Recent years have seen an almost unimaginable mix of ups and downs for Aisling Donoher, but the Laois footballer admitted last weekend he was “really, really special”.
The Timahoe full-back made a triumphant return to the inter-county scene after a three-year hiatus as Laois clinched the All-Ireland Intermediate title at Croke Park on Sunday.
Known as a rock-solid defender and inspirational leader, Donoher made her debut in 2005. Her absence from the Laois team was felt when she resigned before the birth of her first child, Dan.
Donoher, 32, and her husband Niall were already known for their inter-county successes with Laois, but during the first Covid-19 lockdown, Dan became a household name thanks to a fundraiser for him.
The #DoItForDan campaign raised €3.3 million to help the couple’s son – who suffers from type 1 spinal muscular atrophy – receive an IV of the gene therapy drug Zolgensma.
“I think not just for us, but for the whole country, the fundraiser was almost a distraction — it brought people together,” Donoher said.
“It was described to us as a movement. It was just fabulous – the goodwill and kindness from across the country and beyond was remarkable.”
However, in the summer of 2020, the family received the devastating news that Dan had contracted a rare virus that caused him to develop antibodies that would prevent Zolgensma treatment from being successful.
Describing the news as “heartbreaking and heartbreaking,” Donoher said the focus now is on keeping Dan “as healthy and strong as possible” in hopes that a new treatment will one day be developed.
Last August, she and her husband welcomed their second child, a girl they named Sophie. Before the start of the 2022 season, Donoher received a call from Laois women’s manager Donie Brennan asking if she wanted to come back.
For someone who knows the demands of district football all too well, she didn’t think she “would have the time” and admitted she “thought that day was really over”.
“Niall said, ‘If it’s something you’d like to do, we’ll make it work,'” she said. “He’s the most selfless person I’ve ever met and I couldn’t have done it without him.
“He was the driving force behind my return, along with my parents and Niall’s parents and our families.”
With a support structure in place, Donoher returned to practice and was encouraged by her manager and teammates during her comeback to “keep going.”
How lucky I am to be able to walk out onto a pitch and play soccer with my friends
She recalled being “at the bottom of runs” and “barely able to do a push-up” in preseason.
Fast forward to last weekend, however, and the No 3 were named player of the match in a 1-13 to 1-11 win over Wexford.
Donoher said she “can’t wait” to hold her children after the final whistle and officials at Croke Park arranged for Dan, who uses a wheelchair, to meet them at the tunnel.
The day before, Dan and several other children with additional needs had their Little Blue Heroes Garda graduation ceremony. Donoher said her courage is an endless source of inspiration.
“It was a really, really special weekend and so emotional,” she said. “Just sit back and watch all these kids and they’re just the bravest little kids with what they’re going through.
“How lucky I am to be able to run to a pitch and play football with my friends. It was just a very special day to be there with them.”
Now the focus is on the club scene, where she plays with her “lifelong buddies”.
On Tuesday night, the Laois ladies met for dinner and drinks and looked back at the finale, which Donoher said she could “watch 10 times.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/i-couldnt-have-done-it-without-my-family-aisling-donohers-triumph-after-three-years-of-highs-and-lows-41888660.html “I couldn’t have done it without my family” – Aisling Donoher’s triumph after three years of ups and downs