Heather Cooney (31), from the St Thomas club, plays corner-back for defending double champions Galway who, in 2019, won the Littlewoods Division One National League and the All-Ireland senior title. She won her first All-Ireland (intermediate) title in 2009, added two seniors in 2013 and 2019 and also won a National League medal in 2015. She studied at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick and is a primary school teacher.
Galway’s Allstar corner-back Heather Cooney, like everyone else, has quickly adjusted to this spinning world where health has taken primacy while sport became an irrelevance overnight. Since Covid19 struck she’s been at home with her family, missing training with her teammates and best friends, and her class and teaching colleagues in school.
Her last game for the reigning All Ireland senior camogie champions was a one-point shock home defeat by Tipperary on March 8 which put the Premier women, not the Tribe, through to the Littlewoods Division One League final.
Now that loss is in perspective.
Every day life, as we knew it, has changed utterly.
All sport has been called to a halt so no one knows when camogie will resume. Priorities have swung dramatically and consolation is found by staying in touch with teammates and staying as fit as possible.
Her natural empathy still shines through.
Her county teammate Dr Caitriona Cormican (a GP) is among those whose own lives are now endangered daily as they battle on the nation’s frontline and “I wouldn’t even consider calling her or taking a minute of her time because I’d say any time she has she needs, either for work or de-stressing when she actually gets off.”
So does Cooney’s innate positivity.
“I was only saying to my mam today that we are really so lucky. We’ve a farm here so we can get out in the fresh air anytime. I’ve plenty of fields to run around and my brothers to puck about with and luckily everyone around us is OK so far.
“Because we live in the country everyone knows each other and would look out for each other. It’s easy to check in with people and you can talk to the neighbours, across the wall, when they’re passing.
“But it’s different training-wise. You’re going from a team situation to just yourself. We’ve got running programmes and our strength and conditioning coach Robbie Lane, who is mighty always, has given us home workouts that we can do just with our body weight, but it’s not the same doing things on your own,” she admits.
“One of the wonderful things about team sport is that you have to go training even if you’re not feeling hectic. You just can’t decide not to go and you always feel better afterwards.”
Footwork, as Roger Federer regularly points out, is the foundation stone for every great athlete, so it’s no surprise to learn that Cooney was a brilliant Irish dancer in her youth.
“It was probably 50:50 dancing and camogie with me for a long time. I’d train and play camogie during the week and then be off to a Feis at weekends and I kept at it until I was just around 16.”
She won several Connacht ‘solo’ titles and two team All-Irelands at Irish dancing and was offered a spot with an Irish dancing show called ‘Dance of Desire’ which started in Galway’s Black Box theatre and went on tour internationally to great acclaim.
“It wouldn’t have been as big as Riverdance now but I’d a friend who stuck with it and got to travel alright. I was only in there one day, learning the routines. When I came home that evening and looked at the schedule I decided there was no point in going further with it because it wouldn’t work around camogie for me.
“There would have been shows every evening and, between training and matches, I just couldn’t juggle both. I was around 16 and it was already camogie for me by then. I don’t regret that decision one little bit. I already loved the team element of camogie.”
Irish dancing’s loss was definitely Galway’s gain.
Those flying feet have served her county brilliantly for 10 years now and her club even longer.
“Dad is just hurling-mad and so is the whole parish,” she explains of St Thomas, which serves the parishes of Kilchreest and Peterswell, mid-way between Loughrea and Gort.
The Cooneys, like the Burkes and the Murrays, provide one of its most talented houses.
Her brothers Conor and Shane also play senior for Galway and Donal and parents Joe and Mary are also steeped in the little club that, remarkably, made it all the way up the steps of Croke Park in the 2013 All-Ireland club hurling final.
But it was Heather who first brought the Cooneys to Croke Park for a rollercoaster series of All-Ireland camogie finals, even though, technically, she started out playing hurling.
“Our local primary school was very small and we actually had no girls team so I just played with the lads on our little seven a-side team,” she explains.
Luckily the club and secondary school in Gort provided camogie teams in which she flourished and, after winning an All-Ireland intermediate final in 2009 and reaching the senior decider a year later, her future looked glorious.
But that rise coincided with a Wexford team at the start of three in-a-row.
Galway lost to them in both the 2010 and 2011 finals: “I was only 20 and coming off the bench the first year and kind of didn’t realise what a big jump it was from intermediate to senior.
“The second final hit me a lot harder. I was starting by then and knew what a tough old slog it is to get there. Winning it in 2013 after losing twice before made it really sweet.”
2013 was a particularly memorable reward for so many long-serving Galway heroes and Cooney is part of that generation who kicked on despite a lot of set-backs. Losing three of four finals in six years attracted some criticism for their ‘style of play’. They were regarded as uber-talented but lacking a killer instinct, especially when matches were in the melting pot, but have finally put paid to that.
“Maybe there were games where we faltered when things got difficult but I think we corrected that last year, just put the foot down and pushed on,” she says. “When Waterford really put it up to us in the All-Ireland quarter-finals we were like ‘this is not happening to us’ and that game really stood to us then when we played Cork in the semi-finals. “There was nothing between us but we just ground out the win,” she says of that memorable evening in Limerick when this Galway team seemed to come of age.
As one of their veterans Cooney (31) is conscious of how camogie has progressed in the past decade, on and off the pitch, especially the increased public awareness and coverage, helped by the Littlewoods sponsorship. “The amount of people talking about us (Galway) in 2019, compared to our last final in 2015, was very noticeable. They seemed to have more of a connection with the team. I think that’s because, with better media coverage, they’d seen us play more and identified with us and had a reason to watch it. Seeing more of a team and learning about the players makes you care more about them and you wonder ‘when are they playing again?’ It really feels like more people are in tune now with what’s going on in camogie.”
“I genuinely love camogie. Given the time and commitment you give to it you wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. Yeah, it’s tough and there’s times you’re wondering what you’re at, but the enjoyment far surpasses that. We have a really good fun group and I’ve made extremely close friends from camogie that I wouldn’t ever have met otherwise.
“If I was the only one in my age-group you might be wondering ‘what am I at here still?’ But I’m lucky that there’s a group of us who started around the same time. And I’d be just as close with girls who aren’t my age. That’s the great thing about being part of a team. You leave age at the door and just get along with everyone.We went on a five-day team holiday to Bratislava in December and we were knocking around with the young girls as much as anyone else.“We went to Vienna one day and hopped on a train to Budapest another. There we were, ice-skating and falling over together in Vienna in the middle of the Christmas markets and it was just beautiful.”
Right now that truly seems a lifetime ago.
Sport is on hold, as is her work teaching third class in Killeeneen NS near Clarinbridge, a rural school of 230 children with nine teachers and three support assistants, where she also coaches the girls in camogie and gaelic football.When they closed prematurely for St Patrick’s Weekend on March 12 none of them had any clue just how long it would be for and it’s exactly the same with camogie.
But Cooney, as ever, remains positive.
“I remember thinking on the Thursday that school finished that there was a sense of hysteria but, in fairness, the government clamped down early and hopefully that will stand to us in the long run.
“The uncertainty of it all is what’s difficult. Day by day it seems to get worse so we don’t know when we’ll be back in action but that’s the nature of this situation.
“There’s nothing much any of us can do except take it day-by-day. You’re simply just dealing with whatever’s on your doorstep this day and leaving tomorrow where it is.”