The Kieran Shannon Interview: Ann Downey - The good gets better

Despite winning 12 All-Ireland medals herself, Ann Downey has always lived in the shadow of her sister Angela, one of the greatest camogie players of all time. But returning Kilkenny to the top has secured her standing as a special figure in her own right, writes Kieran Shannon.
The Kieran Shannon Interview: Ann Downey - The good gets better

Well, Shem, is this the good one or the bad one?!” Ann Downey was just a schoolgirl when the man infamously walked into her father’s butcher shop and crudely blurted out a distinction that, in her innocence, she had no idea existed.

Up to that point, she hadn’t seen herself as any worse than Angela and Angela hadn’t seen herself as any better than Ann.

That’s the way her father saw it too, or at least that’s what he’d tell his insensitive customer for the benefit of his blushing daughter.

“Ah, now, they’re equally as good,” he’d say, trying to laugh it off, but once the man finally went about the rest of his day, a certain realisation dawned on Ann. Why is someone asking that? It would be wrong to say it scarred her but fair to say it stung her. It was one thing to be largely known as Shem Downey’s daughter, another now to have to live in the shadow of her sister.

Such would be her twin’s pre-eminence over the years, any mention of a Downey from Kilkenny inevitably triggered a certain first name.

“I played squash for Ireland,” says Ann matter-of-factly, “and I could be up in the heart of Protestant Belfast in a boat club and someone would say to me, ‘Thanks, Angela.’ Angela never played squash in her life and they wouldn’t have seen camogie in their lives. Even if they had heard of the Downey sisters, Angela would spring to mind a lot quicker than Ann.”

Angela Downey wasn’t just a “good one”. She was the Great One. Shem Downey had the distinction of marking Christy Ring in the 1946 All-Ireland final and then beating him and Cork a year later, yet Shem would come to be a lot more familiar with camogie’s equivalent of Ring, considering she lived in his own house. For more than a decade there, from the mid ’70s into the early ’90s, people used to routinely load up in cars and buses on September Sundays to head to Croke Park, just to see what Angela Downey would and could do, the way Railway Cup finals on St Patrick’s Day was a pilgrimage for a previous generation, flocking to catch Ring in the flesh.

Ann Downey would turn out not to be “a bad one”. She was winning All-Irelands at 17 and still playing in them at 42. Just like her sister she’d win 12 senior All-Irelands with Kilkenny, as well as seven club All-Irelands, nine league medals and three Player of the Year awards. As a back and a midfielder, her job was more to avert any danger, while her sister’s upfront was to pose it. Were her sister anyone other than the best to ever lace them up, Ann would be remembered as a Tomás or Marc Ó Sé to Angela’s Darragh.

Instead, she’d to settle for being Venus to Angela’s Serena. Even on two of the occasions she walked away with the Player of the Year award, she’d to share the honour with her sister, the pair of them having been declared joint winners.

More recent events though have surely secured Ann Downey’s standing as a unique and special figure in her own right.

When Kilkenny were looking for someone to manage the county team to help win their first O’Duffy Cup since Downey herself lifted it in 1994, they turned to her. The so-called bad one would prove to be the right one. This weekend, when Kilkenny commence their National League campaign, they do so as reigning league and All-Ireland champions.

Downey would be the first to say it’s a team effort, generously naming throughout our conversation a range of people in her management setup as well as several others who’ve helped it. Conor Phelan, the selector and coach, would be one of those, but when he himself was interviewed for the recent Kilkenny GAA yearbook, he could only rave about the person who brought him in.

“Ann Downey. What a woman. Heart on sleeve. Huge passion. Lives it and breathes it. Phone calls at 11.30pm or midnight, talking about this team or that player.”

Taking and making calls concerning players is central to Downey’s approach to management. Texting her that you can’t make training is unacceptable. Ring her. But if you’re struggling with anything, ring her then as well. She’ll be there for you, or at least find someone who’ll be able to help.

“I would say, in fairness to the girls, they respect me because they know I don’t do the shadow boxing thing. If you have a problem, tell me. Just don’t tell me a lie.”

Back in her playing days, you wouldn’t even think of someone else’s emotional well-being. You took care of yourself and that was it. There were no team meetings, no arm-around-the-shoulder chats or a follow-up call checking in to see how you were.

Even as one of the team’s leaders, Downey wasn’t exactly looking out to see how some rookie was acclimatising to the setup. Her clubmate Marina Downey – no relation, though Ann jokes she was allowed to be a first cousin when she played well – tells the story of the first time she came up to training. Ann Downey’s first interaction with her was to bark for her to go back behind the goals and puck back out the balls.

“You were all individuals,” concedes Ann. “You went to training, then you went to Delaney’s for a bag of chips on the way home and then you went home.” Now you have to be much more sensitive about a player’s mental health, especially when you’re the manager. It’s one of the reasons why she brought Dr Fergus Heffernan on board her setup. A player could be struggling with the stress of an upcoming exam. At one stage last year, a player was struggling with the breakup of a relationship. He was there to hear and guide them because she was willing to care.

“There might be a girl who I know isn’t good enough to make the 30 but I’d still keep her on for the year because it would be good for her mental health. This year we could have 35 or 36 players and I’ll say, ‘Look, you might not make the panel, you can go if you want, but you’re more than welcome to stay and learn and you’ll get the same coaching as everyone else.’”

Her duty of care extends beyond that. Back when she and Angela were growing up in Ballyragget, they could go 15 minutes pucking along the main street without having to let a car pass. Now there are all kinds of distractions, like other sports, J1s, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram...

“You’re trying to get them to realise that social media ain’t always a good thing. That they could be out socialising and then do something stupid and it’s there for life; down the road they could be looking for a job and all someone has to do is pull up their Facebook. You’re just educating them to be careful. And to remember, they’re representatives of Kilkenny.”

Even someone as mature and as mentally tough as Downey has keenly felt how testing and turbulent life can be. Five years ago she lost her job. She was site manager for the waste management company Greenstar when she was told she was one of 19 people around the country being let go.

“I suppose it was a fierce dent to your ego, your confidence. We were making money, good money, but suddenly they decided to make cuts and I was the only one let go in Kilkenny. You’d question yourself, ‘What was going wrong? What did I do wrong? What’s wrong with me?’ “I found it hard. For four months there you had no income coming in, you weren’t meeting people. You were just at home with Dad. There were times when you’d find it hard to get out of bed.”

Like so many things though, in the long term, it would work out fine. The rival waste company in town, Doheny Wheel Bins, run by Martin Doheny, rang and asked if she’d like to meet for lunch. When they met for lunch he asked if she wanted a job. Now she’d want to work nowhere else.

“The time Daddy was dying (in 2013, aged 91), he had been sick for awhile but we only learned a month beforehand that he had cancer. Two weeks before he passed away, I had gone into work and Martin and his wife Joan were there and they said, ‘What are you doing here? Go home.’ So I was able to be there for the last two weeks of Dad’s life which was a huge comfort for him because he’d got to the stage where he didn’t want to be alone. I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I had been with a bigger company.

“It’s the same with the camogie. Before I took the Kilkenny job, I had the conversation with Martin. ‘It’ll mean taking phonecalls at work. I might be missing.’ He said he had no problem at all. When we won the league final last year, he rang me while I was still on the pitch in Thurles. ‘Ann, take those girls out for a meal and I’ll sort it out with you.’ I love going into work. I couldn’t be happier there.”

There’s a lot of goodwill out there for her and this Kilkenny camogie team, she finds. Through the years – Downey was also over the team in 2009 to 2011 – Brian Cody has always been happy to come in to talk to the team. Whenever they’ve asked for a pitch on the men’s centre of excellence in Dunmore, the men’s county board have never refused them. Their own camogie board regularly book out the pitch in James Stephens when plenty of other counties are scrambling around for some place to train.

The Kilkenny public has embraced the team since it would have caught the climax of last year’s semi-final against Galway in Thurles as the curtain-raiser to the men’s epic All-Ireland semi-final replay against Waterford. Thanks to their generosity and the girls’ own creative ways of fundraising, the team will be able to go on a holiday next week for four days in Malaga. Back when Downey was a player, she and Angela were sometimes invited on a few trips abroad on the coattails of a travelling men’s team, but there was never anything for their teammates. Something like Malaga is progress, she supposes. But there’s a lot more that could be done for the girls. A lot, lot more.

Ann with Angela in 2011. Picture Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ann with Angela in 2011. Picture Matt Browne/Sportsfile

It would be nice, for instance, if the camogie association would donate something towards a holiday fund. Downey knows it’s hardly awash with money but some kind of gesture, even €5,000 would go a long way.

She admires the way the current player is more assertive. “Back in our time, when you got to an All-Ireland, you got a bag and you got your tracksuit. The girls won’t accept that now. They want training gear, they want food and their drinks after training because they’re aware of what the lads are getting.”

Something far more fundamental she feels has to be tackled by the WGPA, the Camogie Association – and the GAA itself. Too much remains the same.

“Even when we were winning club All Irelands, we’d have had to be off the main pitch by 7pm for the lads. And that’s still the case today all around the country. You’ll get the odd club like Shelmaliers in Wexford where there’s a good pitch for every team but that’s the exception. I know from helping my own club only a few years ago we’d either have to train early on the good pitch or else use a small seven-a-side pitch that they were after picking the stones off. There was no such thing as us saying ‘Well, this week we want to be the ones training at 7pm and the lads can go at 6pm.’ Because we’re not fully part of the GAA. We’re a separate identity.

“From juvenile right up to senior, girls are not being treated equally. It’s a case of ‘You’re on that pitch, you can’t have this one.’ Either the lads are using it or they’re minding or cutting the pitch.

“I don’t like it. It’s not right, in this day and age. I’d love to see the see the GAA and the camogie amalgamate. I really would. I think camogie and the GAA itself would be much the better for it.”

She turns 60 this year but she’s strikingly fresh and active. She still plays a bit of squash, regularly walks the dog, and finds mentoring this Kilkenny team energises her a lot more than it drains her.

Again, she’ll stress, it helps to be surrounded by good people. Like Conor Phelan and Paddy Mullally who would have won All-Irelands in the early Cody years. And also there in the background to help out is Angela; she was part of the backroom on All-Ireland final day as well.

They’re as close as twins can get. Ann hasn’t married but Angela’s two kids are nearly as if they were her own; the only disruption to our 90-minute chat is when she takes a call from her nephew who is studying in UCC.

Ann Downey. Picture:Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
Ann Downey. Picture:Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

Ann didn’t mind that Angela was viewed as the best player. She understood that Angela was a genius, while she was more a workhorse. There was no one else they’d rather go into the arena with.

“The first time we were separated was after our Inter Cert. Our parents said that we were all going to boarding school in Callan. I said, ‘No, that ain’t going to happen for Ann.’ So Angela and Maria went to boarding school and I went back to Castlecomer. But actually, a friend of ours who was the principal at the time saw that I was lost without her. He said it to my parents who then told me I was going to Callan after Halloween. I told them I wouldn’t but sure once I went to boarding school, that was the making of me. Because she was there.”

It hurt whenever she wasn’t there. Back when the late Brendan Fullam would ask former hurlers to write a few words for his Hurling Giants series of books. Eighteen of the 19 All Irelands Ann won were with Angela also on the pitch, but it says something about Ann that it was the one in which Angela wasn’t there that informed most of her essay for Fullam.

“The biggest disappointment was the treatment of Angela by Central Council and some of her self-professed fans who suspended her in 1988 [for the All Ireland club final],” she’d write at the time. “No loss of any game could ever come near the profound sorrow I felt for one of the greatest players I’ll ever have the privilege to play alongside.”

She still stands by it. In the semi-final win over Killeagh down in Cork, Ann had been involved in a bit of “handbags” with an opposing player. “The two of them fell to the ground and when Angela got another belt, one of their mentors roared in, telling her to get up. ‘Come on, you queen, who did you think are?’

Afterwards in the showers, Angela was in a state because of the verbal abuse she was after taking.

“The day before the final the two of us were coming back from our mother’s grave when our father said, ‘The game is cancelled.’ We said, ‘Who’s dead?’ He said, ‘No one. Angela, you’ve been summoned to a Central Council meeting next week.’

“Angela and her opponent were both suspended for six months. Even though Angela wasn’t red-carded, her name wasn’t taken, she didn’t even go into the referee’s book. We went on and played the final without her. She had to stand outside the wire.”

Quarter of a century later, Angela would reciprocate such loyalty, refusing to attend the Team of the Millennium function after Ann was overlooked. How did Ann feel about such a gesture?

“It wasn’t that I didn’t make the team. It was that I wasn’t even nominated. For me, it kind of went back to the man in the shop. You might pull the wool over someone’s eyes once or twice and get an All-Ireland as a sub.

“But to win 12, we just felt there was a vendetta against me, because I’d have been known for speaking my mind. If I didn’t agree with a referee, I’d tell a referee, though that didn’t mean I wouldn’t be friendly with them after. So though she was put in a position that she didn’t want to be in, Angela just felt that she should let them know she didn’t agree with what was happening.”

The love and respect has come in due course. When the Irish Sportswoman of the Year awards scheme was founded at the turn of the last decade, the two Downeys were the second entries into the Hall of Fame.

The Greatest and The Great.

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