Official Aras Mumhan Website

22nd March 2024

There is a photo that Nicole Walsh loves, even though it was taken in the aftermath of Tipperary’s devastating All-Ireland camogie semi-final defeat to Waterford last July.

By Daragh Ó Conchúir

The final whistle has been blown and Sportsfile photographer, Piaras Ó Midheach has turned his lens towards the stands at UPMC Nowlan Park. He trains it on a woman, her right hand to her mouth in obvious bitter disappointment.

Held by her left arm is an infant child, soother in mouth, ear muffs on to protect her from the raucous exhortations of both sets of supporters in a throbbing arena.

The pair are donning county jerseys.

The woman is Geraldine Walsh, the baby, her six-month-old grandchild, Ellie-Mai Boland.

Geraldine knows all about the slings and arrows of supporting Gaelic games teams. Her father, Seán Kenny captained Tipp hurlers in 1950. Her daughter Nicole is a Tipperary player.

Nicole is Ellie-Mai’s mum. She is a veteran, a constant in terms of sublime stickwork and vital scores in the blue and gold as well as for her beloved Borris-Ileigh.

She scored 1-1 as Tipp bagged their first ever All-Ireland minor title in 2011, her converted free two minutes from time nudging a team that also included Julie Ann Bourke, Clodagh Quirke and the Fryday cousins, Sarah and Ereena, ahead with a couple of minutes remaining, having trailed a fantastic Kilkenny unit that boasted Claire Phelan, Meighan Farrell and the Walsh cousins, Miriam and Grace, by nine points at half-time.

The goal had arrived in the 52nd minute to bring Tipp level. This was a big-time operator.

Walsh did it at senior level for years as Tipp made those infinitesimal improvements particularly under Bill Mullaney.

She got married to Damien Boland early in 2022 and a short while after, became pregnant, giving birth to Ellie-Mai on February 1 last year.
Returning to the fold with Borris went smoothly and so when Denis Kelly invited her back into the Tipp squad for the Championship, she didn’t have to think twice. While the campaign ended in heartbreak, it meant a lot for Walsh to be there again and for Ellie-Mai to be there too.

“I never planned on retiring unless something major had went wrong,” says Walsh. “I had great support behind me. My family and Damien are all into sport, so there was no doubt about it that I was going back once Ellie-Mai, who is always the priority, was okay..

“When I had Ellie-Mai, the lads with Tipp were doing hard running, gym work, all that kind of training and I wouldn’t have been able for that. But I played the League with the club. I’d say I went back too soon if you were to ask any doctor. It was nine-to-ten weeks, and that was post C-section.

“I remember the first training and also the first match, I was tip-tapping around the place. I wasn’t really going into many tackles but it’s gas what a couple of weeks can do confidence-wise. I just felt like my body reacted perfectly to be honest. I was very happy with it but maybe that was just from pre-pregnancy, I was a gym instructor and doing a lot of core strength work three or four nights a week so that definitely helped post-pregnancy.

Given women that have had caesarean delivery are told not to lift anything for six weeks, being back on the pitch after nine would not be for everyone but Walsh has never sought the easy out. Having six brothers ensured hardiness, of which there was no better illustration than in the summer of 2019, when she was airlifted from The Ragg unconscious.

The All-Ireland Championship round-robin tie with Waterford was abandoned, not that Walsh had any clue about that.

“I just remember waking up in the helicopter in mid-air and your man telling me, ‘You are okay, you are safe.’”, she told me ahead of that year’s quarter-final against Limerick, which Tipp won.

She was well back in the fold by then, having had to sit out for a fortnight to ensure her recovery from concussion. There was no second-guessing then and there isn’t now.

This year though, as Tipperary have recovered from a first round defeat in the most competitive Very League Division 1A battle we have seen in years by defeating champions Galway and All-Ireland victors Cork, her role is very different.

It’s deadly rivals Kilkenny next up at the Tipperary Camogie Grounds and Walsh is now poacher-turned-gamekeeper, swapping goal-seeking for goal-stopping, although there is a lot more to the custodian’s role nowadays. Indeed, her control skills and comfort in possession have accelerated the transition, and it is notable how often she gets the ball back from a short puckout to unleash a delivery from a more advanced position with space created somewhere else.

Still, it is a steep learning curve

“I did a good few sessions with our goalkeeper coach, Ciarán Hackett and he’s been excellent. He’s made the transition very easy. There’s a lot of different skills a goalie has to an outfield player, and I definitely don’t have all of them yet but I’m trying.”
Understandably, she’s not going to advertise what she feels she might have to work on yet but the mental side is a significant challenge.

“It’s concentration levels. I know you have to be concentrating 100% the whole time whether you’re out the field or in goals but I definitely find myself more mentally drained after a game being in goals because you’re trying to keep everything in tow.

“You’re the only one on the pitch that can see everything. The centre-back can’t see everything but I can. So if I don’t have the ball, I’m constantly scanning who’s in front of me and trying to keep them in tow along with myself.”

All this is going on while an extension was being built onto Damien’s home place and they finally moved in last Saturday. It is a change, to be living on a farm after a lifetime in the village. She still teaches at the secondary school she attended, St Joseph’s College. It is right across the road from where she grew up.

“I’m not used to travelling to work,” Walsh jokes, now that she has to make the trip from Silvermines.

Her loyalties are in no way divided, however and while that is okay now, it might become an issue when Ellie-Mai begins to puck a sliotar.

“There’s talks already about it. Where she’s going to school, where she’s going training. I’m not looking forward to the serious conversation about it, to be honest!”

Damien himself hopes to return for Silvermines this term after recovering from a serious Achilles injury that has sidelined him for a few years.

“He decided to get that injury when I was due Ellie-Mai and I’m like, ‘You’re supposed to be looking after me and I’m looking after you!’ That’s men for you.”

The smart money is on Ellie-Mai playing for Borris-Ileigh. And maybe Tipp.

Just like her mother.

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