THE highlight, she reckons, was living in the jungle with a family in Ecuador. It was, she says, ‘a real authentic experience’, so far from home. Seeing how people in the Amazon live their lives, completely different to the world we know.
But although Fiona McHale was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, she was still very much plugged into Mayo’s campaign in the Ladies’ National Football League as she travelled the world during the first half of this year.
“I was in constant contact with the team,” she confirmed at the recent press night in Breaffy House Hotel. “I was still involved with the WhatsApp group. And when they played league games, I was able to watch them back. I actually enjoyed watching them back, just to see how things were going ... I knew I was going to be coming back into the fold, so I was always keeping one eye on things.”
She left Ireland at the beginning of December 2016, and ‘packed in as much as possible’ before returning home in early May. She visited south-east Asia, New Zealand, Australia and South America and had ‘loads of … really good experiences’. She laughs when we ask if she came home with a different perspective on life
“Not really! People say: ‘Oh, you’re going to find yourself’. It was nothing like that, really. But I suppose it does make you appreciate where you’re from, to be honest. I was in some amazing places, but nowhere’s like Ireland and nowhere’s like home. And I was really looking forward to getting back, and I definitely missed the football as well.”
She had a few weeks training under her belt by the time the Connacht final arrived and played at midfield alongside Aileen Gilroy, but Mayo ended up losing heavily to Galway. There is, she says, ‘no major secret’ about what how the team have been able to bounce back from that setback and are now preparing for an All-Ireland final.
“I think in the Galway game, we just fell flat,” she told The Mayo News. “It just didn’t happen for us on the day, and that happens in sport. You can go into a game being very prepared and very confident in your ability to win, and then it just doesn’t happen on the day. It was very hard to get back up from that … [but] we probably started working more on our own game-plan, and just working really hard.”
Having spent the summer working in Cúl Camps across Mayo, the PE teacher – who’s currently on a career break – returned to college last week. She’s begun a masters at the University of Limerick on a very topical subject – obesity prevention in teenagers.
“I’ve always wanted to go back studying, so if I don’t do it now, I’ll probably never do it,” she says. “It was too good an opportunity to turn down … I would be hugely interested in that area … Because I am a PE teacher, I’d be engaging with students who are at risk of obesity … Obviously in Ireland now, it’s becoming an epidemic.”
It’s a return to familiar territory for the Carnacon player, who did a year in Limerick studying sports science before moving to DCU to do PE and biology. Croke Park is also not an unknown quantity for the 2016 All Star, who has been part of the Mayo set-up long enough to have played in the 2007 All-Ireland final.
“I’ve lost an All-Ireland in Croke Park; it’s the loneliest place to be when you lose there,” she concludes. “You don’t want to be there. You’d nearly rather have lost in the semi than to lose there. While it’s lovely to play in Croke Park and every player’s dream is to play in Croke Park, now the dream is to win an All-Ireland in Croke Park.”