Royal trail blazers who have led from the front

The achievements of women in sport can be inspiring but who are the people who inspired those who have done wonderous deeds on various sporting fronts? We asked three high-achieving sportswoman from Meath - Jackie Shiels, Nichola Duffy and Ann Marie Dennehy - that question. We also sought to find out: What obstacles they overcame?; Do girls and women face tougher challenges?; What would be their advice to next generation of girls? JIMMY GEOGHEGAN reports.


Capped 28 times for Ireland in rugby between 2008 and 2016, Jackie Shiels enjoyed a varied career in sport. She was part of the Irish squads for the Rugby World Cup in 2010 and 2014 and helped the Girls in Green to the semi-finals in France in that latter competition. She was also part of the squad that won the Six Nations in 2015. In Gaelic football she won two SFC titles with Simonstown Gaels and played from the ages of 14 to 21 on the Meath senior team. She also represented Ireland in soccer at u-16 and u-18 levels. Jackie Shiels works as a teacher in Loreto, Navan.

"One of the people who inspired me most was my mother, Sara Shiels. She came everywhere with me, supporting me, throughout my sporting career.

"A big influential figure for me was Tommy Dowd and a female footballer would be Ann Marie Dennehy, she's still playing. I liked how Tommy played as a footballer and with the Meath team. When I went into the Meath Ladies set-up at 14, Ann Marie treated me normally, I really enjoyed playing alongside her. Her dedication and commitment to Meath football really inspired me.

"One of the most difficult obstacles I overcame was when I broke my leg, it was my first season playing rugby, I was in UCD. It was the year Meath got to a Div 1 final against Cork and I broke my leg just before that happened. I always say to younger players it was one of the worst and best things that happened to me.

"I missed so much but from another point of view it made me aware you're not infallible, every player is replaceable. It was a valuable lesson because you realise your playing career can be short so you need to and take every opportunity while you can.

"One of the most valuable lessons I learned is prepare the best you can. If you are not picked for a team at least you know you did your very, very best. I would say to any young player as long as you can look back and have no regrets about how you prepared or how you worked then you can be happy.

"When I started playing for Ireland I was working a five-day working week (as a teacher) in London, getting a flight at six in the morning landing at eight, training Saturday and Sunday in Dublin. Male athletes at professional level don't have that.

“In rugby and Gaelic football I have gone training where we have had the second pitch or had to work around the men's schedule or having had to have food in the car on the way home while the male players got food directly after training. Thankfully all that is changing."

‘You do learn really good coping mechanisms, life skills’


Ann Marie Dennehy  played football for Meath for approximately 15 years and during her career she won an All-Star at centre-half-back in 1998. A mother of three she was also nominated for replacement All-Stars.

The Kilmessan woman - who is married to Conor Martin (chairman of the juvenile committee with Kilmessan Hurling Club) - was also a regular on the county camogie team throughout the 1990s and helped her club to become a powerhouse of success  in Meath camogie.

She also played her part in helping Kilmessan claim their breakthrough All-Ireland Junior title in 2014 and follow it up with similar triumphs in 2017 and ‘18. In her mid-forties she is still playing camogie, although now as a goalkeeper rather than outfield. In football she played in the red of Dunsany. So who did inspire her?

“We didn’t have any social media when I started out so it was really my Mam, Mary and Dad Michael who inspired me. My Dad, who was a farmer, was from Cork and he would have played for Skryne for a while. He just loved football and after dinner I remember there would be him and my brother (Michael). We would be outside kicking a ball up in and air and catching it, learning the skills of the game.

“I was in Kilmessan in school and Tommy Brennan let me play with the boys teams there because there were no girls teams. My first camogie game was at u-12 level, so we had no camogie or football at that stage unless you played with the boys.

“I think I just got to love the games and my parents wanted to bring me to matches. They encouraged me and if it wasn’t for them I probably wouldn’t have ended up playing the games and to have the interest I have now. I was lucky they did allow me to play because some girls weren’t allowed.

Cormac Farrell, O'Neills and Debbie Breen, AIB presenting a Meath Camogie Green Star Award to Ann Marie Dennehy in 2007. Photo by John Quirke

“As I got older there was probably an obstacle for me and others like me in the way there was a clash between camogie and football which is probably still there. We saw that in the way Megan Thynne had to recently play camogie and football for Meath on the same day. That’s difficult because I never wanted to choose. Trying to play both was a big obstacles and quite stressful at times. “In terms of advice I would say to youngsters if you enjoy a sport you should definitely play it because there is an awful lot to earn from sport that can be applied to your life, losing, winning, meeting new people. You learn really good coping mechanisms, life skills. If you are not lucky enough to get involved in sport I think you miss out on an awful lot. I was one of the lucky ones. I got involved.”

‘One of the most valuable lessons I learned is prepare the best you can’


In 2018 Nichola Duffy was the first woman home in the energy-sapping, morale-testing Connemara 100 Race. In 2019 Duffy completed the 24-hour Barcelona ultra-endurance race and was the second woman home. In Barcelona she ran over 200km in 24 hours. Before Covid hit she was the first woman home in the Elite Gloucester 24-hour event in which she ran just over 208 kms.

Nichola is an Assistant Director of Nursing with Mowlam Healthcare Services, Kinnegad.  The mother of six-year-old son Harry, her husband, Robert Duffy, is, she says, her unstinting “support crew” for the events she runs in.

From Navan, Nichola Duffy (nee Steen) is a member of Navan Athletic Club and she only took up running to get fit in 2016. Previous to that she was involved in equestrianism.

“I would have competed with Irish equestrian eventing teams when I was younger at junior level, so I would have competed at a relatively high level in that sport. After I had my son I knew I couldn’t go back into the equestrian side of things, I just didn’t have the time, so I was looking for something else to fill the void. I took up running. I put Harry in the pram and went out running.

Nichola Duffy

“I went to Bohermeen track in 2016 and I couldn’t even run a full lap around the 400 metre track. I said I’m so bad at this, I want to get better. I started to get an interest in ultra running when I saw on Facebook there was an ultra runner called Ray Cassins from Duleek. He was taking on the Connemara 100 Mile and he was chronicling his journey on Facebook and I said to myself I’m going to do that - and I did.”

“In that Connemara race in 2018 I would have been a lot faster but I tore my calf about 60 miles in, I had to walk a lot of it so it was a battle to finish. I was lucky enough to hold on because I was walking a lot of it at the end.  “I’m lucky in that I have a coach Paul Stephenson and while I got injured in Connemara I haven’t been injured since he took me on. The biggest obstacle this year, unfortunately, is Covid. I just haven’t been able to get the races in but I am going to Gloucester again at the end of the year. I’m going back hopefully to get my title again, that’s the plan.

“I haven’t come across any issues in terms of gender in ultra-running, everyone is very supportive.

“The best advice I can give to anyone is join a club if you are interested in running, because it will cater for any distance you want to run. The first stop is always the local club and my own club, Navan AC, is very welcoming. It caters for everyone.

“For any of these ultra races a massive amount of work goes on in the background. I train six or seven days a week. It takes a long time to build that fitness levels and when you finish a race it’s nice to feel that yeah it was all worth it.”