Orlaith Kirk won five senior championship medals, played for Louth over 16 years, represented Leinster in several inter-provincial series and Ulster on the colleges’ circuit. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Orlaith Kirk won five senior championship medals, played for Louth over 16 years, represented Leinster in several inter-provincial series and Ulster on the colleges’ circuit, while claiming provincial honours with Queen’s University. And yet she is utterly humble. A consummate lady from head to toe.
The county’s greatest female footballer? Well, there are others, teammates on the All-Ireland junior and intermediate winning teams of 1998 and ’99, who could claim that tag. Yet few are as widely well-received as the former Naomh Malachi midfielder.
Fine players aren’t always genuine people, yet Kirk was - and is - exceptional in both regards. For her, football was about taking part and building relationships. That she was good at it wasn’t altogether by design or on behalf of some all-conquering, selfish mindset.
“I hold achievements very lightly because what I took from playing football was the enjoyment,” the former Louth captain tells The Democrat. “Now I always wanted to win and give a good account of myself, but I really enjoyed the friendship element and craic.
“I couldn’t even remember the different years I played for Leinster, for example; it wouldn’t be burnt on my memory. That’s not to say it in a conceited way, life just goes on and football is only a part of lots of other areas in your life.
“I would have taken it very seriously and prioritised my training and done extra training to make sure I could give my best, particularly in big matches. I was living with Jenny Agnew, who’d have played county football too, and we’d have done our extra bit of training on the side when we were at University.
“But if I lost a game, it wasn’t necessarily the end of the world, particularly as I got a little bit older, into my late-20s. I realised the doing of it, being part of a team - and everything associated with it - was very important in itself.
“Maybe I’d taken that attitude because by 2003 I’d finally won the club championship and you’d that experience to rely on.
“But the friendship and the capacity to be part of something bigger than yourself, that’s what I’ve taken away from playing GAA. Ladies’ football and everything they’ve done around games for mothers and others, the various initiatives around getting younger girls into sport, I think it’s just brilliant and I’m very proud of the organisation, where it’s come from and where its ethos is taking it.”
You see? Kirk is just unique, special to be in the company of. A catalyst.
Talented at basketball and athletics in her youth, Kirk, whose father, Joey, is best remembered for his involvement with Kilkerley Emmets, lined out for Dundalk Gaels as a juvenile, transferring to Naomh Malachi after The Ramparts side folded.
The great Mickey Heeney is credited with helping her along, especially during her early days on the Louth senior team, but the roles of Kitty Begley and Mark Gogarty - among others - aren’t overlooked either.
Having made her county senior debut at 14, in 1994, the then St. Louis student would develop into a mainstay and was a member of the losing Leinster junior final team of 1996.
But within two years The Reds were reformed, a potent force, with Tony Melia, Dermot Agnew and Kirk’s late father at the helm.
“There can be a very high turnover of players from one year to the next and, in ’98, we probably had the best players in the county out,” she recalls. “I know Tony, Daddy and Dermot worked really hard, going around all the clubs and targeting the best players who hadn’t, maybe, turned out in previous years.”
The Leinster title was captured against Carlow and ahead of the All-Ireland semi-final versus Tyrone, expectation was simmering. But The Red Hand County held the favourite’s tag with Kirk, who was now studying with elements of the Ulster side, detecting a dismissiveness.
Remarkably, the game took place just days after the Omagh bombing, in Shelagh, and Louth gave an accomplished display in booking a decider clash with Roscommon, who they saw off.
Playing at Croke Park, the big occasion, it was almost too much for the 18-year-old, who was partnered by Elaine Rogan at midfield. She remembers uncharacteristically fumbling possession through her legs in the early stages before settling.
“It was just over in a flash,” says Kirk, looking back.
“I remember going up to Quinn’s afterwards - myself, Roisin Hanlon, Jennifer Agnew and a few more. We stopped a Garda to ask how to get there and he said: ‘I don’t even think you should be going there, you’re far too young!’
“But I nearly think ’99 was better because we were playing senior teams. It’s regrettable in a sense that there wasn’t the same structure in those years - junior, intermediate and senior - because I think Louth ladies’ football would have benefitted a lot more from the structures that there are now.
“We beat Cork, then Kerry and Wexford, all proven senior teams. It was a really fantastic achievement and at the same time, we thought days would always be like that for ladies’ football in the county.”
The latter triumph was, of course, at intermediate level, after The Reds had been knocked out of the provincial senior competition. Though to recover and claim another national title is a remarkable feat and Louth’s rise didn’t halt there, with promotion - and a stay of several years - to Division One allowing the county to duel the best Ireland could offer. All the while, Kirk was the team’s centre-field heartbeat.
With Cooley having won Leinster titles on the club scene and only denied a senior crown by virtue of a controversial objection by Ballyboden in 2000, Louth had a XV backboned by winners. One which, Kirk reckons, could have achieved more.
Could they have topped the province once and for all?
“The Leinster senior championship was very competitive and there was a pretty unforgiving format. We’d have been pitted against Meath and Dublin in certain years and had ding-dong battles with Longford.
“I suppose it is disappointing that we didn’t do more at senior level, but we’d a few retirees. The Kevin’s girls retired and we’d competition within the county - Dundalk soccer and then Dundalk rugby started, which kind of diverted everybody’s attention. You find with ladies’ sport that the same girls play all the different sports.
“Looking back, I’d have liked to have done better at senior level; it would have been great, but it’d be wrong to say there’s a particular reason why we weren’t able to.
“I look and wonder how our team would do in the grades now. I think we’d be solidly competing at intermediate level. I looked at the Tipperary team (IFC winners) from last year and I don’t think they’re that dissimilar from where we were in 2002 or 2003.
“Then again, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Rose-tinted glass et al.”
Louth gradually dropped off and within a matter of seasons had fallen into the intermediate and subsequently junior ranks. Kirk persevered until 2010, her last match being her third at Croke Park, and second All-Ireland junior decider. It ended in defeat, to Limerick. There and then she knew her days were numbered. Thirty, married to Thomas and based in Belfast, it was time to move on.
“At that stage I’d been playing county football for 16 years and I knew I wasn’t necessarily going to get any better. I was living in Belfast, travelling up three times per week and it was just a difficult commitment.
“I wanted to do other things, get back into running, and just look at other areas of my life. I’d played ladies’ football for so long and the commitment levels required were just getting difficult.”
The Dundalk native threw her lot in with local outfit St. Brigid’s, in Antrim, for a few years afterwards as Mals hit the buffers, going out of existence only seasons after winning the last of their Louth senior championships.
Her departure, in many ways, ripped the heart and soul from the Courtbane side. She had been decisively influential for so long. Part of the crew that overthrew Cooley. But the memories still linger, of that first significant victory, in 2003, and of what it meant. The instant ebb-away of several, successive seasons of pain.
“Any time we looked at each other for the next six months, we just smiled,” she adds, laughing, grinning still. “We won it well and I remember being ecstatic because we’d been beaten so many times by a great Cooley side. In hindsight, they’d been so successful and maybe were on a downward slope by that stage.
“But it just meant so much to us and there was also an element of relief. We’d a bit more success after it, but they never really captured the joyous occasion of winning that first time. The sense of achievement, I don’t really think that could be repeated.
“When I think of the championship finals, the ones we lost, we didn’t necessarily do ourselves justice and it was never a case of there being ones we deserved to win that we didn’t. I think Cooley beat us fairly and squarely. We psyched ourselves out of it in a few of them.
“There wasn’t much difference in 2002 in the players we had, but we didn’t necessarily believe we were going to win. It was different with Louth. Playing at University gave me an insight into players in other counties and I remember thinking, ‘they’re not any better than, say, Elaine Rogan, Edel McKeown or Nuala Murphy’. That was really insightful, but this was a wee bit different until ’03.
“We’d been beating Cooley in the league final up until the last few minutes when we conceded a sloppy goal - a typical ladies’ football goal - and I think we were enraged by that; it was the first time we came off the pitch thinking ‘we were actually a much better side and we should have won’.
“Outside of Louth we could have won different championships, but at the time we were just unfortunate to come up against a very good Cooley team.”
Barry O’Connor, a former Louth and Clan na Gael defender, was at the helm by that juncture, his fresh impact providing Kirk and co with an incisive, cutting edge, she feels.
“There was a recognition that they weren’t any better than us and we were trying to develop that narrative within the Malachi’s. Barry O’Connor coming in, somebody fresh, he offered a new perspective and talked us up in our own minds; gave us additional confidence.
“He moved things about and planned to catch them on the hop; I was moved to the 40. We really had a very clear gameplan going into the final in ’03 and we all bought into it completely. Sometimes a new manager works wonders and that’s no disrespect to the great people who were there before, but it just worked, and we’d younger players coming through.”
Stabannon Parnells would later emerge as keen championship contenders, but nothing in comparison to the rivalry with Cooley, St. Kevin’s and St. Joseph’s within a domestic environment of ferocious intensity; one which coincided with Louth’s golden era.
Was there friction in the county camp? There had to be, surely?
“There was an acknowledgement of the greater picture around that time that we knew we wanted to do well and that we’d have to forego club rivalry to do that.
“We did know each other very well, but I think ladies’ football is different from men’s in that regard. It doesn’t, maybe, go to the same depths. There isn’t the same physical element in the game. There may have been a few sly digs here and there, but it wasn’t that common.”
“It’s not going to paint ladies’ football in the county in a good light,” Kirk quips. “It’s from the early days, around ’95 or ’96.
“We were playing Leitrim and coming home on the bus - I won’t name the bus company - but we broke down. We broke down outside a halting site, so we ended up paying a man in a white van to take us home, to the different stops across the county.
“It was one of the funniest incidents. We sang the whole way home. Anne Marie King, from the Kevin’s, was one of the main singers…
“I don’t know if you should publish that.”
Democrat: “Ah, sure, a bitta craic. The guards can’t go back and get you now.”
Perhaps the PSNI will look into it!