A true legend
Always pushing boundaries, Cora Staunton is now the first female GAA star to release an autobiography. Janice Butler talks to the Mayo legend about dealing with difficult times in her life and how they made her the person she is today
Mayo Gaelic football legend Cora Staunton is awesome and I mean that in the true sense of the word. To be honest, I didn’t know a huge amount about her before reading her autobiography and then meeting her in person, but when I did, I found someone who is impressive and awe-inspiring. She’s humble with it too – too humble considering her achievements. Surprisingly perhaps, she’s also a little shy, although not nearly as shy as she once was, she tells me, but more about that later. With her autobiography Game Changer just published, she has been up and down between Dublin and Mayo a lot recently, but it doesn’t faze her: “You manage, you just get used to driving,” she says.
A sports trailblazer, Cora was called up for the Mayo senior team at just 13 years of age. She continues to be a woman of rsts – the rst female Gaelic player to release an autobiography.
She says the response has been overwhelming. “ e phone has been hopping. Lots of parents are contacting me to say that their daughters or sons are reading the book and how much they love it. You’ve people getting in touch that you’d never have heard from before.”
In the book, Cora maps her remarkable rise to become the highest-scoring forward in the history of women’s football; playing for her club Carnacon; her di cult childhood, during which her mother died; and her recent move to Sydney to play Aussie Rules football.
She says she was approached a few times before about writing her story but being such a private person she was hesitant to commit. Now however, she felt was the right time to put pen to paper, with ghost writer Mary White. “I would be a very quiet, private person so when it was rst mentioned I didn’t want to do it, but then the subject was broached again. I decided to do it on the condition that it would be honest and it would hopefully inspire young boys and girls coming up in sport. I’ve realised over the last few years that when you’re a role model it’s important that young people can read or hear your story so they have someone to relate to.”
e most di cult section in the book, for Cora, was writing about the death of her mother Mary, who died from cancer a er a three-year battle with the illness when Cora was only 16. Of course, it had a massive impact on the family of eight children and it was one of the big reasons why Cora immersed herself so much in sport.
“Writing this book was the rst time I would have spoken about a lot of things from my childhood, especially my Mum’s death. I wouldn’t have ever sat around talking about that with my brothers or sisters or friends,” she admits.
“In rural Ireland, 20 years ago, when something like that happened you just got on with it, that’s the way it was. I found the rst few sessions really hard with my ghost writer Mary. I was exhausted by the end of them. You’re talking about emotions and feelings from years ago and I found that di cult but at the same time when you do talk about these things, you feel better a erwards. I never went to a counsellor a er Mum died but I imagine this is what it feels like.”
Does she feel those experiences made her the person she is today? “Yes, without a shadow of doubt it did. I’m well able for the knocks and rough and tumble of life now, but I think that also comes from the fact that I come from a very big family. We didn’t have a lot growing up. ere were eight of us in the space of 11 years; you had to ght for everything and I was in between all boys so you had to be tough.”
She mentions in the book that she was ‘born stubborn, arriving 4 weeks premature on December 13, 1981’. She laughs when I mention this, saying; “I’m quite blunt and sometimes that can bite you in the ass but it’s just the way I’ve always been.
“I think I get those traits from my mother. I think I’m like her in many ways. Seeing her battling cancer for three years probably made me a little bit angry and sport was my release from that anger. I was struggling with school and struggling with her being sick and all that made me who I am today.”
Her day job is health promotion work with the Traveller community and she combines that with training six times a week and school appearances to give talks to the next generation of sports stars. For someone who used to be crippled with shyness, she now regularly holds the attention of rooms of 400+ students. “You know you’re doing something right when you can achieve that,” she laughs. “People expect you to be really outspoken as a sportsperson, but no one gives you those tools, so it’s taken me quite a long time to be con dent speaking in front of people. You mature and you develop over time. Life can be tough and it’s important that young people know that when the tough stu comes your way, there’s ways of dealing with it.”
On a recent appearance on e Late Late Show, Cora con rmed that a er four All Ireland wins, her time with the Mayo team had come to an end, following a walk-out by ten players (including Cora) and two managers in mid-July. A statement was released at the time describing an atmosphere at training sessions that they found intolerable and “an unsafe environment”. e row has split public opinion about the GAA’s investment in women’s games and le a mess in its wake. Sadly, it’s all Cora has been asked about in the last few months, which she describes as “di cult”. “I’m 36 years of age and probably since I was 30, I’ve been asked when I was going to retire. If I had played out the whole of this year with Mayo I probably wouldn’t have been coming back next year anyhow. It’s disappointing it ended the way it did but I’m lucky that I’ve had 24 years playing with Mayo – you can’t just look at it in a snapshot”, she says, adding: “ e thing that disappoints me most is there are girls who’ve walked away from the Mayo team who are very young. It’s hugely important that they get to have a long career and play for their county again. I’m sure in time they will; the county needs them.” For the moment, Cora will continue to play with her club Carnacon, probably until the season ends in December (unless they’re knocked out before that) and then she’s packing her bags for Sydney once again, where she will play with the Giants a er being the rst international player to be signed to an AFL women’s list last year. I did mention this woman in awesome right? She says she loves Australia, loves the pace of life, loves that she can just focus on training and even a er all these years, loves that she can still try and improve herself. “It’s an addiction, as sportspeople we have an addiction and a drive to make yourself better. You just don’t know anything else.”
I’ve realised over the last few years that when you’re a role model it’s important that young people can read or hear your story so they have someone to relate to
Cora lining out for Mayo
Con rmation time... Cora holding the U14 All-Ireland Cup, 1994
Cora in action for Sydney Western Giants and strapped up after breaking her nose (inset)
Game Changerby Cora Staunton is in bookshops now