We’ll sorely miss mononymous legend Briege

Irish female sports stars have a nice line in first-name recognition. Sonia, of course, is the original and most iconic. Since then we’ve had other heroines: Katie, Derval, Stephanie, and Annalise. 

We’ll sorely miss mononymous legend Briege

Women’s Gaelic games, however, seems to be lacking in mononymous personalities.

Except for Briege. Everybody knows Briege.

Along with teammate and fellow dual star Rena Buckley, Briege Corkery is the most decorated GAA player of all time. She has 17 senior All-Ireland medals (11 in football, six in camogie) and between the two codes, she’s amassed 16 All Stars.

However, she hasn’t featured for either the camogie players or the footballers so far this year. Cork football manager Ephie Fitzgerald recently confirmed that it’s unlikely Corkery will play inter-county football this season; it remains to be seen if, like Buckley, she’ll commit to the camogie for 2017.

Today, Cork play Limerick in the second round of the camogie championship, a chance to avenge their defeat in the Munster camogie final five weeks ago.

Will Corkery make an appearance? Will management keep her in reserve until the latter stages of the championship, then spring her? Or will Cork’s fixtures keep rolling by over the weeks and months, sans Briege?

If the latter is the case, neither the camogie or ladies football championships will be the same without her. She’s a phenomenal player, one that any team would love to have in their arsenal. Her athleticism, bravery, and sheer work-rate are hard to match.

She can play pretty much anywhere, as likely to block a shot in the full back line as to pop up unexpectedly for a goal herself. She travels.

She regularly pulls off the paradoxical feat of showing up all over the field without ever being caught out of position.

I encountered her on the pitch a few times in the early 2000s, playing on various underage inter-county teams. Even then, her drive, focus, and confidence on the ball were so total that I assumed she was a couple of years older and wiser than me; it turns out she’s younger by a couple of months.

Corkery has a reputation for being both a joker and a maverick, a formidable athlete who does things her own way — even against conventional wisdom.

A farmer in her day job, she thinks nothing of milking 400 cows the morning of a match. Mary White’s excellent 2015 book Relentless recounts a moment early on in Eamonn Ryan’s tenure as football manager where he told the players that while he wasn’t going to impose a drinking ban, he expected them to mind themselves.

According to legend, Briege Corkery stood up and said: “I have a pint bottle before every match and I intend on still having it.” To Ryan’s credit, he didn’t sanction her. If Corkery could perform so consistently with the pint bottle as part of her routine, why change it?

A testament to her towering influence: In 2010, the only year in recent memory that the Cork ladies football team failed to capture the All-Ireland title, Corkery was taking a year out, travelling in New Zealand. Dublin won that year, beating Tyrone in the final.

When Cork look back on their stunning string of titles since 2005, they must wonder if that blip could have been averted by Corkery’s presence. Her ability to turn a game on its head is exceptional. One of my favourite ever goals in camogie is Corkery’s in the 2015 All-Ireland final against Galway.

Ten minutes from the end, she cleanly robbed the ball 40 yards from the Galway goal and arrowed into the space that opened up in front of her, before finishing low into the corner of the net. It was a goal remarkable for both its opportunism and composure, and it sealed the win for Cork.

There’s a bite to Corkery too, a certain flintiness that keeps her motivated. When the influential Eamonn Ryan stepped down as football manager in 2016, there was talk about whether the team would be able to maintain its incredible consistency without him.

Legendary Mayo footballer Cora Staunton said in an interview that the change would be “unsettling for Cork for the first while but with the calibre of player they have and a winning mentality, you could never write them off”.

To me, Staunton’s comments seemed fairly measured and respectful, but Corkery saved this quote on her phone and made sure all her teammates knew about their perceived vulnerability in other camps.

It might be hard for most people to see how someone could draw fiery motivation from this nuanced statement — but then, most people don’t have 17 All- Ireland medals.

No one could blame Corkery for taking a step back at this stage — she’s been going with both inter-county teams since 2004, in a two-track career that must amount to hundreds of games at the top level.

There’s a lot of miles on the clock, not to mention her club duties with Cloughduv in camogie and St Val’s in football.

On top of all this, she’s had to advocate for player welfare, particularly in the case of dual stars. For years, herself, Buckley, Meabh Cahalane, and others have had to grapple with fixture clashes between the camogie and football championships.

The situation came to a head on a Sunday in July 2015, when they were caught between a camogie fixture at 2pm at Páirc Uí Rinn, and a Munster football final at 6pm in Mallow.

“All we want is a day between the two games,” Corkery said at the time. This simple request couldn’t be accommodated. The two games went ahead, with Cork uncharacteristically but understandably flat in the football; they lost by nine points to Kerry.

That such an unfair situation would ever happen to a male dual star is unthinkable; the GAA would never allow it.

Women’s Gaelic games, however, are governed by a complicated system of associations — the Munster championship is overseen by the Munster Ladies Gaelic Football Association, which is separate from the Ladies Gaelic Football Association, which in turn is separate from the Camogie Association.

If ever there was an argument to amalgamate the women’s associations under one umbrella, the wellbeing of players like Briege Corkery is it.

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