Cora Staunton is a player who was, from the outset, a standard-setter. She has broken the mould at so many levels as a Gaelic footballer and the publication of her autobiography Game Changer makes her, fittingly, the first ever female GAA player to dip her toe in these particular waters. The book recently won the Irish Sports Book of the Year award for 2018.
But winning is something Cora Staunton knows all about. An inter-county debutant at the ridiculously tender age of just thirteen back in 1995, she has gone on since then to win four All-Ireland titles with Mayo as well as six more at club level with Carnacon, picking up eleven All-Star awards on the way.
While Gaelic football has been her mainstay for over two decades, she has recently added Australian rules football to her CV, this time last year becoming the first woman player to be drafted for the AFL from overseas when she joined the Greater Western Sydney Giants. She’s currently back with them for a second season. She has also done stints playing soccer and rugby.
All of this action gets a mention in what is a fairly straightforward narrative, in a book that recounts her life story from her upbringing in Carnacon all the way to the present day. It’s a candidly told story of many highs and lows, both on the field and off it.
Given that haul of honours, Cora would have every right to brag about her many sporting achievements but while it’s clear she takes pride in what she’s done there’s no air of self-satisfaction. She admits to being obsessively driven in many aspects of her life and knows that what she achieved on the field came from that desire, surrounded as she was by many other players within the county who were also hungry for success.
What struck me, as someone who – like, I suspect, many others – hasn’t always kept a close enough eye on the ladies’ game, was the degree to which rancour behind the scenes has, in large part, been a constant within Mayo LGFA over the last decade and more. According to Cora, things went awry rapidly on that front once Finbar Egan – who’d led the county to those four All-Ireland titles in just five seasons between 1999 and 2003 – stepped down as manager in 2004.
In the years since then, managers of the ladies’ county team came and went with alarming regularity. There were periods of relative calm, there were other times when it was all-out war.
This year’s blow-out, which most likely has brought the curtain down on Cora’s long inter-county career, isn’t covered in huge detail. This is partly, I’d say, because the book was, most likely, largely complete by the time that brouhaha occurred but, as the narrative makes clear, it was but the latest in a long line of behind-the-scenes upheavals.
While Cora says that this year’s falling-out affected her deeply at the time, it’s something she’s now come to accept. She admits that she doesn’t know if she’ll ever play for the county again – unlikely, you’d have to say – and concedes that, if this is the end, then “it may not be the fairy-tale ending” that might have been expected. Grounded as ever, though, she adds “but that’s life.”
Off the field, Cora reveals herself to be a very different individual to the indomitable competitor she so clearly has been inside the whitewash. By her own admission, she’s an introverted person who can often feel shy and awkward in social surroundings, someone who, despite her huge sporting achievements, is still unsure about herself.
It’s hard not to warm to such candour. Hard too to countenance the impact that the death from cancer of her mother Mary, when Cora was just sixteen, had on her. She freely admits that she found it difficult afterwards to open up to anyone about a loss that clearly still impacts her all these years later. Positing the question to herself as to whether or not she has dealt adequately with her grief she answers simply “I’ll never really know.”
Ghostwritten sporting autobiographies – this one confidently penned by Cork journalist Mary White – tend to be of a type. Like the many others I’ve read, this isn’t literature but then again it never claims to be. It’s an easy read but it’s also an interesting and informative one about one of the greatest sportspeople the country has produced in the modern era. Many Mayo GAA fans would, I’m sure, be very glad to find a copy of Game Changer with their name on it under the tree this Christmas.
Game Changer by Cora Staunton is published by Transworld, an imprint of Penguin, and is available from bookstores nationwide.