Camogie All-Star Aisling Maher has played for Dublin at senior county level for a decade, and just last month she led her home club St.Vincent's to victory in the Dublin Camogie senior ctitle for the first time since 2019. Remkarably, Maher registered an amazing 12 points to help her side to victory. So how did Maher find the sport she adores today? It wasn't always her dream. It was the location of St. Vincent's pitches right behind her childhood home that proved fateful.
"I wanted to play soccer originally, but my mom said 'there's no way I'm driving you to a soccer club when there's a GAA pitch right beside you.' So I went in there and I wanted to play football, but there was no girls' football team, so after a brief stint of playing football with the boys, I was redirected to camogie."
"I very quickly fell in love with it and haven't looked back since."
When asked what she first loved about the sport, Maher mentions the friendships with her teammates, and it's a topic that comes up a lot, especially regarding her team's support through difficulties.
"The friendships and what you get back out of being part of a team— I've definitely got more from GAA and camogie than I've ever sacrificed or had to give for it. The fact that I get to go out and train four or five times a week with some of the best players across the country is a huge privilege and it's something that I'm very honoured to do."
Maher is also humble about her previous All-Star awards. Talking about her first win in 2017, — also the first time since 1990 that Dublin reached a semi-final — Maher says "even though the All-Stars are individual awards, they're very much a recognition of how far the team has come. Like you said, it's no coincidence that the last time Dublin had an All-Star was the last time we made it to the semi-final. So while I was very privileged to be the person who got it, for me it was very much a recognition of the team."
But Maher has had more than her fair share of difficulties. In 2019 she was seriously injured in a bike accident:
"Our club had just won a Leinster championship, and I was trying to be sensible and go home instead of going to Copper's, and cycling home I took a bad turn on some wet leaves, came off it and came straight down through my leg."
"By the time I sat up my leg was going that way, and below my knee was going the other way. So I knew straight away that unfortunately the All-Ireland semi-final that I was waiting to play with my club was probably out of reach and I was probably in a fair bit of trouble." Maher says, making a right angle with her hands.
Maher went into surgery within 24 hours — "I have a fair bit of metal in the leg at this stage" she notes laughing — and then began the long process of recovery. She credits the support she received along the way for getting her through it.
"Don't get me wrong, I definitely had ups and downs throughout it, you definitely don't feel on top of the world all the way through. I was initially told [if it's] '12 months to get back to running, you'll be doing well,' but I had a game, that All-Ireland semi-final with my club that I wanted to play, which was two months later, and to be honest I thought I was going to be back for that game for the majority of the two months."
"By the time the match came around I was just about shuffling onto the pitch with water and that was the only contribution I could make, but I was still a part of the team, I was still in the dressing room, and the girls were very supportive of me, and similarly I was surrounded by brilliant physios. That was probably what made it harder and what got me through it at the same time."
As well as being a member of the Gaelic Players Association LGBTQ+ working group, Maher is outspoken about the need for gender equality in sport. She supports the integration of the LGFA, Camogie Association, and GAA:
"Ultimately, here, we're talking about the broader equality of women in sport, and until both LGFA teams and camogie teams are brought in under the same umbrella, I think we're really going to struggle to achieve equality."
Maher speaks of the contrast between her time playing while studying at Technological University Dublin and playing at an elite level in the real world:
"TUD have a brilliant sport program and there everything is equal between men and women. Unfortunately, the equality has very much ended once we went outside of college sport. If I look at some of the lads I know, just in regards to reimbursement for expenses, be that nutritional expenses, petrol traveling to and from games, whether it's gear, whether it's boots...we just need to see more financial backing, more availability of pitches, and more opportunity for girls in sport."
But Maher has seen improvements for camogie and women's sport generally.
"I have seen change, definitely, it's not all doom and gloom. One example from when I was younger is you get a questionnaire to fill in before a game, if it's an Under-16 Dublin match or something like that, and they ask 'who's your role model in women's sport?' and everybody would just write 'Sonia O'Sullivan' because she was the only female athlete that people knew, whereas now if you take kids' programs at the same kind of age you see much more diversity, whether it's the likes of Katie Taylor, Rena Buckley, Kellie Harrington...multiple different female athletes across multiple sports that are becoming role models not only for young girls but for young boys as well, and I think that's a really positive sign that we are making progress."
The sponsors for the Camogie All-Star awards this year are PwC, who are committed to 'celebrating excellence.' Maher is nothing but practical when asked how she keeps coming back and giving 100% year after year:
"A lot of it is trial and error and finding a routine that works, and just the experience of having done it for so long. Every year I go back and you learn something else that allows you to contribute toward your game, be that from a new member of management that's in — this year we had a nutritionist come in and work full time with us, and a sports psychologist as well, and things like that definitely, definitely give you an edge in your game and allow you to prepare a little bit better and to be a little more in tune with yourself and what you need as a player."
When asked to reflect on her career so far and her biggest learnings, Maher laughs and says indignantly, "You say that like I'm about to retire!"
She adds, "It goes fast, you forget how fast it goes by. Ultimately we play because we enjoy it, and we have to play because we love it, and if you're not enjoying it and you're not loving it, then you're doing something wrong. So just enjoy it, along the way."
If skill and love of the sport are what makes a career last, fans can surely hope to see Maher playing camogie for years to come.
The presentation of the 2022 PwC Camogie All-Stars Awards will take place on the 26th of November in Croke Park.
PwC are the title sponsor of the 2022 PwC Camogie All-Star Awards, strengthening the firm’s support for Irish sport and reinforcing their commitment to increasing the profile and participation of women in sport.