Joan McCarragher, Nicola White and Lorraine Muckian, Louth's first All Star, celebrate Cooley Kickhams' All-Ireland JFC final win in 1998. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Louth’s first All Star hailed from the Cooley Peninsula. But sure isn’t that common knowledge? Well, it is. Who is it, though?
Paddy Keenan? No. He’s the second. The St. Patrick’s man’s ordination into the elite bracket came nine years after Lorraine Muckian broke the mould, earning selection on the LGFA team of 2001.
The Carlingford native, like Keenan, has more medals than a Chinese Olympic team, having tasted club and county success at each of the three provincial grades, as well as landing three All-Ireland medals and representing Ireland in the only compromise rules series of the female variety.
Now living in Vancouver, arguably Louth’s most decorated player is to the fore of Gaelic games in Canada, serving as vice-chairperson of the nation’s association which caters for both GAA and LGFA.
Almost a decade on from her departure from the Emerald Isle, where she had lived and worked in south Dublin, Muckian remains actively involved on the field as well and last year was on the ISSC club team that returned the north American intermediate championship title.
Indeed, 2020 was set to be a big year for domestic GAA/LGFA, with the inaugural Canadian Championships organised to take place in Toronto. The hunger will be fierce by the time the competition eventually gets underway, in the autumn of next year, giving oxygen to a flame which had diminished to a flicker prior to her continental uproot.
“The narrative out there at the time (2010) was that if you were 30 you were a veteran and should be thinking about retiring,” Muckian says of the period leading to her emigration. “If I knew then what I know now, but anyway…”
Mental more than physical fatigue was the troubling factor, but in her nine calendar-rounds abroad, Muckian has sampled life in its various strands, from spending two years travelling to moving jobs, all the while helping to grow Irish sport in both Vancouver, which now has six clubs, three of whom cater for ladies’ football, and Canada where there are almost 30 outfits.
“I still play; I just love the sport and joining the club here in Vancouver really reignited that love and true passion for the sport.
“None of our clubs rely on the summer months and we’d never try and get people from Ireland and give them x, y or z to come and play, so when we have teams that win, you’re winning with the people who are here most of the time, which is nice.”
Representing and playing with your own, building from the bottom. A concept from home; from, in Lorraine’s case, Cooley.
“The point I scored, I didn’t have much of a scoring ratio and I was probably just having a go. If you look at the video, I missed a few others which Marty Morrissey, thankfully, pointed out.”
Camogie was Muckian’s sport of choice as a juvenile, until an approach from Kickhams football stalwart Geraldine McGuinness turned her head. Her father, Brendan, was a tremendous Gaelic and soccer player in his time, so “she must be able to play football” is how Lorraine reflects on being propositioned.
And from there her involvement in the big ball game intensified. She was a St. Louis student at the same time as Orlaith Kirk and so many other members of Louth’s golden generation, and as their school team stalked success, the levels of drive and determination increased. Its culmination was the 1998 All-Ireland junior final win over Roscommon.
“It was just a cycle of players which gelled well and there was a good mix across all the clubs,” Muckian recalls, alluding to the potent compound created by long-servers Fiona Sweeney and Anne Marie King, etc, and the rising stars, Nuala Murphy, Elaine Rogan et al.
“We lost Leinster titles before that year so the workrate was there and with Tony (Melia), Dermot (Agnew) and Joey (Kirk), they all had a way with the team. They’d be very organised and personable, and they all brought something to the team.”
Trance-fallen, Muckian began to minutely pick her way through the term.
Lorraine: “That year I started in defence, like I’m a defender out and out - I’m not particularly creative! I went on holiday and missed a week or two. I didn’t miss any games but when I came back I was up in the forwards; full-forward and then centre-forward… sure I hadn’t a clue what I was at.
“Thankfully they kept picking me because I’m fairly sure my performances weren’t up to the mark. It was a really peculiar year and I was waiting all the time to get ‘the curly finger’.
“The likes of Joey Kirk would have thrown his arm around you, ‘you’re doing great, you’re doing the job we want you to do’, even though I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Democrat: “What was the job you were supposed to be doing?”
Lorraine: “I don’t know what I was supposed to be doing. Making a nuisance of myself.”
Democrat: “Effectively making a nuisance of yourself?”
Lorraine: “The Tyrone game is one I remember. Their centre-back was an excellent player, a driving force, and for me, maybe it was a good way to have it, I was just called out to be on the forty and I wasn’t told I was there to kind of stop her playing. I genuinely don’t think I was much of an attacking threat, although I did pass the ball to Cathy Reynolds and she got a goal.
“Typically, as a forward, you can have 59 quiet minutes but one good minute and you can be a star; whereas in defence, you can’t switch off and we had a back line that was rock solid.
“Jenny Agnew was a class player back there and very underrated. The likes of Orlaith or myself, because you got the odd individual accolade, we get spoken to, but those players... Nuala Murphy was incredible, such an engine and workrate.”
Democrat: “Playing in Croke Park, that’s a very intimate experience and something you can ask everybody involved about. Can you remember much of what it was like, your first time playing there?”
Lorraine: “I was a bit green, to be honest, and it was only really later on, in my 20s, when I began to understand the gravity of the place, of All-Irelands and what you were doing.
“Before then I was just going out and doing what I could; not having the analytical side. I suppose Croke Park must have been some experience, but I truly can’t remember it. If you look at the team photos, I’m as white as a sheet. I’d say the day bypassed me.
“I remember the field was massive and feeling super unfit. The point I scored, I didn’t have much of a scoring ratio and I was probably just having a go. If you look at the video, I missed a few others which Marty Morrissey, thankfully, pointed out.”
The following year was different, however. Having spent the summer in America, there was little expectation of Louth involvement upon her return, especially on account of how well the team had done, reaching the All-Ireland intermediate decider by seeing off Cork and Kerry consecutively.
But the call came, and she wasn’t the one member of the cavalry requested ahead of the showpiece versus Wexford. Goalkeeper Lyn Savage’s sister was getting married in Mexico and so in came Joan McCarragher, part of a famous Cooley clan, to fill the void between the sticks.
“I was very much cognisant of the people who had been involved and I didn’t want to come back in if it was going to cause trouble; I’d enough respect and belief in the girls.
“Of course it was a great day and a great game, but I think the girls who were involved the whole way through have a better appreciation of the journey itself and it’s always about the journey.
“I remember speaking to Jenny Mulligan who may have been in the position that I played and I just wanted to make sure that there weren’t any hard feelings. Those type of players are the true team players.
“I was happy to come in and contribute, but I certainly wouldn’t be taking any of the major accolades out of that win and that journey.”
“The second day, it was all psychological, we were on a hiding to nothing; there’d been such drama and it was such a pity the way it worked out.”
Strangely, the higher Louth climbed on the national ladder the more altitude Cooley were able to contend with. It’s as though the cycles of triumph were in tandem. Fresh from winning the junior All-Ireland with The Reds, Muckian and her clubmates glided to county championship glory, as they would in each of the next five years. Victory wouldn’t be confined to border boundaries, though. Off Cooley set on a whirlwind journey.
The girls in green and gold took hold of the Leinster junior crown and progressed to take the national title in 1998.
“We just had some journey and then in ’99, it was ‘away we go, again’.
“I’d have missed the Louth championship and came back in for the Leinster run. We’d a really solid run in Leinster and got beaten by Kilkerrin Clonberne, who had the likes of Annette Clarke and other great Galway stalwarts, in the All-Ireland intermediate final.
“It was in the depths of winter, the pitch was a soggy bog, the grass was long and there was this big, white fence around the field. I remember we were losing towards the end and there was a big crowd that started to sing ‘The fields of Athenry’. I still can’t listen to that song without thinking about it and remembering that feeling of, ‘Jesus, we’ve lost it now’.
“In 2000, we went senior and won Louth but got beaten by Timahoe (Laois) in Cooley. We gave them some rattle though, the kingpins of Leinster, and I’d a few pals on the team. The fright they got because we got so close to them - I got one of those jammy goals where you’re trying for a point and it peters over the goalline.
“But in 2001, Ballyboden… We pipped Seneschalstown (Meath) and going in against Ballyboden (Dublin), I maintain if the referee hadn’t to have made the mistake with the score I think we’d have won that day. The second day, it was all psychological, we were on a hiding to nothing; there’d been such drama and it was such a pity the way it worked out.”
The whistler had miscounted the interval total and informed the scoreboard operator to update its complexion. Cooley won the game by a point, but a successful objection by the St. Enda’s club saw a replay enforced.
“As players, we made decisions based on the scoreboard and I really think we’d have pushed on earlier in the second half had he not changed it. It was nip and tuck, but we were in the ascendency and we were well conditioned because we’d had three or four years of solid training with long seasons and we were maturing together as players.
“The second game, I remember Nicola White had emigrated and she’d been a key person for us as a club. I remember everyone was so nervous ahead of the second game and it was just really difficult psychologically to get into it. Ballyboden were fired up and we were in completely the wrong head space; we’d something to lose as far as we were concerned.”
Heartache, though Muckian’s displays were impressive enough for her to go a step further than 1999, when she earned a replacement’s recognition, and claim a prize which remains in her parents’ home.
It was the night of the 2001 All-Ireland final, in which Laois saw off Mayo. There was a banquet at the City West Hotel, which Muckian and a friend innocently went along to.
“One of my friends came out with a dinner menu and on the back of it was all the nominees - she was like, ‘you’re nominated for an All Star’. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, that’s mad!’
“Later on that night someone got up on the stage and announced the All Star team and I wasn’t even in the room at the time. One of my pals came running out, ‘you got the All Star’. I remember ringing home after midnight and sure they were in bed.
Democrat: “It wasn’t very official, this gig.”
Lorraine: “No, it wasn’t at all. It was literally announced. There was no tour so what happened was that when the All Star team was picked they’d play the All-Ireland champions. You’d replacement All Stars to fill in the places of those from the All-Ireland winners.”
The game with Laois took place some time later and, afterwards, the All Star presentations were made. So, dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a grey training top, Muckian got hold of her gong at the Montague Hotel.
No glitz or glam, but something major.
“Can you get the 60 or 80 most competitive women in the country in one space, tell them there’s 20 spots and see what happens. Sweet Jesus!”
Working and based a long way from home, Muckian joined Mountmellick Sarsfields midway through the noughties, altering her allegiances to Laois. The move was a productive one, even if another HQ appearance failed to materialise. Albeit, silverware rained.
“Any team I’ve ever joined it’s been very rare that anything has come handily, which is good, of course. There’s always been heartbreak beforehand and for two or three years we were in county finals and couldn’t get over the line.
“We finally got over the line in 2008 and it’s funny how things come full circle, we played Seneschalstown in a tight game and Ballyboden. For me, and I never communicated it to any of the girls down there, but for me, it meant more because of the experience with Cooley.
“It wasn’t a vindictive thing, but it was a motivation and I felt I wasn’t just representing myself, but the Cooley people as well. We’d a great victory before losing the All-Ireland semi-final.”
The O’Moore County had already recruited the renowned defender and through winning Leinster Championships, Muckian got to work alongside the late Lulu Carroll. Though, by 2010, an All-Ireland looked as far away as ever, particularly after defeat by Galway in the National League quarter-final.
Walking off the field that afternoon, Lorraine questioned her future at the highest level and thoughts of moving country, getting away, began to invade her mind. A comprehensive defeat by Dublin in Leinster did little to appease the negative vibes, although a run through the qualifiers came to a head when they knocked out Monaghan on the same day as Tyrone blew the championship wide-open courtesy of their defeat of serial holders Cork.
Joe Higgins’ girls now believed.
“The mindset had been different coming out of the Leinster series of games and we could see that the competition was wide open.
“We were going really well, but one play broke down and it ended in a goal, which allowed Dublin back into it. I was devastated, I was leaving and I wasn’t sure if I was coming back. It was upsetting and I remember going to Croke Park that year, Louth were in the junior final, and Dublin went on to beat Tyrone.
“I realised ’98 in Croke Park bypassed me and you’re always looking to go back. You’re talking to people who’ve had those experiences and they talk about how amazing they were. You then just want to experience it again; I just wanted one more shot at it. It just wasn’t for us in 2010, unfortunately.”
But Muckian can never question herself. After all, just a couple of seasons earlier, in 2006, Armagh legend Jarlath Burns had viewed her highly enough to select the Peninsula woman for the Ireland team to take on Australia.
“Can you get the 60 or 80 most competitive women in the county in one space, tell them there’s 20 spots and see what happens. Sweet Jesus! The extra physicality, we worked so hard in the trials.”
The professional environment which was created, that surrounded fixtures which Ireland won handily at both Breffni and Parnell Park, was incredible. An experience like no other.
Muckian and Keenan, two greats on a par. The former, though, is undoubtedly Louth’s most decorated.