has to keep up. I think double-headers are excellent, where you have a female fixture and a male fixture paired. Those encourage supporters to cheer on both female and male players.”

Rena champions the 20x20 campaign, which plans that by next year, women’s sports will have 20% more sponsorship, 20% more media coverage, 20% more attendances, and 20% more participation in playing and administration.

There’s a lot of talk in media at the moment about female empowerment, and that’s very popular in sport too, and numbers have increased significantly in terms of female participation. I think the rest of society will follow that

“Media will follow that. And I hope attendance at events will follow it as well.”

She might be retired from inter-county competition, but work or play, Rena Buckley has no intention of slowing down.

And, despite her unjustifiable modesty, it seems unlikely that a city-centre electrical box will be the last or best monument Cork offers to the only GAA player to captain her county to All-Ireland success in camogie and football.

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