“I wouldn’t like to count all the All-Ireland medals in this room,” remarked Joan O’Flynn, Camogie Association chief executive, as she began proceedings at a lunch honouring Rena Buckley’s record-breaking career at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday.
I looked around at the players, past and present, at my own table of nine. Around 50 medals, at a rough estimate — and that was just one table out of 10.
Buckley herself, of course, can account for 18 — 11 football, seven camogie, the most of any person to play Gaelic games.
At the weekend the LGFA and Camogie Association came together along with several of Buckley’s teammates to pay tribute to her achievement.
“When I grew up, we used to hear a lot about Kathleen Mills and Christy Ring,” said former Cork ladies’ football manager Eamonn Ryan, referring to Ring’s eight All-Irelands and Mills’ 15 camogie medals with Dublin. “But Rena has taken it to a whole new level.”
In a heartfelt speech, Ryan paid tribute to Buckley’s work ethic and humility, as well as her patience during his tenure.
“When you’ve a lad two generations older than you over the team he’s bound to repeat himself and make mistakes. I never saw a slump in Rena’s body language, she never a raised eyebrow.
“There are three strands to a young person’s life. Work and college, your pastime, and your social life. Rena has excelled in all three.
"She has a successful physiotherapy business, she’s done alright at the hurling and football, and she’s well able to sing a song,” he added, to laughter — Caledonia apparently being Buckley’s party piece.
“Cool, calm, and collected,” was how camogie manager Paudie Murray summed up her demeanour, both on and off the pitch. He, too, praised her professional success, noting that she completed a Masters degree in physiotherapy last year while captaining Cork.
In a moment of devilment, he more or less confirmed Buckley’s continuance in the Cork camogie panel.
“It’s interesting that Rena’s boyfriend is also named Paudie. I reminded him at the camogie victory dinner recently that I’m still number one. In fairness to him, he said I’ll be number one for 2018 as well.”
The general tone of the afternoon was that this was no testimonial; that Buckley may well break her own record before her career is out.
Another common theme in the speeches was the cooperation between the Camogie Association and LGFA that made the occasion possible.
“Rena has brought us together today,” said LGFA president Marie Hickey and that spirit of cooperation was echoed by Hickey’s camogie counterpart, Catherine Neary.
"Long an advocate of one umbrella organisation for all four Gaelic codes, Neary remarked on taking office in 2015: “I am in favour of working closer together and integrating.
"My background is a family that was steeped in the GAA. I didn’t see a difference growing up between hurling and camogie.”
Speaking at the lunch, Neary noted while we often look to players like Buckley as role models for young girls, in reality she’s a role model for everyone: “There were no female athletes to look up to when I was a kid.
"I looked up to Kilkenny hurlers and later, Ann and Angela Downey. But there was never anyone like Rena. She’s not just a role model for kids — she’s a role model for me, for adults, for men and women.”
After a brief musical interlude by Paddy Collins of Freemount, it was time for the woman of the hour to speak.
As a slideshow of photos from her career played behind her — club, county, camogie, football, All-Star trips, and team holidays — Buckley began her speech as Gaeilge. “I came along at the right place at the right time,” she said, “in a golden era of ladies’ GAA in Cork.”
It’s a comment typical of Buckley’s grace and modesty, but it’s also undeniably true.
Even if another Rena Buckley or Briege Corkery came along — a dual player with that exceptional level of skill, dedication, and versatility — who’s to say they’d be fortunate enough to be born in a county that’s firing on all cylinders, as Cork has for the last decade and more?
From this vantage point, it seems unlikely that Buckley’s achievement will ever be equalled.
Buckley paid tribute to everyone who helped her career right from the beginning: her family, teachers, clubs Donoghmore and Inniscarra, and even t Inniscarra Athletics Club: “Unfortunately I took that training and applied it elsewhere.”
She didn’t come from a big GAA household, and credits her older brother Gerry for introducing hurling to the household: “I used to run around the garden thinking I was Teddy McCarthy when I was young.”
Echoing the earlier comments on cross-association cooperation, she quoted a recent speech by GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghaíl: “If the GAA was established today it would be established for both men and women.”
To her fellow players in the audience, she said: “I hope I’ve contributed as much to ye as ye have to me.”
Wrapping up her speech, the most decorated GAA player in history remarked: “The biggest success for me is the friendships in this room.”
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