Aisling Holton ploughing on through adversity for her family and Kildare

The national ploughing championships were held not too far away in Screggan during the week but around Cloona, Johnstownbridge, Kilglass, Broadford, Carbury and the general west of Kildare, the most important ploughing occasion of the year takes place tomorrow week.

The highlight of the Holton Family Ploughing Event will be when 13 brothers and two sisters will set a new world record for the number of siblings ploughing simultaneously.

It will be poignant, as the occasion is being run in conjunction with the Shamrock Car and Machinery Club, having originally been the brainchild of Paddy Holton, who was a member and late brother of the record-breakers.

Paddy was diagnosed with a brain tumour in January 2015 but after surgery and treatment, received a clean bill of health in July.

So he resolved to raise funds for Brain Tumour Ireland, which is 100% privately funded, and the Ross Nugent Foundation, which provides equipment for St Clare’s Ward in Beaumont Hospital, where Paddy received such good care.

Sadly, the tumour returned and this time, Paddy could not repel the invader, dying aged just 61.

His wife and children were anxious to build on his fundraising plans though, driven on by the fact that Paddy’s own father Willie had died also of a brain tumour at the same age. So the Holton Family Ploughing Event was born.

Cillian O’Connor’s equalising point for Mayo in the All-Ireland football final last week sparked a brief period of panic until word came through that the replay would not clash. It would have been too late to reschedule and as it was, October 2 was second choice. Initially, there had been a push for September 25 – tomorrow – but Máire Holton, wife of Tommy, was on the ball and gently suggested a redirection.

“I remember back in early February when they were initially looking at dates and mammy came into me in the sitting room and said ‘If ye were to get back to the All-Ireland this year, what date would it be?’” laughs Kildare captain Aisling Holton.

“She had an eye on us getting back (after losing last year’s final to Waterford)... So mam put in a request for it to be the weekend after.

“Paddy loved simple things. He worked with Eircom for 30 years and went to work in Kelly’s Garage in Kilcock. He was always ticking around with tractors. He had a strong interest in farm machinery and going to the bog.

“Even when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, his attitude was ridiculous. His family were ‘Why you?’ But he was like ‘Why not me?’ He was a real family man.”

Family is important to the Holtons.

“We’ve had meetings for this event and it’s hard to get a word in edgeways. Yarn and story after story being told. It’s actually fairly unique I’d say for a big family that everyone is living within a 20-mile radius of granny’s place.

“She loves this because everyone is together. It was one thing Paddy said when he got sick, the positive thing he wanted to come out of it was that the family be brought closer together. And it has.”

Granny Eilish is 86 but she will make the trip tomorrow to see Aisling lead Kildare out onto Croke Park once more for an All-Ireland intermediate football final, this time against Clare. It was worth listening to Máire Holton. Mammies always know what’s best.

GAA headquarters has an extra-special resonance for Máire Holton. She is a Bourke, and further back, a Burke.

Frank Burke played in nine All-Ireland finals for Dublin, winning three football and two hurling deciders. He fought in the GPO during the 1916 Rising and four years later, was marking Michael Hogan when the Tipperary captain was shot dead on Bloody Sunday.

Frank’s sister Mary married Patrick Bourke and Máire’s father Desmond was one of their 10 children. Pádraig captained Kildare in the 1931 junior football All-Ireland while the trophy for the Kildare Senior football championship is named after Dermot.

Meanwhile Nuala, Stóirín, Brigid and Eva won six county camogie titles with Carbury. Their grand-niece matched that record with Johnstownbridge last week, although she could not line out on this occasion, with such an important date looming.

She does have one over them however, having starred as the ‘Bridge annexed the All-Ireland junior camogie title late last year.

“We would have heard the stories about mam’s uncle Frank playing in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday. I don’t know that we were impressed that he was playing for Dublin!

“This year, mam and dad have been to a good few events for 1916, up in St Enda’s and a few different celebrations, and there was a book The Frank Burke Story which gave me us a great insight.” They went to a reading too of the memoirs written by Frank’s sister Eva, who was a nurse in the GPO. It struck home.

When it comes to Gaelic games though, the influences are much more contemporary. Tommy was heavily involved in Johnstownbridge and eldest brother Diarmuid roped her in for kickarounds.

“We would have been brought up going to Kildare matches with mam’s uncles Pádraig, and Joe, who was with us in ’98 when we were going to those matches and I think those matches were what inspired me to want to play in Kildare.

“I remember the three Meath games in ’97. They stood in my mind and then the All-Ireland of course in ’98. I was 12. We only got tickets on the morning of the match and Mam sent me off to the Cusack Stand on my own with her brick of a Motorola she was just after buying. I was told if you need anyone just ring this person. It wouldn’t happen now at all. I went off happy as Larry.”

Younger brother Des played minor and U21 for Kildare and was captain of the St Mary’s team that won a Leinster Colleges title before being cruelly denied by a goal in the last attack of the Hogan Cup final. Ironically, the teenager who snatched victory for Jack O’Connor’s Coláiste Na Sceilge, the manager’s son Éanna, is now playing his club football in Kildare with Moorefield.

That game was in O’Moore Park. “My mother hasn’t been there since. She can’t even look at the place. She hates it.”

AISLING was brilliant from the start. She finished 2003 as the Leinster U16 Player of the Year, having played at Croke Park as Kildare lost the All-Ireland junior final to Donegal.

She made her debut in the semi-final, but didn’t tell her parents she would be playing. She didn’t want to make a fuss. There was some problem with her boots and she borrowed a pair from teammate Clodagh Flanagan.

She was centre-back when they defeated Sligo 12 months later. Of the team that started that day, she is joined by Maria Moolick and the returning Noelle Earley in the side that will take to the field tomorrow.

The Lady Lilies never made an impact at senior level though.

“I think it took so much to get there. The girls were in an All-Ireland final in 2001, 2003 and had been there or thereabouts a long time. Then the year we won, we lost our manager ‘Goggy’ Delaney, who died. We lost another manager then half-way through – just through the way things evolve! So it was a really tough year.”

The commitment wasn’t always what was required either, despite the attempts of numerous managers to raise standards. There was often a perception too that the best players weren’t being selected, while more didn’t make themselves available.

The county board took the decision at the end of 2014 to drop back down to intermediate.

“I found that really hard. It went against everything we had fought for to get up to senior. We’d put in 10 years at senior, every year thinking we were going to beat Dublin or beat Laois or get a Leinster title.

“I had to take a step back from looking at it from my own personal selfish reasons. And I could see that there were three or four of us who are in our late 20s, and then a massive gap down to 20. And those girls hadn’t experienced what it takes to win something. They didn’t know the level of dedication required. Thinking it through, it probably was the right decision for the progress of ladies football in Kildare.

“We weren’t getting girls out. There were times we were putting on an open trial to play for your county. Now that hurt. You were seeing an open invitation on Facebook. That really grated on me and you might only get 10 people to show up, which is so sad.

“So although it was very difficult for the older girls to accept that we were to be regraded, in the long term it was probably going to be the best decision.”

The open trials were dark days but not the worst.

“About five or six years ago we might have had only eight people showing for training. That was absolutely soul-destroying. You’d walk away from those training sessions wondering why the hell you’d bother.”

Irish Examiner columnist Ronan O’Gara wrote last year that when you walk down a mean street with someone, you know exactly what he is made of. Holton had to stand alongside people she didn’t trust on game day. She knew they weren’t ready to go to war.

“You try and put stuff to the back of your mind but subconsciously it’s there. This is something I can say about this team. I trust them.

“As I’ve got older I’ve come to appreciate too that everyone is different in their preparation. I’m obsessive. I’d be very close to Maria Moolick and she’s the complete opposite. She’s so laid back.

“We always sit beside each other on the bus and the last day, traffic was brutal on the way up to Cavan. I was looking at my watch.

“‘We’re not gonna be there on time. We’re not gonna have time to do this and that.’ She was laughing at me, singing a song at me until I said ‘Maria, shut up.’ She knows then!

“But I’ve learned to appreciate that everyone is different. As long as everyone is on the pitch, putting in an honest effort, that’s all I’m looking for. And that’s what we have in this current group.”

Perceptions about women’s sport have changed gradually but only gradually. The Lidl sponsorship has been a real boon and has given the players tangible rewards as well as raised the profile of ladies football.

The lack of respect has always grated though and it persists, being sent down to play on the back pitch with no markings and long grass or Kildare GAA organising major fixtures to clash. That happened in 2004 and it is happening tomorrow.

Her brow furrows as she mentions that but then the familiar smile returns. You’ve got to let the negatives go.

Teaching in a classroom of junior and senior infants, as well as first class children in Brannockstown probably facilitates such a mindset. It’s a small school and there were just four junior infants landed at the beginning of the recent term.

She loves it and combining the three is the type of challenge she thrives on.

She has kids to mentor with Kildare too. At 29, Holton is one of the elders, along with Moolick, Earley, Paula Keatley and Aishling Savage. It is clear they share a good bond with the younger element.

“They tell me I’m trying to relive my youth through my skinny tracksuit bottoms and the like – I appreciated them before anyone!

“These girls, if you’d mention ’98 they’d be looking at you funny.

“‘What’s that?’

“Eddie McCormack (who played in the 1998 All-Ireland) is after coming in with us this year and they’re asking ‘Was he really a good footballer?’ It’s funny.”

Whatever happens, this will be her last dance on the big stage she insists. It’s about time she had some plans for the summer other than going to Hawkfield three times a week and the gym for the rest of it.

“Last year was my last year but I couldn’t walk away the way it ended on a personal level and as a team. We didn’t leave everything out on the field. We all had regrets that we talked about in the dressing room afterwards. We weren’t happy and we were already talking about next year.”

That won’t be used as any motivation though. Nor will there be any thought of having the West County Hotel Cup around for the Holton Family Ploughing Event in eight days. Thoughts of it being her last time may have infiltrated her mind 12 months ago, to catastrophic consequences.

“You can get too involved in emotional stuff then and it completely affects your performance. So there’ll be nothing like this.

“You learn lessons. When we won the semi-final last year, it was nearly like our final. The whole Croke Park thing was huge. This year, we haven’t even been up for the usual run through. I think that’s good.

“We’re focused on playing a match and that’s it.”

Said like a true Holton, Bourke and Burke.

Donations for the Holton Family Ploughing Event in aid of Brain Tumour Ireland and the Ross Nugent Foundation can be made on www.gofundme.com/2bmenau4.


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