Hurling, Genes and Boston Bound

Balance. That’s the word that comes to mind in speaking to Clare hurler Shane O’Donnell. All Ireland winner, and man of the match with a hat trick of goals, Quercus Scholar at UCC, Fulbright Scholar heading to Harvard in September. Shane has been able to successfully balance life as a successful inter county hurler with Clare alongside a high achieving academic career that has see him graduate with a degree in Genetics from UCC and enrol on a PhD in Microbiology.

Bound for Boston

Shane received a Quercus Scholarship as an undergraduate from UCC and has now won the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship that will enable him to undertake part of his doctoral research in Harvard University in Boston starting in September.

It will mean a break for six months from hurling but he is taking that in his stride, relishing the opportunity to do something different. “I love my hurling, so I hope to come back to the Clare panel in April 2019 or so, that’s the plan anyway, I wouldn’t be expecting to play Championship that year but I’d hope to be part of it. I’m going to relish the whole experience in Boston and immerse myself in the city. I was there with the Fenway Classic and doing an event with the GPA so I’ve had a taste of it and I’m really looking forward to going to Harvard.”

The Fulbright Scholarship has a demanding application process with personal statements, references and formal proposals. Shane was naturally delighted to come through a rigorous process.

He enjoys the fact that he can balance scientific research in the lab with training and matches with Clare. His research colleagues aren’t particularly hurling fans but they organised a team road trip to go and watch him play in the Munster Final in the summer of 2017. He appreciated the support from the people from the day job. A day job he has no intention of giving up.

2013 and All That

His 3-3 in this All Ireland final replay came from nine touches of the ball. As an exercise in economy it was successful, especially for a young player who was only told two hours before the game he was starting. Balance of three goals, three points and three other touches. O’Donnell was a second year student of genetics in UCC at the time and it’s fair to say for a while his world was thrown upside down with manic and relentless requests following on from his exploits in Croke Park.

The story was well told at the time. Having gone well in training after the drawn All Ireland, and to this day he still can’t put his finger on the reason why, he was called aside a couple of hours before the match and told he would be starting having been listed as a sub. Shane had played and scored a goal in the U21 Final against Antrim and was one of five players subbed off that day, the other four being Podge Collins, Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin and David McInerney, four men that would definitely be likely starters in the replay.

Looking back that should have given him and inkling he was in line to start the replay but no, the penny didn’t drop. On the Wednesday before the game, Davy Fitzgerald named the team and he wasn’t in. “I was very disappointed but Fitzy told me I would be coming in and to be ready prepared for that. I took that and prepared for that”. He was positive.

It turned out the plan was to start him all along but Davy Fitz wanted to take pressure off his would-be goal machine.

“So then, Davy Fitz pulled me to one side after lunch on the day of the game and told me I was actually starting.” He laughs, “I think Jimmy Barry Murphy knew on the Friday I was playing but I didn’t! Fitzy just told me to go and do what you always do.’ And for me then, that was to go for goals. Sometimes it doesn’t work out but that day it did. I’m not good at scoring points, I’m better now, so I had already decided that I was going to go for a goal any chance I had. I kind of have it my head that I’ll go for goal if I can and sure if I get taken down, the free-taker will have his chance to score. I’m better at scoring the points now because I’ve worked a small bit on it.”

Last year’s effortless effort against Limerick with a brilliant spin and strike would endorse that view. He’s relaxed now looking back on his day’s work, “I’d have been happy with one goal like. But it really is the stuff of dreams, from back when you were six and you pick up a hurley. I’d love to play in a final again and have the opportunity to enjoy it and appreciate it more; it was all a bit of a whirlwind.”

You can see what he means but six scores from nine touches isn’t a bad day’s work.

At the time Clare selector Louis Mulqueen told John Fogarty in the Examiner: “What you see in matches is what you get from Shane in training. He’s got an unbelievable burst of pace. He’s also got the eye for goal and that’s something Clare haven’t had for a while, that poacher who can get goals when you need them. Going into the replay when there was nothing between the two teams, you needed a rabbit in the hat.

He managed to keep his feet on the ground, despite being bombarded with requests for all sorts of activities. All calls were dealt with by his mum Mary who had no bother declining a lot of them. Shane himself didn’t get carried away.  “You have to remember why you’re in it, for hurling.”

Growing Up

Shane’s first school was Ennis National School followed by St Flannan’s, which he describes as a kind of rite of passage for anyone with any sort of aspirations to be a Clare hurler.

Shane’s dad is originally from East Clare from Killanena and his mother Mary is a Mayo woman. They met at NUIG and travelled with work, living in America and Dublin before settling in Ennis. Shane himself was born in Dublin and lived in Celbridge in Kildare before the family moved to Clare when he was a year old. He is one of four brothers in the O’Donnell household, second youngest, with his older brothers seven and five years older than him. Himself and Marc the oldest lad are the two most serious about their hurling

And hurling at the national school? “Hurling was the only sport I played in school hurling, outside school I played chess and stuff like that. I started hurling in fifth or sixth class at the national school. I would have played on the school team but I was just barely making the team in sixth class, playing at corner back. We had a good team like, though I wouldn’t have been a good player or rated at all back at that age.”

The year before Shane arrived at Flannan’s the school had won the Harty Cup with the older O’Donnell Marc part of the team. “Going in on the back of that the place was buzzing with hurling kind of thing. It always is” says Shane “but on the back of that there was a particular buzz.”

  • “I was corner back, that was my position, occasionally wing back but corner back was my position. Under 15 in the White Cup I would have got on the panel for that but I never started any games.”

“It was the normal stuff, I would have tried to get on to first year teams and I didn’t actually get on to the first year panel. They split the year into two panels, and I wouldn’t have even got on the panel when they split the year A to L and then M to Z there were so many lads wanted to hurl and I wouldn’t have got on. I really wasn’t a hectic hurler when I was younger” he laughs. “I was corner back, that was my position, occasionally wing back but corner back was my position. Under 15 in the White Cup I would have got on the panel for that but I never started any games.”

Back to Forward

The Dean Ryan at under 16 and half was when things began to change. He explains “I got moved to forward the year before and started playing corner forward.”

He laughs looking back saying, “The county coaches weren’t convinced about me moving into the forward line, and one of the managers came out in the middle of training one evening and called in all the players and said in front of everyone that I should give up any ideas of being a forward, I was never a forward and I was a county back and all this kind of stuff that I would never make it as a forward. I took a bit of a hit from that but I kept going, I was still playing as a back for the club, wing back or maybe centre back and would have been a forward with school and a back with Clare but I didn’t make the u14 panel for Clare and was barely on the under 15 panel. It was around 16s that things started to come right for me. We won the Dean Ryan and I was captain, I was two weeks under age and I think that’s the reasons I was captain, it wasn’t because I was this marvellous hurler. On the back of that I got on to the Clare minor team when I was 16 or 17 like a year early. That’s where things really would have changed the sheer volume of training taking it properly serious.”

Does he have a stubborn or resilient streak running through him? “Well I was oblivious to what the coaches were saying really I sort of thought he can think whatever he wants to think but I’ll play wherever anyone wants to play me. I was just happy to get in teams like. I probably wouldn’t have got in the teams as a back and I remember thinking jeez that was harsh but I kind of just got on with it. I wouldn’t make it out to be a big deal; it didn’t really affect me at all to be honest.”

“We had brilliant managers with the Clare minors then with Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor, the managers that are over us now as seniors would have been over us, and the specialism they brought to it even though it was only minor, the difference was just the sheer volume of training I experienced. I was two years a minor and although we had a good Flannan’s team it was really Clare minors that had the biggest effect on me as a player.”

When asked about his older brother Shane says of Marc: “He’s a better hurler and a more natural hurler than I am, probably I’ve done more training and more work. When it comes to basic technique and raw skill he would be better than me. It made it a lot easier for me because when I went to Flannan’s people were saying he’s O’Donnell’s brother and like I was getting on panels because Marc had paved the way. Marc played out to Clare u21 and never really pushed on to seniors; he went up to college and then coincided with the u21s. I think playing for Clare then maybe was not the same as the experience I had. The time I had was brilliant.

Schooldays and Studying

There’s no doubt Shane O’Donnell has a strong academic background. He always found school not a problem and himself and his brothers did well. Always had competitive classes and he never had problems with subjects. Outside of school he played chess. It was competitive household, and with four boys. Chess and table tennis turned into a savage competition for a couple of years.

It was sort of expected in the O’Donnell household that Shane would end up in college with two brothers away ahead of him.

Modest about his academic prowess Shane admits: “Yeah, I was always decent in class, never a major studier though, I didn’t have a great grá for sitting down and studying, sitting down to glue myself to a book wouldn’t have happened. The balance allowed me to never to get too stressed.  I suppose hurling was a release, when one was going well it balanced the other. I’m lucky I suppose I’m never down in the dumps and always try to have a balance right up to his day.

Growing up his mum and dad were quiet supporters, although they kind of took a step back. “My mother knew we were all academically fairly good and she wanted us to do other things. She went to all the games. My dad would have trained my teams and we’d be out in the back garden, my father would be there too, he was a big hurler when he was younger so it always enjoyable and good craic. My dad loved that we all hurled. Both my parents were always supportive of what we were doing in sport and school.”

Like many young hurlers Shane’s career grew and developed under the watchful eye of a number of coaches and in picking men who have particularly impacted on his development.

  • Goals! As far as goals are concerned I would always say it’s the what you do in the first half second when you get the ball in your hand.

Forward play

It seemed natural to ask a man who scored three goals in an All Ireland Final about his thoughts on forward play and goal scoring at a time when huge points tallies seem more and more in fashion. It’s an engaging conversation to have with the Clare man, “Movement is the most important thing. They talk about running but it’s not about constant running it’s that killer run you’re making into space to actually get the ball that is played in to you.

“It makes a real difference when you get to know over time who you’re playing with and who is putting the ball in to you. You get to know what they’re going to do when they get the ball but I think movement is the most important thing. It’s very easy as a full forward line to get dragged out of position or to places where you won’t get the ball so it’s s small bit of discipline.”

“As far as goals are concerned I would always say it’s what you do in the first half second when you get the ball in your hand. You’ll be trying to turn your man or get around him or put him in a pressurised position at least. If you have to look up to see what’s going on the goal chance has usually gone unless you’re standing right in front of the goals. If you’re getting a ball in your hand the first two or three steps have to be without thinking.”

“I converted from a back to a forward fairly late on and my striking was ok but my shooting was terrible. I could not hit the ball over the bar so going for goals was probably adapting to that. I sort of figured I can’t hit it over the bar, so run for goal and sure if I get fouled the team gets a free! I got the idea in my head that if I get a goal one in three times then that’s as good as hitting the ball over the bar three times. So initially I went for goals for that reason.

Things have changed now I’m confident now in my shooting and practice a lot but at the time it was an adaptation at converting from a back. I was a good turner and I’m reasonably fast over two or three yards but other than that I don’t have too much going for me so goals were my main threat if I was going to make it on to teams.”

“On sprints my ten metres is good, my first couple of yards would be good; myself and David McInerney would be good on vertical jumps. I wouldn’t say I’m fast. I’ve a good turn, a good two yards and going for goal in the first two steps so I ended up getting a reputation for going for goals.”

UCC Life

Shane Went to UCC to do a degree in Genetics and is now enrolled on his PhD in Microbiology: “I really enjoyed biology at school; there was one chapter on genetics on that, I looked up more information on it. I wanted to go to UCC and it was a no brainer really like. I was fairly focused on what I wanted and I got it. I was a small bit more focused. Hurling wasn’t a factor in choosing UCC I would have hurled wherever I went. I’m a big fan of Cork, I really like Cork city. Everyone there even after the All Ireland was really good. They’re really good people and it’s somewhere I’d be interested in staying after I finish College.”

He enjoys the College life in Cork, although it was all hectic after that All Ireland win.

“I’m not a major drinker. We were on a drinking ban that year and it never would have bothered me. It was great craic, the bit I would have enjoyed was in the house with the boys I would have known, or back in Clare with the lads. In pubs and clubs with the lads to be honest it was an absolute nightmare.

“You’d be in the nightclub and until 2.30 and I’d be getting photographs taken but I’d also all sorts of eejits coming up to me saying all sorts good and bad. I enjoyed the All Ireland but I didn’t enjoy some of the afters.”

He adds: “You can see easily how winters can drag into the net year. I never really bought into it but you can see how lads get carried away.

Prior to making the Clare senior panel he’d been hurling for the UCC freshers. “I played seven or eight games scored a goal in every game and this was cited as the reason for the Clare call up, that and the club championship. To be honest it was very hard to manage being the only player in Cork playing Fitzgibbon and playing for Clare.

“I wish that I’d put the foot down a small bit, I’d a rake of injuries. To be honest I’m not sure what advice what I would give other players in the same position. Probably I would say that managers need to agree on their players. I didn’t want to miss Clare training, it was in the back of my mind that if I wasn’t there someone would do well in my position and the management would notice that. I suppose I would say that as a young player you need to try and be clear to managers to say I can only do two hurling sessions a week. It’s hard like.

“Coaches probably put the team first which is totally understandable, I think they make calls that are best for their own teams.”

As a fresher in UCC Shane was brought into the Clare panel in 2013. What did he think of it?

“The whole thing was a step up.  Was hearing from people that I’d be called then I got a call from Louis Mulqueen. I started playing Munster league or Waterford Crystal as it was then. Fitzy always had this thing that if you played well you’d keep the jersey. So I had it in my head that I’d try and keep doing well. They’d no real intention of playing me that year, it was to blood for the year after. But I just kept on going. When it came to the first championship match I got in there. It all kicked on from that.

One of the coaches in Davy Fitz’s set up was Paul Kinnerk. “Paul Kinnerk? He’s excellent. We were fortunate to have Davy and Paul. Davy’s coaching is well known, Paul was coach with the minors and we had serious history with him and he knew us all extremely well and he knew our strengths and weaknesses. Davy and Paul had a great synergy there, they ran sessions really well. They conjured up some seriously cool drills and we really benefitted.

Club Versus county

Its fine for us the county players we have got a big game every two years three weeks and we are training away, but the club player is getting absolutely screwed over.

It’s working well at the moment we are playing club league and in the Clare cup with training three times a week with Clare and then we play for the club at the weekend. The lads seem to be happy with that being able set up the team and prepare for the championship later in the year

You train away with the county team and then you train with the club for a week before championship. That’s just the way it is I suppose. I’d play a bit of football too like at the end of the season but no, I don’t train.

Quercus From Oak

Quercus means Oak, a symbol of strength and endurance and in Ancient Greek mythology the tree was sacred to Zeus. The Quercus programme has been running in UCC for three years and Shane was one of the first Scholarship recipients.

The man behind Quercus in UCC is Professor John O’Halloran a man who Shane cites as being a major help in his career in the University and beyond.

“I was delighted to get it in 2015, it is academic based but I got it on the back of playing hurling. One of the great things about it is the chance to meet seriously interesting people and the people over it are Michelle Power and John O’Halloran who is now the Deputy President of UCC. You get a scholarship but the people involved are also really helpful so you get your fees paid, you can get accommodation if you choose to live in college accommodation and you get some money which really helps.

It’s not just the money and fee support Shane appreciates: “There is one example sticks in my mind I had done a couple of media days up in Dublin to make a few euro so I wouldn’t be relying on the parents for money and I had promised Ger Cunningham that I would be home for a Fitzgibbon meeting that evening. I was delayed leaving Dublin and I realised part of the way down the road that I was heading on the wrong road towards Wexford rather than Cork and there was no way I could get turned around on the motorway,  there was no way I would get back in time for our meeting.

“I had a bit of a meltdown just everything came to a head between Clare and UCC and Fitzgibbon and the scholarship and so on, and I phoned John O’Halloran in a bit of a panic to say I just couldn’t do it all anymore. I thought I would have to drop the scholarship because I just felt I couldn’t play Fitzgibbon any more. That was a pre requisite in Quercus. I just said I couldn’t do it. John dealt with it well and he calmed me down and there were a few things like that where he helped me and has done the same for others and that has made the scholarship worth it. Michelle Power and John were brilliant and even then for the Fulbright scholarship John was a reference.

Fulbright 

“The Fulbright scholarship was something that someone else in my lab had got before so my supervisor Catherine Stanton had it on her mind that this was something that was a possibility for me, as she was over the previous Fulbright scholar, Ruairi Robertson, so she understood the capabilities needed. When I started working with the lads in Harvard, with their different work with their samples and with developing collaboration, there was a good link there.”

“Catherine asked would you be interested in going over and my response was absolutely. I put in an application with an outline of what research I was planning to do, it’s a fairly arduous drawn out application and then if you’re successful you get an interview.”

Shane is now looking forward to living and working in Boston: “The first time in Boston was with The Fenway Classic and then I went over with the GPA. I really liked the city, lot smaller than I thought. I’m really looking forward to it, I haven’t planned too much. Myself and some of the lads I know from home are thinking of going to Vermont skiing. I’m looking forward to having six months being really able to just focus on my studies having every evening off and experiencing life in Boston and loads of different things. I’m looking forward to not always training and trying the hand at different sports. I’m also looking forward to having the time to do different things that I don’t really have time for with training, to immersing myself in the city there as much as anything, more than any specific plans.”

Obviously the Fulbright and Harvard means putting the hurling career on hold:  “I’m back in April 2019 so I’d be hoping then to get into the panel, I obviously wouldn’t be expecting to play championship it’s worth the risk but at that stage I’d hope to get back in. I’d plan on coming back to play. That’s the plan.”

And will he throw a hurl in the bag before he steps on the plane bound for Boston? Hesitating momentarily, “yeah I will, I will; there’s a decent bit of hurling in Boston but I’m no real interest in playing any hurling over there or on playing for any team. I’ll treat this as a real break; I don’t like the word detox but a break where I can completely get it out of the system a small bit. I’ll try other sports and I’ll bring the hurley so I can puck around because I love hurling but I won’t go out of my way to play. It’s the complete off season too over there.”

The Fulbright offers the opportunity to be a full time researcher, but what of being a full-time athlete? On professional or full time playing. Does it appeal?

“Something I’d never be able to do, I really enjoy the academic side and the balance at the minute is really great. I enjoy getting into the lab and working hard and then in the evening I get off and go training, or I’m happy staying in the lab in the evening. Then hurling is brilliant too, I couldn’t see focusing on one without the other, I’m in a unique position.

“I can understand the appeal and why some lads have focused so much time on hurling and all of us can dream of being professional players and just playing hurling but it’s not achievable and I would always try guard against anything like that. I’d be against footballers or hurlers getting paid any sort of amount of money that you could live on, maybe getting your tax back after playing for ten years or something, but if players were even getting paid two hundred euro or whatever a week just enough that you could live on so that they wouldn’t have to give up their academics. The danger would be for lads you would play hurling until you were whatever age and then you’d be left in an awful position with no real other skills.”

“Don’t get me wrong I’d love the way professional players get treated, you see Rob Kearney there on Instagram of a Monday morning after a game, on the physio table getting a rub. I’d love the idea of that lifestyle in being able to take care of my body and get the absolute best out of myself, but at the same time I want to be able to do what I want to do work wise. I think it’s very dangerous if you think hurling is the be all and end all and then when you come to the end of your career as a young man and have less prospects than if you had continued working throughout.

Lessons Learnt From Hurling to the Lab

Does he see any lessons from research to sport or vice versus.

“Mental prep for training and games I find that useful in work. You could go in and do nothing here if you weren’t motivated. I could easily have went in and done nothing or not turned up and nobody would bat an eyelid. The drive is up to you. The drive is your own if you don’t have a deadline with something you have to get done for that day it’s easy to let the day slip by so I think the mental prep is important.

“I have a vision of what I want to achieve and I work back from there. What did I do today that is a step towards that? I would swear by mental prep stuff especially visualization. I’d maybe record it into my phone maybe make a note usually in my head. I’m very self critical very hard on myself if I came out of work and I didn’t do enough today or I didn’t do enough in the last hour, that attitude lends itself to working harder the next day.

One thing is very interesting about the research work environment Shane inhabits “There’s loads of people in my work have absolutely zero interest in hurling or have never been to a game  or had any exposure to hurling or gave no interest. But most of them know when there is a big game coming up or I’m back in Clare for training or that training is a big part of my evening. It drags people into it who have no interest so last year’s Munster final my lab would have organised a day trip to go to the game and a lot of them went even though it was the first hurling game a lot of them had been to, so even those colleagues who wouldn’t have that much interest in hurling buy into it because it’s around them. That was great; we all kind of live in the same rarefied environment and help each other. As a PhD student you’re kind of on your own but your part of a group too.

Shane’s girlfriend Niamh, likes watching games but is not a major hurling fan which gives him a break. He admits he doesn’t get enough time with her with training. It’s good if it’s not always hurling in the evening when you’re not training”. Back to that balance again.

First up before Boston in the Autumn there’s the business of this year’s championship and the new format. For Shane O’Donnell the balance will continue, that’s the way he likes it and whilst he’d love a return to Croke Park on All Ireland Final day, he’ll be jumping on that plane bound for Boston in September, come what may!

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