Her journey to the squad could be best described as ‘the road less travelled’, but Eilish O’Dowd has been embracing her new adventure as a Dublin senior ladies footballer.
A native of Leitrim, O’Dowd represented her home county with great distinction from underage level right up to the adult grade. In August 2019, she helped them to retain their TG4 All-Ireland Intermediate Championship status with a relegation play-off win over Wicklow.
Yet by the time Leitrim returned to the same competition the following year, O’Dowd had opted out of the panel. A graduate from the Marino Institute of Education who now works as a primary school teacher at St Vincent’s GNS in Ballybough, she spent most of her time in the Leitrim senior set-up commuting from her base in Dublin.
This eventually took its toll and was also a major factor behind a subsequent decision to transfer from her home club of Ballinamore Sean O'Heslins to Na Fianna in 2021. Her impressive form for the latter captured the attention of Dublin manager Mick Bohan and after previously being part of a development squad within the county, O’Dowd made her competitive debut for the Sky Blues against Meath in Division 1 of the Lidl National League in January of this year.
“I’ve really been enjoying it. It has definitely been a big change for me, but overall I’ve really had a good experience so far. The girls are all very welcoming. They’ve made me feel really welcome into the group. I can feel myself getting stronger and I’m learning a lot,” O’Dowd enthused.
“I was completely overwhelmed to have even made the panel, but then to have gotten a starting position as well. I was delighted. It was great that we got the win as well. There were a lot of mixed emotions going on. First time playing out with Dublin and starting in midfield, there was a bit of pressure.
“Especially playing against Meath, the All-Ireland champions. There definitely was a lot of pressure there, but I was really delighted with the first game that we got the win. Definitely learned a lot from it and I suppose that is what League is all about. Learning and developing myself into a stronger player come Championship.”
Whereas she has struck up a partnership with Cuala ace Jennifer Dunne in the opening five games of this year’s League, O’Dowd lined out in the middle of the field with her sister Laura in the green and gold of Leitrim. Another of her siblings is part of the furniture in Ballinamore and this made leaving both of these sides behind particularly tough for O’Dowd.
“It’s something very special playing with your sister on the same football team. It just makes it all the more special, especially when you win. Then the club team back at home, Ballinamore, I would have played with my other sister.
“The three of us were all playing together. That made the decision very difficult for me as well. When my sisters are playing on the team and all my friends are back at home…but it was the right decision for me.”
During her time with Leitrim, O’Dowd also played alongside a number of players who have excelled in other sports. Her first cousin Dearbhaile Beirne lines out for women’s soccer outfit Peamount United - and was capped at senior level by the Republic of Ireland in 2018 - while Muireann Devaney was part of the Athlone Town team that reached last year’s FAI Cup decider against Shelbourne.
Additionally, another of her former playing colleagues, Aine Tighe, is currently in the southern hemisphere with AFL Women’s side Fremantle Dockers.
This particular trend has continued for O’Dowd since her move to the capital, with former international rugby star Hannah Tyrrell counted amongst her club and inter-county team-mates. Before rejoining the Sky Blues panel in 2021, Tyrrell represented Ireland in the 7s and 15s codes - winning a Six Nations Championship crown in the latter.
She has gone on from there to become one of Dublin’s most consistent performers and O’Dowd is effusive in her praise of the influential attacker.
“Hannah Tyrrell, she’s such a leader. It was nice that I would have known Hannah and Leah Caffrey there as well. Two outstanding footballers. All Stars for Dublin that I would have played with in Na Fianna. It was nice to know them before coming into the Dublin panel.
“The likes of Hannah has such experience as well, she’s such a leader. I always look up to her. Learning so much from her and lots of girls on the team that I’m really picking up a lot from. It’s such a good experience to develop myself. Get myself stronger and get up to that standard that I need to be.”
In getting the better of Meath in late January - the first of three victories that Dublin have garnered in Division 1 to date - O’Dowd achieved what must go down as one of the rarer feats in Ladies Football. Just under six years ago (on April 2, 2017, to be exact), O’Dowd played a key role as Leitrim secured a 3-8 to 0-13 triumph over the Royals in a Division 3 League clash held in her hometown of Ballinamore.
Fast forward to 2023 and O’Dowd was enjoying success with her adopted county against a Meath side that are now operating at a much higher level. League and All-Ireland champions in 2022 - albeit their defence of the former has now come to an end - their rise to the top of the LGFA ladder has been well documented.
The bulk of the current Meath team had already come through when O’Dowd last faced them and she believes this is a key factor behind their remarkable achievements in recent years.
“That’s what really builds success, a group staying together. I remember playing Meath and it just shows how a team can develop so quickly with a bit of consistency and work rate. I do think the last time we played them, they were starting to go on the rise and get stronger,” O’Dowd added.