Autor: John Harrington
Sometimes you have to remember the beginning of something to fully understand how far you've come.
Athenry Camogie Club will be 50 years old in 2023 and by then they hope to finally have a home of their own.
Thanks to their innovationwww.winahouseandcar.iefundraiser, they are well on their way to raising the 1.2 million EUR they need to develop what will be a superb facility.
For Midge Pionard, the day she will be able to walk through those doors for the first time will be an emotional moment.
She was one of the first pioneers when the club was founded back in 1973 and since then she has given her blood, sweat and occasionally tears in numerous roles.
Great things have been accomplished along the way, but the stress of relying on the kindness of others to play the field has always been a challenge that has been difficult to overcome.
Finally getting a place to call their own, especially at a time when their playing numbers are increasingly at youth level, will be a very sweet moment.
"I don't think I could find the words to say what it would mean to me," Pionard told GAA.ie. "When you work with teams for years and drag and drag and almost beg to get pitches.
“Getting lots that you don't have to beg for and can actually plan and plan for would be huge.
“We are very grateful for the places we get from Athenry GAA Club, but it would be great to be able to decide when we want to train and be a bit more flexible in our approach at times.
"It would be great for the girls to have that little bit of comfort knowing you own your own facilities. Having your own home would just mean a lot."
On the day of the ribbon cutting, be sure that Fr. Martin O'Grady's name will be mentioned.
It was he who first really ignited the spark for camogie in Athenry through coaching the game at Presentation College.
He was helped in this endeavor by another teacher at the school, Gilbert McCarthy, who in 1973 decided to give camogie players in the area another outlet by forming the Athenry Club with the help of Christy Kelly and Anthoony Poniard, Midge's brother.
Success came almost immediately with both the school and the club. Presentation College had a historic year in 1974 when they won both the Junior and Senior Colleges All-Irelands and again won the Senior Final in 1975.
"When I think back on my life now, those are the days that jump out," says Poniard. “The Colleges All-Irelands in Croke Park was absolutely fantastic.
"Playing with them in Croke Park then was so wonderful, it was a great adventure. We had four girls playing in both teams in 1974 and Fr O'Grady did his best not to play them back to back in the same day, but no one could succumb to it.
“I always remember him calling them 'bitches with blonde hair', he was quite the character!
"So we had to play them back to back and we brought home two cups. Our junior team captain, Bernie Duffy, gave a speech after lifting the first cup and walking away from the microphone.
"But after taking five steps, she turned around and pulled the microphone back and said 'We're back for another Cup in an hour!' And we certainly were!
"I have to say it was one of the best days of my life. The next year when we won it again, we beat the Downey sisters, who were the kings of camogie at the time, so that was a lot of fun too.
“At the time I thought we were great and brilliant, but when I recently saw the video of the '75 final, I couldn't help but cringe! Honestly, it was embarrassing to watch. At that time, I don't know if we trained much, and if we did, there was no training.
“Someone recently told me that the hurley I had in that match was about three times too big for me. Of course, why not, it was my older brother who was six years older!”
A year later, in 1976, the Athenry Club made headlines when they chartered two small planes from Carnmore Airport to travel to Antrim to play Creggan in the All-Ireland League semi-final.
The Troubles were raging in the North at the time and driving through border checkpoints could be a time-consuming job for a bus full of GAA players, so the decision was made to fly across the border instead.
"We're not used to flying, most of us never have been," says Poniard. “I remember Christy Kelly taking out her 20 Major pack of cigarettes and writing her will on the back before we got on the plane at Carnmore!
"It was very exciting because back then you weren't really going anywhere. To be involved in camogie and the chance to go up north, to Kilkenny or anywhere else in the country was just huge.
"It was so exciting for us as camogie players. I remember going to a school game one day and Father O'Grady said: 'If you look out the window on the left, girls, you'll see round bales. They don't just make square bales anymore. bales, they also do round bales.'
"Even the round balls were a novelty! It really was like the Dark Ages back then, even though it wasn't that long ago."
Athenry stormed to a big win over Creggan in the All-Ireland League semi-final and Poniard's cousin, who lives in Rostrevor, later wrote a clipping of the match in the local paper with the headline 'Long live Athenry, team from heaven!'
Athenry lost the All-Ireland Club Final for the second year running in '76, but were third time lucky in '77. when they scored a big win over Portglenone to win the first and so far only All-Ireland senior title for the club.
Midge's generation of players also won eight national titles in the 70s and 80s, and by the late 1990s he had passed the torch to a new generation of players.
In 1997 Athenry won the All-Ireland Feile title and many of their players were the daughters of those who played in the All-Ireland winning team of '77 20 years ago.
"It was a great weekend down in Wexford," says Poniard. “We hosted Buffers Alley and it was a blast.
“Another memory I'll always have is coming home on the bus with the kids and they couldn't believe it because there were bonfires going from Craughwell to Athenry.
"Right up the road people were lighting bonfires. I remember some of them being awful near the bus, in this day and age with health and safety you wouldn't get away with that! But it was just a wonderful adventure for us.
"That group of youngsters from the 1990s then went on as seniors to win four county senior finals in a row from 2006 to 2009 and we competed in two All-Irelands but unfortunately, and that still remains in my hand, we didn't manage to win All-Ireland with that group.
"Things went downhill after that, but now we have a great group coming back."
The club is now in good health at all levels and is getting stronger all the time. Located just 30 minutes outside of Galway with easy access to rail and motorway links, Athenry has exploded in population in recent years and so has camogie club membership.
Incredibly, 116 U-8 girls turned up for the first training session of the year after the lockdown, figures which underline how much Camogie players need a home of their own.
Fortunately for them, the committee tasked with delivering just that is highly skilled and motivated and includes former Athenry and Galway hurlers such as PJ Molloy, Brian Feeney, Joe Rabbitte and Cathal Moran.
"The guys involved, I can't praise them enough," says Poniard. "There are 14 of us in the committee and we are very lucky that these people are here in the parish at this time together.
"Like a good team, it takes a good group of people to come together to start something like this. And we're really, really lucky to have the people we have.
"We have more or less bought the land now. We hope to set up two pitches with a full size astro pitch and changing rooms.
"We used two school pages for a long time, the High School Presentations page and the Vocational School page, we used them a lot. Which means there are no changing rooms, children are next to the seats trying to change without a toilet. So it wasn't easy.
“Athenry GAA club have always been very good to us, they have done what they can, but with the numbers we have now we just don't have enough ground for them all.
“Our new home will be two kilometers out of town and close to Athenry GAA's new ground, which will be ideal as parents often drop off both girls and boys.
"We're also going to make the facility accessible to everyone in the community. We're going to have wheelchair access and a public walkway, things like that.
"We would hope that it would be a great resource for the wider community and we would also be able to give some favors back to the GAA club or all that they have done for us over the years."
Even before ground has been broken on the new development, it is clear that Athenry Camogie Club have built something very special in their corner of Galway.
The new facilities will be a great blessing, but the real strength of the club is measured by the community spirit it fosters.
Since its inception in 1973, Athenry Camogie Club has been an invaluable social and sporting venue for successive generations of girls and women forming lifelong friendships.
"I know it gets said over and over again, but it can't be said enough, the bond that is created between players in team sports, there is absolutely nothing that comes close to that," Poniard says.
"The girls I played with a long time ago at that club, the All-Ireland, we have a WhatsApp group and the buzz you would have in it is unbelievable. I love when I hear the phone ringing and it's a message in that group.
"If you had a daughter or a son playing somewhere or doing something, you would definitely get messages of support in the group and that's a great feeling.
"And now I see my daughters and their friends who played camogie together in the senior team between 2000 and 2010, they've all got kids now but they used to meet every Saturday morning. A lot of them still all meet and run together.
"Such a thing is irreplaceable. You try to tell young people that when you encourage them to play team sports, but it's only when you get older that you see the value.
"It creates unity in the parish. A relationship that is absolutely beautiful and very supportive of everyone.
"If you have a problem or are in some kind of trouble, the people you played with then or are playing with now will always have your back and rally around you to help you.
"The bond you form playing team sports together is a bond that lasts a lifetime."
The foundation of Athenry Camogie Club is rock solid. Now they are ready to build on them.
You can read more about Athenry Camogie Club's fundraising for a new homeHER.