Camogie Ace O'Connor Truly Is One Of Cork's Gems   22/10/2015

The Evening Echo Ladies Sport Star Awards recognises the best athletes on Leeside, and here Barbara O’Connell profiles one of our most talented, Gemma O’Connor. The camogie powerhouse had to cope with her beloved mother Ger’s illness, as she inspired Cork to glory this September.

HER interview after the All-Ireland senior camogie final was probably one of the most honest, insightful, tearful 90 seconds of my sporting year.

And it says so much for our summer quarterly winner Gemma O’Connor.

Just after the Ballyphehane woman had led Cork to back-to-back All-Ireland titles with an inspiring display at centre-back, she was asked about her mum Geraldine, who at the time missed the final due to illness and has since past away. 


Gemma’s response was incredible and showed how strong a person she is. The composed way she spoke about her mum, her hero, being ill will remain with me and everyone who saw the interview forever.

Gemma was not born with strength and composure like that. None of us are. Yes, her training in the army has helped, but for those who know her, that strength came from her mum Geraldine.

Geraldine was a leader of woman, a great character who did everything with a smile and she would have been drilling that sense of self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence into Gemma and her brother Glenn since they were born.

And Gemma has displayed that courage since she first picked up a hurley many years ago in Scoil Maria Assumpta, Ballyphehane, under the guidance of Mrs Fitzsimmons, then a teacher, now the principal of the school.

She recalls a young Gemma O’Connor who first tasted success on the camogie field as part of the school’s first winning Sciath Na Scol team, that also included her friend and St Finbarr’s team mate Lynda O’Connell.


“We were honoured to have someone like Gemma start her camogie career with our school,” said Mrs Fitzsimons. “My earliest memories of Gemma was seeing this tiny stature of a child along with Lynda tog out for the school team when they were just in second class. Both of them so small amongst the sixth class girls however seeing them get stuck in and hurl like they did, I knew I no longer had to fear them getting hurt. I now feared for the opposition,” joked Mrs Fitzsimons.

“We had some great years with the school teams and are very proud of the girls who went on to play at inter county level but equally as proud of those who went to join the local clubs having gained a love for the sport through our coaching. Clubs like Ballyphehane and St Finbarr’s always provided great opportunities for the kids and this was always great to see as I truly believe sport is so important in a child’s life.

“They make life long friendships and normally lead a healthy and happy lifestyle when involved in sport.

“I was lucky enough to have the support of many parents help me coach the school teams. The likes of Patsy Foolkes, Margo Kenny, Ann Kelleher and of course Gemma's mom Geraldine. Geraldine not only coached when Gemma attended the school but continued to do so for many years after.

“Probably almost 15 years in fact. Geraldine was incredible with the time and effort she gave to our school and once again it was sport that brought a great friendship between me and Ger and in her honour I will always keep sport going in the school for as long as I can.”


Another person who is proud of what Gemma has achieved is her brother Glen, himself a powerful hurler with St Finbarr’s and a noted footballer with the club too. 

“I have always been so proud of Gemma, from an early age we saw at home that Gemma really had something special, I look up to her and even now when I watch her play I learn so much from her.

“I suppose when I was younger the hurl didn’t come as natural to me and seeing her success definitely drove me on to work hard.”

Glenn reveals she had the strenght of character to balance her difficulties at home with her commitment to Rebel red.

“People admire Gemma’s dedication and commitment to camogie for the past few months when at a time she was trying to cope with the agony of seeing our mum however I wasn’t surprised at her dedication, for the simple reason, because I know Gemma.

“I wasn’t surprised but I did admire her and her commitment. Gemma is a passionate person and gives it her all no matter how tough it gets.

In fact the GAA was a help.

“GAA is a huge part of our family, the last year was so tough for us and I remember my mam telling us when she got diagnosed that she wanted us to go about playing GAA as normal and for us to do ourselves proud. I think GAA did help us. It helped all of us to have a bit of normality even if it was for 60 minutes. It’s good to keep yourself going and I know GAA kept my mam going and it made it all worth the while when my mam got to see Gemma and the girls lift the cup."

“Gemma has a lot of awards but each one means the world to her and I know this one will mean just as much to her as her first, I cannot stress how proud I am of Gemma, I go to all her games. Literally. I see how hard she works as an athlete, she is so passionate about family and sport and I’m delighted for her to get this (Evening Echo) award.”


Glenn knows the softer side of the Cork warrior, away from the intensity on the field.

“Gemma’s tough when it comes to taking a hurley to the shins or a slap across the knuckles when going for a high ball, but Gemma is definitely the biggest softie I know. Anyone that knows Gemma knows how emotionally soft she is.

“Myself and Gemma are really close, and family means everything to us, I have always looked up to her as a player and a person and proud to call her my sister.”

Another person proud of what Gemma has achieved is her coach at St Finbarr’s Colette McCarthy.

“Most people will know Gemma from her performances on a national stage for Cork. Her near perfect display in this year’s All-Ireland final truly sums up her playing abilities – her reading of the game, distribution of the ball, calmness under pressure but more importantly her incredible strength of character. I genuinely don’t believe any other team in the country has a player to match her. So how lucky are we in the Barrs to be able to call her one of our own. Gemma’s twitter name @blues4reds shows where her heart lies.”

She gives it her all to her beloved Blues, and not just when she pulls on the geansaí.


“In recent years I’ve been involved with Gemma as a selector and committee member but my mum, Harriett Carey and Gemma’s mum, Ger have been great friends for many years through their involvement with the camogie section in the Barrs. Gemma’s numerous achievements over the years have been celebrated almost as vigorously in our house as in her own!”

County glory came nine years ago, while they also reached another final, but in reality the Barrs have been a bit off the pace set by Milford in more recent years.

“Gemma was lucky enough to win a senior county medal with the Barrs in 2006 but since then the club has been re-building. The majority of this year’s senior panel are U21 and they could not have a better role model than Gemma. My own daughter Keeva is one of a new crop of players who will be lucky enough, in years to come, to say that they played in a blue jersey with Gemma.

“In 2012, just a couple of days before her 14th birthday, Keeva got her first chance to play with Gemma. It was a senior challenge game in the Barrs and due to a variety of reasons we had just 14 players. At 13, Keeva was too young to be on our senior panel but she was put in corner-forward to ‘make up numbers’.

“My abiding memory of the game is that every opportunity Gemma got, she drove the ball into Keeva’s corner. Due to her age and size Keeva struggled but each ball Gemma sent her way built her confidence and she eventually got a point from play. My mum and Ger were on the sideline that day and I’m not sure which of them was prouder!


“Gemma gives 100% every time she steps on the pitch but she is also incredibly generous of her time with our Juvenile and Street Leagues sections in the Barrs. When approached, she always makes herself available to present medals or take a training session. She brings the O’Duffy Cup to the club after each All-Ireland victory and will spend hours interacting with our younger girls, signing hurleys and jerseys and standing for countless photographs. Gemma is the player that these girls aspire to be.”

Being so close to the O’Connors, Collette say how difficult this year was. The club did all they could to show their support.

“This year was a particularly tough one for Gemma and her family and it was important to us in the Barrs to show our support any way we could. On All-Ireland final day the Club had two busloads of supporters in Croke Park to cheer on both Gemma and Meabh (Cahalane).

“On the day both Barrs girls played their part in Cork’s victory but Gemma showed incredible inner strength and literally played her heart out. We’re definitely biased but there’s no doubt for us that she should have been awarded player of the match. After the final whistle and before the presentation of the cup we shared a few minutes with Gemma, there were lots of hugs and tears but my overwhelming emotion was definitely one of pride.


“I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this Ladies Sports Star Award than Gemma. She has set a very high standard for herself to be judged by over the years and yet she continues to deliver. In every respect she is the benchmark for her team-mates both at club and county level. I’m certain of one thing, they are all happier to be playing with her rather than against her.”