By Ciaran O’Donnell
Pioneering can be a tough business. Yet it can also yield huge dividends if the foundations are laid on the right road. And so it was for former inter-county footballer, Mary Harkin, better known back in the day as Mary Gordon.
Mary Gordon was a natural-born leader and the obvious choice to captain the Donegal team to take the field for their first competitive fixture. Having captained the St Eunan’s team in their first season in 1992 from the full-back position, she knew the gig.
She would go on to captain Donegal to the Ulster junior championship title in 1993, and led out the Donegal teams onto the hallowed turf at headquarters in the All-Ireland finals of 1993 and 1994.
Camogie was her first love. She came up through the ranks at Loreto Convent, with St Eunan’s and with Donegal.
She was vice-captain of the Donegal camogie team in 1991 when the notion of swapping the sliotar for the big ball set in for real. Her reward for staying with the camogie team would have been the captaincy the following year. It was a decision she tossed over a fair bit before she took a step into the unknown and became part of something different.
Her first game of football was for St Eunan’s in a friendly away to Urris near the end of 1991.
“It was fantastic,” she recalls.
“I remember catching a high ball and the feeling I got from catching that ball was unreal.”
Kevin Barron was coach, mentor and minder rolled into one. He was also someone Mary has the utmost respect for. His influence was major in her decision to swap over.
“Kevin was great. It’s just what he said. He never said a lot, but when he spoke he made me feel that I was the best thing since sliced bread for catching that high ball,” she says.
“I was playing in full back and I absolutely loved it. I loved the speed of the camogie, but I think the football was just something new.” Her sister, Liz, Leala McCusker and Donna Kavanagh also made the transition from stick-and-ball to ball only.
Family bragging rights were retained in the Gordon household at Gortlee, courtesy of the victory in the Inishowen peninsula, as the Urris line-up included Mary’s cousins, Sharon and Fran McDaid.
The success of Donegal’s men in1992 was a huge factor in the dramatic rise in the interest of women’s football locally.
“Who didn’t love gaelic that time? The timing was good,” she comments.
A month after Anthony Molloy accepted the Sam Maguire in 1992, Mary Gordon led St Eunan’s to victory over Cloughaneely in the first ladies county final. Trials for the county team followed and the Donegal ladies senior team’s first outing was a challenge game at home to Galway. Pat Walsh from Balintra was team manager and he was assisted by Kevin Barron.
Donegal beat Fermanagh comfortably in the Ulster decider in 1993, despite being written off beforehand.
For the next five years, Mary was a mainstay at the heart of the Donegal rearguard.
She married well known Termon man, James Harkin, and their first of five children, Amy, now 21, was born in 1997.
“I tried to get back into it after she was born, but it was very hard,” explains Mary, who later lined out for Termon and Cloughaneely before the playing boots were put up on the hook for good.
“All the children came close together then. Ciaran is 19, Orla is 18, Cora is 16 and Hannah is 13.”
A busy house, for sure.
While Mary is concentrating on other things now – she has her own Montessori and was a founding member of the Errigal Cycling Club along with her husband, James, in 2008 – she still keeps tabs on the ladies football scene.
“We were at the Ulster ladies final in Brewster Park in June and I was very impressed. The standard of football blew me away. To me it was much better than any club game I’ve been at, and that’s no disrespect to men. I find it’s more disciplined and they just go and play. The scores they were taking were superb. I thought Karen Gutherie was excellent and Geraldine McLaughlin is just a different class. Their speed and quick reaction times were awesome and their fitness levels are just supreme. And yet I still don’t think they get enough credit.”
It’s a quarter of a century since Mary and Co paved the way for the current crop of Donegal ladies who are on the scent of the big prize.
“When we started, we didn’t come from an underage background. Players these days are playing from under-12,” she says.
Joan Barron was the sharp shooter for Donegal in the early days, and a player of sublime skill with exceptional talent.
“Joan would have made any men’s county team. Once she caught the ball and turned, she didn’t have to look up. She was just a different class. Grace Meade was another fantastic footballer. She could pick the ball up running. I’ve never seen anyone pick the ball up like her. Leala McCusker and Deirdre Sweeney were another two superb footballers – nothing got past Leala McCusker.”
In recent months, Mary met up with her former team mates from both club and county. St Eunan’s held a reunion back in November and the Donegal team of 1993 were honoured by the Ladies Ulster Council prior to Donegal’s provincial final victory last month.
“It was great to meet up with the girls again. Social media has made it easy to keep in touch. Eileen McGinley from Cloughaeneely who played on the team, sadly passed away two years ago from cancer.”
Looking back on her playing career, Mary has many memories to hold on to.
“We had a blast. Deirdre Galligan was just a howl from start to finish. They were a great bunch of girls and you couldn’t ask for better. Even meeting up the last day, it was as if you were never away,” she says.
Leading Donegal onto Croke Park against London in 1993 and against Meath in 1994 were, without question, were the pinnacles. Losing both finals hurt. Big time.
“We were on such a high in 1993 and hadn’t been beaten all season. All of a sudden it was a case of ‘were we invincible?’ But that was London’s fifth All-Ireland final and their first time to win it. I don’t really remember a lot about Meath the following year.”
When she stood in awe in Croke Park watching Donegal’s men’s team win the Sam Maguire in 1992, Mary never imagined she would be inside the arena herslf so soon after in pursuit of glory.
“The hype of playing in Croke Park and to be captain of your county was something else.”
The sight of her father, Neil, and late mother, Catherine, who died in 2012, in the stands on those big occasions at Croker is stored away in the forever section of the memory volt.
She may be retired from the contact sport, but Mary is still very much in contact with sport, having spent a lot of years coaching underage girls’ teams at Cloughaneely.
“I’m more involved in cycling now and I did my first triathlon in Gartan on Saturday. What was really interesting was that Ciara Ferry and Suzanne Tinney, who I played football with, also did it. I came in in 1:47 and was delighted. Breaking two hours was the aim and anything under 1:50 was a real bonus.”
Mary was part of a four-woman team which competed in the Wild Atlantic Ultra 555k Cycle last year.
“I loved every minute of it,” she enthuses. “I might be too old for football, but not for other things. Sport is great in that you are still showing your children what can be done,” adds Mary.
She hasn’t taken up the offers of a round of golf yet, but all going well, she’s hoping to give the Sheephaven Half Iron Man a go next year in Downings.
The live-for-now mother of five is still determined to break new ground. Still keen to ask the questions of herself and those on the same page.