Back in the game and ready for Ulster Final

19 years after playing her first senior game for Kinawley Brian Boru’s, Gemma McCaffrey is preparing for an Ulster final this weekend. The mother of three, was forced to retire from the game she loves in 2009, after a torn cruciate the previous year. Then life took over!

Gemma, mother to three children, 5 year old twin boys Jack and Owen and 2 year old Conor, is one of four mammies on the team. The full forward says it was Gaelic For Mothers and Others that enticed her back into the game last year.

“It got me going again, it lit the flame and it wasn’t enough- we trained one night a week and I just loved it. Catherine Murphy used to come too and we’d sit and we’d watch the ladies training and we said, feck it, will we give it one more shot.

“It was the Mothers and Others and after that we thought we’d try out for the juniors and see how it goes and it has just progressed and progressed and I’m addicted completely now!” she laughs.

Gemma, admits the game has changed massively since her early days of playing with only three of the current crop, Shauna Melanophy, Aine Haren and Antoinette Lee spanning back to the early 2000s when Gemma was roaming in and around the full forward line.

“The level of talent is huge, like Roisin O’Reilly and Joanne Doonan, holey moley, it’s crazy coming back into it. It’s a different ball game from when I used to play.

Gemma is usually sprung from the bench in the second half and her impact has been huge for Kinawley, bagging 1-02 in the county final against Derrygonnelly. The role of super sub suits the modest 34 year old perfectly and she heaps praise on her teammates rather than taking any herself.

“It’s pure luck, it’s the ball that’s coming in to me! They’re so clever and so intelligent, the football now, whereas before I would’ve played full forward and stood there. Now you cannot just stand in one place, you’re going.

“The likes of Joanne Doonan, she’s really vocal so she will be saying, ‘move, go, space’ so you’re constantly on the go. So every time I turn, she’s looking at me, giving me the ball, so it’s just what ball I’m getting in really and truly, the only reason I’m getting the scores is because of them to be honest.”

Adapting to football in the current form has been something McCaffrey says was “very hard to begin with, it’s very fast football” but it has provided such an important outlet for Gemma after the sad passing of her mother Carmel, last year.

“I needed an outlet after mammy passed away, I needed something for my own head, so Mark was so supportive for me to go to football, so he’s at home and between Anne Marie (sister) and Gary (brother) it makes it so much easier.

“For me it was always the way, when something is hard going, I always turned to football. The camaraderie of the girls and just that team feeling.”

The last time Kinawley played in the Ulster Club final was in 2019 and Gemma was in the stands watching as Kinawley lost out to Cavan champions Drumlane. Now, two years later, Gemma feels so fortunate to be part of this Brian Boru’s side.

“It’s not even the notion of playing, just to be part of that squad of girls, it’s an unbelievable feeling. To go from never winning a senior championship, to winning one this year and then going to my first ever Ulster Intermediate final, it’s just crazy.

“This Ulster final, we have nothing to lose. This Steelstown team are very, very good, very tough but the pressure is off us now and we’ll play on the day as best as we can.”

While Gemma says the pressure is off, she does however hope they can make the breakthrough in their third consecutive final.

“At this point, we consider ourselves a senior team, so it is time to get out of intermediate. That bit of pressure leads to a bit of composure too, they know what’s coming, they’ve been here before, so they’ve got that hunger to push on this time because we got it tough enough to get out of Fermanagh this year, so we don’t want to lose it this time.”

With the game set for this Saturday in Augher, Gemma is more than ready for the occasion and says nerves no longer play a part.

“Nerves are gone! I think it comes with age, I’ve less nerves now than when I was younger, when you want to impress. I just want to do well for the team, do well for myself and let the nerves go because it all comes down to the day. On the day, relax and just savour where you are and savour the opportunity.”

Asked if this will be her swan song, Gemma is far from hanging up the boots yet.
“At the beginning I thought, I’ll give it one last lash and here I am in the depths of November and I don’t want it to end. I want to keep ‘er lit as long as I can, as long as the body will let me.”