By Daire Walsh
While her memory of the on-field action is somewhat sketchy, Laois defender Clodagh Dunne had the privilege of being amongst a crowd of 21,000 at Croke Park as her county finally reached the promised land on September 30, 2001.
Following seven previous defeats - and a drawn encounter with Monaghan in 1996 - the O’Moore women eventually claimed the TG4 All-Ireland senior football championship crown courtesy of a dramatic win against reigning champions Mayo. On level terms with time almost up, Mary Kirwan knocked over a late free to ensure Laois secured a breakthrough Brendan Martin Cup success on a final score of 2-14 to 1-16.
“I barely remember it. I just remember the fear that I felt. My Dad, I was on his shoulders. I would have been maybe five or six. He leaped up, we were up high in the stand and he jumped up out of the stand when they’d won and the final whistle went,” Dunne recalled of that historic day in Dublin.
“I thought I was going to land straight down onto the field! I just remember him bringing me to all the games and telling me about different players like Sue Ramsbottom. All the legends really.”
Although Ramsbottom (a seven-time TG4 All Star winner) retired just a couple of years later, Kirwan was still on the scene when Dunne made her debut for the Laois seniors as a teenager in 2012.
She had to contend with the disappointment of relegation from the senior championship in 2017, before sampling her own All-Ireland glory at GAA HQ last July. Selected as part of a full-back line that also included Aisling Donoher and team captain Aimee Kelly, Dunne and her O’Moore colleagues held off a strong challenge from provincial rivals Wexford in Croke Park to get their hands on the TG4 All-Ireland intermediate football championship trophy.
From the starting line-up in that game, 13 made their county debuts when Laois still held senior status. The two exceptions are the aforementioned Kelly and Sarah Anne Fitzgerald, who only joined the panel in 2020 after bringing the curtain down on her time with the county’s camogie team.
In addition to having the experience of playing at the top level, Dunne feels their exposure to Croke Park in the past 12 months has proven to be hugely beneficial. As well as last year’s All-Ireland decider, Laois were in the Jones’ Road venue to take on Armagh in the Lidl National Football League Division 2 final on April 15 - a game they lost on a score of 4-9 to 2-10 after a gallant attempt at a comeback.
“We lost a few girls from the panel last year, but even the team that is starting, there are girls that have been there all along and they’re after breaking into the team now. It’s brilliant.
"They would have experienced being in Croke Park last year and even the league there just gone by, it was great to get to Croke Park again. All these games help build the team and experience for our girls as well.”
Whilst it has been well documented that Meath won their maiden TG4 All-Ireland senior football championship title in 2021, less than a calendar year after winning the intermediate crown, this is something Laois managed a couple of decades earlier.
Just over 12 months before that red letter day in September 2001, the Midlanders recorded a 3-14 to 1-13 triumph at the expense of Cork in a second-tier showpiece at New Inn, Tipperary.
Only time will tell if this current Laois group are capable of replicating this achievement, but Donie Brennan’s charges are set to be significantly road tested in advance of the TG4 All-Ireland senior football championship getting underway in June.
Next weekend will see them facing a Meath side that are aiming to remain on top of the ladies football ladder in the TG4 Leinster senior football championship. Before then, however, Laois will mark their return to the top-tier provincial series with an enticing duel against Dublin at DCU St Clare’s tomorrow afternoon (throw-in 2pm).
The O’Moore County were the last team outside of the Jackies to win a Leinster senior crown - their victory over Meath in the 2011 showpiece being their 12th overall. Laois will more than likely be underdogs coming into their upcoming games with Dublin and the Royals, but these are exactly the kinds of games Dunne and her team-mates are craving.
“It’s great to be playing senior and Dublin and Meath are two top teams. They have many All-Irelands between them, but we’re looking at it as a great opportunity. It’s who you want to be playing. It’s who you strive to be playing against. We’re just really looking forward to the challenge ahead."
Away from the playing field, Dunne has made sure to keep herself busy in recent years. A secondary school teacher at Portlaoise College, she is also a commissioned artist and started up an Instagram page during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic to showcase her work.
Included amongst her ever-expanding portfolio is the extremely popular ‘Laois Series’, a selection of drawings that capture people, places and things from across her native county.
“A neighbour of mine just got onto me to draw three pubs in our little village [Ballyroan] and it just struck off from there. I had always said I’d start an Instagram page when I was in college and only then that my cousin had asked me, I set up the Instagram page and it just grew and grew and grew," Dunne added.
“I’m still surprised three or four years later that I’m still getting orders and still busy with the drawing. I love it, it keeps me sane basically. It’s a nice hobby to have on the side. Between GAA and art, I think the two of them would be a big deal for me. I love drawing. I do commissions for people or else do my own bit of artwork of different landscapes around Laois.”Tweet