Continuing our series of interviews with the leading figures in Louth LGFA Dermot Woods spoke to Louth Ladies captain Aoife Byrne.
A member of the famous family from Louth Village that is synonymous with Louth GAA, All-Ireland winner and St Mochtas star, Aoife reflects on a her career to date and discusses some of the key issues facing Ladies Football.
Your first club was Naomh Malachi. How did that come about?
Back when I was about eight, I began playing football with the Mochtas underage boys teams. I played with them up until I wasn’t allowed to anymore and we didn’t have a ladies team in our club. Through Louth underage set ups I got to know some Naomi Malachi legends like Lily Dowdall and Dermot Woods who had a passion for ladies football and from there a group of us from Louth Village began playing underage with the Malachi’s. At the age of fourteen I lined out on the Malachi’s Ladies senior team and we made it to the championship final that year. Our manager at the time was Jason Clarke and it was a privilege at only fourteen to play in a senior final.
With the formation of St. Mochta’s in 2008, was it inevitable you would line-out with your home club?
Absolutely! We were so excited to hear a ladies team was been set up and being a Byrne my blood is coloured blue and yellow. So without a doubt a return to Louth Village was inevitable.
Your family has always been heavily involved with the Mochta’s and Louth?
As a family we were very lucky to have such access to the GAA as children. My dad played for the Mochtas alongside all my uncles. He also lined out for Louth. Myself and Eimear both play on the ladies team and both my brothers play for the men’s team. It’s a very proud moment when we all line out on the same day in the red and white colours.
As someone who is always active, how has the coronavirus pandemic affected you?
If I’m to be truly honest I did enjoy the down time through the pandemic. Life can get very busy balancing work/club football/county football and lots more. It was nice to relax and not to have to be rushing everywhere. I went for lots of walks/ mountain hikes and runs. I saw places I’d never normally get to see in our beautiful country. We kept together as a group with Louth doing zoom sessions which were also fantastic. It was like a training session you had to attend and kept me motivated.
Sport is coming back, but is it too soon or have all the correct procedures been put in place?
Personally I feel for anyone who has lost someone during these uncertain times and I’m sure if you were to talk to someone who has, their opinion would be different to mine. I think now that we have suppressed the virus the country needs to get back to normal. So once protocols are been adhered to and public health advice is been followed then why not get back on the football pitch? The first couple of weeks won’t be easy but once it’s up and running it will be like we’ve never left.
Give us a flavour of what it was like to play in the 2019 All-Ireland winning team?
It was the best feeling I’ve ever experienced in the whole world. When that final whistle blew and I knew we had won, words can’t describe the emotions that went through my body. Playing with Louth on and off since I was around eleven, your dream is always to play in Croke Park and win and at 28 years of age I had finally achieved my dream. As a child I used to have a poster on my bedroom wall of Croke Park and I had a picture of me stuck in the middle with a caption “Croke Park watch out here I come”. It took a while but I made it in the end.
Having lost the league semi-final to Antrim, did that spur the team on?
Absolutely. Losing is the worst feeling ever but when you know you are good enough there’s always a drive to do better the next time. Unfortunately I was injured for that game and didn’t get to play but definitely going into the 2020 season ‘league champions’ was drilled into our minds. With the majority of the team staying together we knew all we had to do was build on experiences and that we would be crowned league winners. As we know that’s still to be decided with the current situation.
Louth made a fantastic start to this year’s league, how disappointing was it that the competition was cancelled?
We were devastated. Things were going in the right direction. The new management stepped up, the whole team were committed and on board. We played some great football in the first few games. We looked fit and determined but unfortunately it was called off with a semi final position in sight. At the time we thought it was called too early as no one knew what lay ahead at the time. Would have been better to just postpone to see how things would fair out but that was not to be.
Darren Bishop was always going to be a tough act to follow but how has Wayne Freeman adapted to the role?
Darren was an excellent manager and when we heard he wasn’t taking us for another year we were worried on the continued progress needed to win the league and step up to intermediate. But Wayne and Co quickly stepped into his shoes and the vibes were there straight away. A professional set up from the onset with clear goals and targets put in front of us. When this is in place from the top the rest just follows suit. Attendance at training was excellent, commitment off the field was excellent and things were going in the right direction.
On the club scene, how hopeful are you that St. Mochta’s will have a good season?
Like every year the Mochtas are there or thereabouts. Still a young team with lots of talent and a senior title isn’t too far away. With new management this year and fresh ideas hopefully we can go one step further and win our first ever senior league or championship.
Your favourite thing about being involved with the LGFA?
Community. That feeling of being part of something bigger. You meet so many people and create a huge bond through football. For anyone who isn’t a part of it in their locality, I’d highly recommend even just for the fun aspect and not the competitive side.
Best coach/manager you played under?
At a club level I have to say Billy Lawlor. With no daughters on the team, Billy gave years to coaching and managing St. Mochtas ladies. He brought us through the levels and unfortunately we didn’t get over the line at senior with him. But I’ve no doubt when we do he won’t be too far away. At a county level because of what we achieved, Darren Bishop was an excellent manager. Whatever he said we listened to. A vice-principal by day meant his strict and professional manner ensured he had complete control and commitment of the team from the beginning. You need this in a county set up. You can’t have girls coming and going when it suits and have no consequences. With Darren that wasn’t acceptable!
Your most difficult opponent and why?
Most difficult opponent would have to be Lara Dahunsi from Antrim. I was given the role to man mark her in this year’s league game. She is a very fit and physical player with lots of talent for young player.
Best player you played with?
I was lucky enough to get to play with Orlaith Kirk at both a club level (Malachi’s) and at county level. She was an outstanding player and leader both on and off the field. Her commitment and level of fitness was phenomenal.
Not committing to Louth in 2018 when they got to the final and fell short.
What would you change to make the LGFA more appealing?
In the last number of years the LGFA have become very professional which is great to see. If I was to change anything it would be more financial input into county teams to entice young girls to play. It should be an absolute privilege to play with your county team. No player should be under financial strain to play with your county. Players should receive mileage to attend training and return from colleges for mid-week training. It should be inline with the men’s teams; food vouchers/ mileage/ GPA grants. Same commitment level so the financial input should be the same.
The biggest influence on your career?
My family without a doubt. Getting to follow in my father’s footsteps and wear the Louth Jersey. Watching my brothers dedication on a daily basis to get fit and stay lean and of course playing alongside my sister on the ladies team. It doesn’t get much better than that!
If you had one piece of advice for up and coming young players, what would it be?
First of all, always make an excuse to be there rather than not be there and when you are there put in 100%. You reap what you sow! Yes you can attend training and that’s the box ticked -I was there the manager saw me. But only putting in 50% you were as well not going in the first place.
What major positive changes did you see in the LGFA in your playing years?
The professionalism from the top down. The promotion to ensure ladies football gets the coverage we deserve on social media platforms and television. Lidl have brought a lot of this with their continued support and we are forever great full. One memory that sticks out in my mind is, one day I was in Applegreen and I saw a group of people in white shirts and ties. I was intrigued and at a closer look I recognised one of the men who had refereed one of our inter-county games. They were wearing LGFA ties and obviously where coming from a convention of some sort and I thought to myself at the time “Wow that’s the level of professional I want see”.
You’re hosting a dinner party in which you can invite any five people on the planet, and they’ll graciously accept. Who would they be?
I know this might sound cringy to some people but the most important thing in life to me are my family and close friends. They are the people who are there at your lowest and highest points. So without doubt they are the people who would be with me at my dinner party.
What was your proudest moment in your sporting career so far?
Playing in mid-field with my sister in the All-Ireland Final last year and lifting the cup together on the steps of Croke Park. Nothing will beat that feeling.
[Photos by Warren Matthews]