On Sunday 24 September 1995, Angela Downey-Browne made her way to the dressing room of the Cork camogie team and stood in the doorway. Silence descended on the room as the Cork players, celebrating their victory over Kilkenny in the All-Ireland Final, noticed the petite but immense Kilkenny legend.
‘You have waited a long time for this night’, said Angela, when the hush was complete. ‘To beat Kilkenny … enjoy your night’.
It was a typically good-natured and frank sign off from Ms. Downey, considered the greatest player in the history of the game. The following day, the 38-year-old veteran corner-forward announced her retirement from the sport after an astonishing 25 years. She planned to take to the golf fairways, she said, and to see if she could get her handicap down from 36.
Between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, Angela and her twin sister Ann Downey were the shining stars in a team packed with outstanding players. It was a golden age for camogie in Kilkenny. Notching up a dozen All-Ireland titles, the girls proved themselves practically invincible. Perhaps their most memorable moment was after the 1977 All-Ireland when Angela, as team captain, grabbed Ann for a massive bear hug on the victory rostrum before raising the O’Duffy Cup high above their heads.
Born in 1957, the Downey sisters were the second youngest of five children born to Shem and Brigid Downey. Shem ran a butcher’s shop in the town of Ballyragget. He had been one of Kilkenny’s hurling icons during the 1940s and 1950s, most notably playing forward for the team who won the All-Ireland in 1947.
Angela attributed her prowess to genes and was so young when she first learned how to ‘rise a ball’ on a stick that she can’t even remember those first steps. By the age of nine, both girls were actively and determinedly playing the game. In later years, Angela would hail her father’s abrasive support as one of the key factors in their success. ‘It’s Dad who keeps us both going’, she said in 1986. ‘I think he gets more enjoyment out of it than we do – he certainly never misses a match’.
By the age of 12, the sisters were playing on the school team for the Presentation College in Castlecomer. In 1970, aged 13, Angela gave a powerful display to help her club team St. Paul’s in Kilkenny win their first All-Ireland club medal. She remained with St Paul’s until the club disbanded in the early 1990s, during which time she racked up an exceptional haul of six All-Ireland club titles and twenty county titles.
By the time she was 15, Angela had impressed the Kilkenny selectors so much that she was fast-tracked onto the county’s senior team. As she says herself, she was ‘still very much the baby’ but she stayed with the team all the way to the 1972 All Ireland final at Croke Park where they were beaten by Cork.
Two years later, Angela secured her first All-Ireland title when Kilkenny beat Cork in a Croke Park thriller to capture their first national title. Angela was selected as Player of the Match. Aidan McCarthy of The Irish Times described her as showing ‘more adeptness with stick and sliothar’ than most of the others on the pitch. He singled out her ‘inevitably successful dummies’ and ‘quick acceleration past the defence’ as the highlights of the game, attributing the latter to her dalliance with athletics while at St. Brigid’s College in Callan. Her lightning pace certainly made defences fraught. Sportswriter Maol Muire Tynan concurred that the ‘sheer speed and power’ of this ‘deceptively diminutive’ player made her ‘virtually unstoppable’. She always seemed to be within 15 to 20 metres of the goal, dominating from the puck out and firing countless cracking shots between and over the posts.
When she left school, Angela went to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and helped the college team win a league medal. She also continued to play for her club and county. Aside from ‘a bit of basketball and squash’, she rarely took a break from the game.
Angela played for a Kilkenny team that contested thirteen All-Irelands, and won twelve of them. They utterly overwhelmed the opposition and Angela was the lynchpin. Her sister Ann was also part of that extraordinary journey, proving herself a dazzling high catcher, attack breaker and team weaver. Both girls were on the team that won Kilkenny’s first All-Ireland and they also both played for the county’s extraordinary seven-in-a row All-Ireland titles between 1985 and 1991.
Angela played her last All-Ireland club match for St. Paul’s in 1989 and later played alongside Ann for Lisdowney, collecting a further two county titles. She also played for Leinster in the Gael Linn sponsored inter-provincial camogie championship, winning ten inter-provincial titles.
In 1984, Angela married Ted Browne, ‘a rugby man’ from Limerick. She herself began work as a geography teacher at Grennan College in Thomastown, where she still teaches to this day. Ted manages the school team at Castlecomer Community school. They have two children, Katie and Conor.
In 1985, she was one of two player-members appointed to a commission set up by the Congress of Cumann Camogaiochta na nGael. The commission explored all aspects of the sport from finance to refereeing to pitches for a game that 65,000 women in Ireland were playing at that time. ‘In the end we must remember it’s an amateur sport and we’re not trying to make any money out of it’, reasoned Angela.
Of particular interest to her was the issue of safety and she urges players, particularly juveniles, to wear helmets with protective grids. ‘I always wore a helmet, gum shield and shin guards, but I learned the hard way. Nobody wants to lose too many teeth’.
In 1977 Downey was honoured with the prestigious B&I Player of the Year Award. Almost a decade later she became only the third camogie player ever to be presented with the prestigious Texaco Award. In 2004 she was named on the Camogie Team of the Century but boycotted the presentation in protest that her sister Ann was not even nominated for the same team. The mistake was not repeated when Angela and Ann Downey received the Lifetime Achievement Award for their inter-county careers at The Irish Times/Irish Sports Council Sportswoman of the Year 2009 awards.
Ann Downey was also nominated for 2009 CCnG Manager of the Year for her current role as manager of the Kilkenny senior camogie team. She led them to the finals of both the 2009 Gala All-Ireland final and the 2010 National Camogie League.
As for Angela, she continues to teach in Thomastown. And she’s got her golf handicap down to 16.
Senior Inter-County Titles (Co. Kilkenny)
National League: 9.
Gael Linn: 10.
Kilkenny County Championships: 22.
All Ireland Club titles: 6.
B&I Player of the Year Award 1977.
Texaco All Star 1986.
Camogie Team of the Century 2004.
The Irish Times/Irish Sports Council
Lifetime Achievment Award 2009