by Paul O’Dowd
There is great excitement in Connacht Hockey circles, following the founding of its newest club, Athenry Swans in September. This is the first new hockey club in Galway in over ten years.
Hockey in Ireland is currently enjoying a boom time, thanks mostly to the international success of the men’s team, which qualified for the Rio Olympics, and the women’s team, which was runners-up in the 2018 World Cup and represented Ireland this year at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Athenry Swans club has tapped into the huge interest in the game in the local area, with new members coming from Athenry Boys’ School, Gaelscoil Riada, Scoil Chroi Naofa, Lisheenkyle National School, Newcastle National School and Coolarne National School.
The new club already has 78 players – with a good mix of boys and girls. The juniors range in age from under 7’s to under 15’s. There is also a growing adult squad, from age 16 up to 60, with men and women equally represented.
Speaking on a sunny Sunday, with the under 12’s training in the background on the astroturf in Athenry, Club Chairperson, Ray Sweeney, said,
“This club is built from the ground up. It was Natasha Loughnane who first identified the interest in the game locally and she, along with Athenry-native Maura Conway-Keane, provided the spark that started the club.
“Natasha contacted Kevin Keane at Connacht Hockey, who helped us put our plans and a web site together. We put out the call to everyone in the area and we have been just amazed at the response.
“Huge numbers turning up to our taster session in September and we knew we were on to something big. Hockey Ireland then came on board to help out.
“Six of our coaches went on their Fundamentals of Hockey Course, and our coaching sessions are all following national guidelines for each age group. What’s even more significant is the number of parents who stepped up to help on the committee and with coaching.”
On pitch-side, coach Mary Kate Heaslip, taking time out from working with the under-ten’s, said “Hockey is just an amazing game. It’s non-contact, which appeals to many players, and it also involves fast running, passing and teamwork.
“Players develop excellent close ball-control skills and improve their hand-eye coordination. It’s a team game that can last a lifetime. Ireland even has an over-70 international team.
“I, myself, have been playing since my school days, and I still love to pull on the Connacht jersey every year.
Club Secretary, Denise Glavin said, “We have got so much help from the area, it’s been fantastic. Athenry Football Club have been brilliant in accommodating us on their excellent astroturf facility.
“We are also grateful to our sponsors, Kevin Burke Tyres who have sponsored our training equipment, O’Flaherty Pharmacy and Kelly’s Pharmacy, who each sponsored our Physio First Aid Kits, and Fit4Food, who are sponsoring our light-blue jerseys.”
Children’s Club Officer, Tammie Corrigan, said, “We look forward to linking up with the other clubs in the county. Renmore HC has also recently had a Taster Day for new members, and we plan for our juniors to play with those Renmore players who are at a similar level.
“We have also just held a competition in the local schools, asking the children to design our club crest and we got an incredible 170 entries. Once the winning design is picked, we hope to have a member of the Irish ladies Olympic Squad visit Athenry to present the prize.”
Local Councillor Shelly Herterich Quinn (FF) welcomed the commencement of the Athenry Swans, saying, “As a past player, I am delighted to see a hockey club set up in Athenry. I hope the young players enjoy the game as much as I did when I was in school.
“The Government’s commitment to funding major sporting infrastructure through the Large Scale Sport Infrastructure Fund is a vital funding stream, particularly in rural Ireland.”
Commenting on the development, President of Connacht Hockey, Kevin Keane, said, “This is an exceptional development for hockey in our province.
“While Galway Hockey Club is set to celebrate its 70th birthday in November, here we have a new club starting up with strong roots in the local community.
“You’re going to see a lot more new hockey clubs in the coming years, as we look to grow the game by linking up townlands and working with towns around the province.
“With that in mind, we are hiring a Regional Development Officer for Connacht, whose primary role will be the development of hockey at grass-roots level, as well as among our third-level education institutions.
“We’re also looking to develop new playing facilities, including on the east side of Galway.
“Connacht Hockey is calling on Government to designate hockey as a sport of strategic national importance, given its capacity to deliver international success, while at the same time providing life-long team-based activity.”
Coach, John Stevens, praised the “amazing talent” in the club. Kiwi, Stevens, has played hockey for Canterbury Province Under 21’s and the Royal New Zealand Air Force. More recently, he has represented Connacht at interprovincial Masters level.
“Already I can see the juniors picking up the skills of the game. We’re off to a flying start and we’re getting new members every week. We have a very enthusiastic mixed group of adults playing too.
“We train on Sundays from 1:30 to 3:30pm in Athenry FC’s grounds. All ages and abilities are welcome – from juniors to adults, even if you have never played the game – to come along and try it out.