Playing conkers is a childhood memory of many but did you know that there is an Irish conker championship in Co Kilkenny? Jonathan de Burca Butler reports
AILEEN DOOLEY was always destined for greatness. When the stork of serendipity flew over Kilkenny some 30 and a bit years ago, it knew exactly the village that was right for this future champion.
“I was born in Freshford,” says Aileen recalling her childhood, “And my house overlooked the green there that is basically covered in chestnut trees. When I opened my bedroom window I could see 52 horse chestnut trees every morning.”
In the same way that Severiano Ballesteros was born on a golf course and Ken Doherty lived close to Jason’s Snooker Hall in Ranelagh, Aileen’s upbringing right across the road from the auditorium where she would one day be crowned Irish Conker Champion was key to her success.
The championships have been going since 1999. As Aileen explains, the origins of the event came about when one of the organisers, Grace Kearney, was walking on the green and a conker landed on her head.
“I wasn’t involved in the genesis of the festival,” says Aileen. “But I gather it was like the Issac Newton moment of Freshford. The founders just thought it was a great way to promote the village and help the community.” In those first few years, Aileen’s interest centred around dressing up in conquer-themed costumes — one year she was a conker Princess Leia. another she was a chestnut tree and yet another she made herself a suit of armour out of conkers.
“I hate to say it but my earliest memories are of having conkers thrown at me by the boys,” she recalls. “I didn’t play it in school or anything. When the competition started, I was in my twenties and I entered it every year of course but I was always knocked out early on.” Every year for 10 years, Aileen tried (not necessarily that hard) but failed to get beyond the first few rounds. In 2009 “that all changed” although it appears she was more stupefied to be conquering than stooping to conquer.
“I was doing the usual thing, putting all my energy into the costume and at one point someone told me ‘you know you’re in the final, don’t you?’ I hadn’t a clue. I was just playing away through the day and I won a few games without thinking about it and hey presto I was competing against a six-foot man and my life changed forever.”
The ex-champ will be challenging again this year in the competition’s new home at Flavour Kilkenny. It is the second year it has been held in the city and away from its home in Freshford.
“We’ll miss the beautiful arena in the village,” says Aileen. “But we just feel we can raise more money for St Vincent dePaul and get a bit of a broader audience. It’s at a food festival on the parade on the way up to Kilkenny Castle. So there’ll be plenty of people with full bellies who will be happy engage we hope.” Hundreds of people enter the Irish Conker Championships each year. As Aileen explains, the rules of the game are quite simple but they are designed to make competition as fierce as possible.
Each entrant gets a bib with a number. When competitors are called they climb onto a small raised platform to face their opponent. A coin is tossed and the winner has three chances to rid the other competitor of their conker while also avoiding the cracking or the complete destruction of your own.
Competitors can not bring their own equipment. The conkers are brought by officials and are relatively uniform — Aileen refers to them as Grade 1 conkers and I can’t be sure if she’s taking the mickey.
“There are tactics,” explains Aileen. “I mean there are two techniques called missing and kissing. And you have to use them sometimes, say if you have a crack in your conker, to make sure that you either miss the other person’s conker, but not make it obvious, or just make contact with it lightly — a kiss. You also have to avoid getting your leather or string entangled in the other person’s. If that happens three times, you’re eliminated.”
On top of the tactics there are of course various techniques. Aileen herself uses the classic catapult shot while others have a preference for sideswiping or a full on throw. One of the other more curious elements of conkers is the level of injury.
“Some people wear arm guards or shin guards or even something to protect their thighs,” explains the former champ. “You can get fairly nasty bruises from a day’s conkering. And it’s not from others hitting you, it’s from you hitting yourself. My arm was completely swollen the year I won.” Greatness comes at a cost.
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