Hilda Breslin, taking over as Camogie President
The year 2020 is one that will be recalled with much pleasure and joy down Athy way.
It was, of course, the season Athy footballers were crowned senior football champions for just the seventh time in their history and their third time in best part of some 60 years.
There was, however, another very significant happening that encompases GAA in Athy in 2020, and that was the election of Hilda Breslin as incoming President of the Camogie Association.
The popular Athy lady had been involved with camogie in Athy from a long way back and while the club has had many up-and-downs and ins-and-outs, it was reformed some 18 years ago and is going strong ever since.
A great-great grand-
daughter of Big Jim Larkin, Hilda has two sisters, Aoife (Member of Kildare Co. Councillor), and Blaithin, while brother, Jim, is Secretary General, Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Society, having previously held a similar position in the Department of Health.
Hilda's daughter, Hannah, is doing a Masters in International Relations in DCU at present while Hilda, herself is Auditing Standards Manager with IAASA (The Irish Auditing and Accounting Supervisory Authority) based in Naas.
“I became more active in camogie when the club was reformed, says Hilda, “my daughter was playing at the time; I later moved on to the county, held the position of County Secretary before advancing to Leinster as Vice-Chairperson, then Chairperson and for the last six years has served as Chair of National Competitions so a very busy time overall.”
Hilda admits that looking after national fixtures was a fairly onerous task, fairly hands-on “but I liked fixtures; very rewarding especially when it works well; I have tried to improve the standard in terms of competitions and venues; just to give it more certainty as we increase the profile of the inter-county game.
“Then last year I decided to throw my name into the hat for the presidency; no congress last April, re-arranged in October, remotely, and I was elected Uachtaráin Tofa; and then I take up the Presidency on April 10.”
Little did Hilda, the camogie people as an association, or anyone of us as far as that goes, realise that we would still be in lockdown forcing the 2021 Congress to be once again held remotely.
“Hopefully” Hilda laughs, “come 2022 we will all be able to meet up again face-to-
Consideration was given to postponing congress again, but with so much uncertainty around it was decided to go ahead with it.
Hilda admits, and few would disagree, that no matter how well a zoom meeting is organised it is still not the same.
“It will difficult and challenging” admits Hilda, adding “some of the proposed (rule) changes may be somewhat contentious, and when you are not getting the same inter-action on zoom, it is not as easy to discuss motions and get the real feeling but anyway we decided to go ahead with it and while it is a concern, but if we were to wait, there is no certainty with Covid-19.”
Some time ago the Camogie Association set up a working group, chaired by former GAA President, Liam O'Neill, and that group came up with six or seven rule changes, which have been trialed and are down for ratification at congress.
Defining contact is one and the thought behind that seems to be to clarify, in rule, what exactly contact is allowed. Minimal contact is allowed providing, and very important, if you are going for the sliothar. It seemed to have worked very well during the trialing.
Among other proposed changes are disallowing the handpass goal while dropping the hurl will also be an offence.
Another proposed change will see, where up to now a player was shown a yellow card, she will now be given a tick, with a yellow to follow if the offence is repeated.
All, on the face of it, seem very practical, have been part of hurling for some time now and seem to work well.
A couple of the more contentious proposed changes have the potential to speed up the game.
A quick puck-out will be allowed following a wide, in other words a player does not have to wait for the whistle, once the sliother goes wide the keeper can immediately take a puck out.
“It is something that has worked well last season, with many county managers using it to their advantage” says the incoming President.
Another change that could certainly speed things up, is being allowed to take a quick free and while a player cannot score direcetly from it , nevertheless, it has the potential to test the concentration levels of players.
Hilda Breslin said she believes both those changes could be looked at by the GAA and Ladies football as they could possibly (hopefully) cut out time-wasting, especially late on, adding “the game has moved on, players are a lot of fitter; they are all doing strength and conditioning, so in a way there is no reason why the game should not be quickened up; makes for less fouling; better skill levels and unlike other sports we trial the rules in the inter-county game first but once they are brought in they are in for all levels from underage to senior, club and county; so it will be interesting to see how they pan out in the club games.”
So overall is camogie in a good place at the minute; is the standards rising throughout the country?
While there are three tiers in camogie Hilda feels that they have seen improvement, particularly in Ulster in recent times.
“Cavan are in Tier 3 yet they played in the Premier Junior final against Armagh; so they have progressed; as have Tyrone; one of the previous Tier 3 counties would have been Carlow and they are now up at Intermediate level but really where the game is working and progressing it is working well, but it can stagnate.
“It is about putting the work in on the ground but importantly maintaining the growth; no point in having the growth in the game but can't sustain it on the ground and in the clubs and build it up from there.
“There are a lot more different counties these days hunting for medals, in all grades; a lot more open competitions I would think even over the last six years and it is getting harder to predict who is going to get into the finals of all grades and that has to be a good thing.”
“I think the gap is closing but whether the gap is closing quickly enough is hard to say but everyone is so impatient these days; you have to remember camogie is a very skillful game and it takes time to build up a county team, at any level, and it is always easier for a county to fall back instead of progressing further on.
“Ulster are back as a force, a lot of work has gone in there; they had started to drift a bit, however, Down won the intermediate last year and are now senior; Armagh won the Premier Junior; a strong Ulster is very good for camogie; the four provinces need to be strong as that is what makes it a more even game across the entire country.”
A crossover of fixtures between camogie and Ladies football has been in the news again of late but Hilda insists that there is huge co-operation and interaction between the two bodies while pointing out that unlike other sports live television coverage often dictates dates of big games.
“RTÉ dictates when our games are on, with live TV coverage, that is when we have to put the game on; we can't pick and choose our times and dates, we are very much relying on coverage and access to resources to pitches; we don't have the flexibility that others enjoy but I have to say the lines of communication between the two associations are excellent; if something goes wrong, or falls down, you will hear about it but you don't necessarily hear about the 95 per cent of times everything runs smoothly.”
Hilda admits that just like dual players in hurling and football, Ladies football and camogie players encounter the same problems; it is a huge commitment these days to play one, never mind two games, but we have a significant number of dual players and we should do everything to accommodate them as much as possible.”
While Hilda agrees that media coverage of camogie has improved she says for an organisation that is close to being in existence for nearly 120 years, it is not before time. “If you look back on old records, seek out paper clippings etc, they are simply not there, it was just not covered but as far as female sports are concerned we, in camogie, are not unique in that regard, but in the last ten years the coverage of women's sports and camogie in particular have increased significantly.”
The Athy native added that she feels at local level the coverage has been good, particularly at club level; national media was lacking but has improved, it is difficult but when we do get live TV coverage the audience numbers are very healthy; we took the view to stream the games last year during lockdown; streaming could be the only way again this year, unfortunately.
The Camogie Association have some excellent sponsors, both nationally and locally. Nationally Liberty Insurance cover the championships; Littlewoods cover the Leagues while Tesco covers at club level, while Kildare Camogie are also now involved with the Brady Family Ham sponsorship of all things GAA in Lilywhiteland.
“Our sponsors have been excellent, have stood with us over the past 12 months or so; I think they realise we have a good product and nationally when games are screened live on TV the numbers are excellent and that is a positive for all of them also.”
Financially, the Camogie Association are certainly in a strong position, in fact probably stronger than many other sporting organisations throughout the entire country and when Hilda is reminded of that it felt she was waiting for the question.
“Yes, we are in a good position; we had a lot of support last year from the government which was very welcome; we are going into this year with a healthy surplus but this coming year could be problematic.
“Last year there was a lot of emphasis on keeping sports going, providing grants and all that; our reserves can sustain us in the short term; they were built up for the purpose that we could sustain ourselves; we don't have huge assets though but it is all down to the people in administration down the years, who have done a great job.
“This year we are going to need them; particularly if the government support is not as generous as it was last year but we would hope that if we can get through 2021 then in 2022 we will return to something like normal,
whatever that is at this stage.”
Being in a stable position, financially, enabled the association to avoid any redundancies, short time working or even cut-backs for its 20 or so full time employees, something other sporting organisations were not in a position to do.
“In many ways it was our way of thanking our staff for the great service they have given to camogie down the years; many have been with us over a long number of years; the main thing at this stage is to be ready to go once we are given the green light to resume activities.
One of the main talking points these days is the possible amalgamation of the GAA, the Camogie Association and the LGFA, it is something that has been out there for a fair few years at this stage, without really making a lot of progress.
No doubt a lot of close co-operation has been ongoing in recent times but the incoming Camogie President emphasis that of now “we are completely separate; three separate associations; separate funding; separate governing bodies and while there has been great co-operation between the three, particular with the GAA; we now sit on a lot of GAA committees; and have a lot of cross family initiatives.
“The talk is all about us becoming one association, it is the logical conclusion and if we were been founded now it would certainly be just the one association. I think if we have a shared vision for the Gaelic Games family then that is what we should certainly be looking at.
“However we would have to consult our members; camogie is very much in favour of looking at a full amalgamation, very active at looking at it and involved in talks — as long as it would be done on a fair and equity model.
“The reality of course is that most people see very little difference between the three associations on the ground; the logical conclusion is to become one, whether that is in the short or long term is the question, but I think there is an emphasis on it at the moment; there is a MOU (memo of understanding) with the GAA for the last three years, and that is due to be renewed now, so possibly this is the right time to move that MOU on further and see where that will get us in the next three years or so.
“Whatever that leads us though would certainly have to be fair and equitable, remember we (camogie) are very much driven by our members and our volunteers on the ground and that is one of the complaints that you hear regularly about the GAA, they have become so big that the voices of the volunteers may not be as active as it once was.
“For us that would be a concern, that we would lose the voice of our people on the ground; we would have to ensure that any model would retain that; we are an amateur association and an amateur sport and our ethos is inclusion, we don't want to get to the level that a business case is often dominating but I suppose you also have to keep the balance and that is a big worry and concern for all associations to keep that balance.”
Leaving the Covid-19 aside Hilda says camogie is in a very positive place at the minute.
“In the short time we need to get the games back; particularly the teenage players back on the pitch; we have an issue with female retention and you would be concerned that if we keep losing time we will lost those teenage players; it is difficult to retain them at the best of times and I would hope that maybe come April or so , we are told we could get the underage players back; get that cohort of players back out in a safe environment, with the rest would follow soon after.
“Northern Ireland are returning to some sort of action from April 12 so hopefully; we did it last year, very successfully, and hopefully we could do it again; even improve on a few aspects of things, we will, as usual, be guided by the Public Health Authorities.”
Whatever about Athy being senior county football champions for the next three years, one thing is for sure, Hilda Breslin will be leading the Camogie Association for all of that period.
We wish Hilda, and her association, all the best in 2021, and beyond.