Elaine Aylward began her Third Level Camogie career in UCC in 2002. Little did she know that fourteen years down the line she would still hold onto and cherish the memories she has as a past Ashbourne Star.
When I first walked through the gates of the famed Maradyke Arena down leeside as an enthusiastic fresher in 2002, fresh off the back of a secondary schools all Ireland win with the Mercy School in Waterford and a Junior All Ireland victory that September over Cork, little did I know the cauldron of camogie skill and talent I was about to encounter, or the camogie (and life) lessons I was going to pick up in the following three years.
I was coming into a UCC panel who were intent on retaining their Ashbourne title from the previous year and laced with inter-county stars from Tipperary and Cork, the camogie super powers of those years. I think four of the five all Ireland winning captains from 2002 to 2006 were among my team mates that first year in Cork, Una O Dwyer, Una O Donoghue, Elaine Burke and Joanne O Callaghan. I was in complete awe. I was going to get to train with and challenge myself against the best in the game. That was the beauty and uniqueness of Ashbourne camogie, players who would tear strips off each other from June to September every year would come together from September to February to plough through the muck and the rain of the farm on dark miserable nights (and Ashbourne training was always on dark, wet and miserable nights!!!) or up the never ending hills of Sundays Well.
I was fortunate enough to earn my place on a great team in that first year and wear the no 9 famed skill and crossbones as UCC went on to retain their title on home grown defeating UCD in my first and only Ashbourne final. The fact that UCC were hosting the competition that year also have me my first insights into the logistics of Ashbourne, – Ashbourne mass, Ashbourne banquet and Ashbourne week……. all education’s in their own right .
That education would continue for the following two years in Cork as treasurer of the club in second and third year and as a senior team member being involved in the logistics and planning of game days and weekends. In colleges camogie you don’t simply look to the Chairperson or Secretary to solve those kind of problems, because you and your teammates are those people. It’s the true meaning of a club owned and run by its members. You fixed your own games, you ordered your own gear and more importantly than anything else you fundraiser for your own gear, and there was some epic fundraising efforts over the years!
That’s what makes Ashbourne such a special competition, and why its relevance still holds true to today. You take it personally. Your teammates are family, you are literally living, eating, travelling, training & fundraising with these people for the entire college year and as friendships develop and life moves on often remain true friends through to the next chapters.
Personally speaking it’s part of the reason why losing the following two semi-finals to an emerging and star studded UL team hurt so badly, you were losing with a group as closely knit as any family unit.
But life is swings and round abouts and if loosing with friends hurt, then reminiscing and recovering with friends certainly made up for it.
While I obviously treasure my Ashbourne medal and still hold the old skull and crossbones safely at the back of the wardrobe, it’s the memories of trips in Una O Dwyers old betsy out to the farm, gut wrenching runs, soccer games by the Lough dressed as Christmas trees, bus trips, bus crashes, ambulance spins, A&E trips, missed masses, improvised prayers and endless singing that still prevail.
To the class of 2016, relish the opportunities the weekend holds and treasure the memories it will undoubtedly create. Ashbourne days really are the best days of your life