Former Offaly journalist carries on a family tradition
There can be few people out there who will reflect back on 2020 with much fondness, warmth or nostalgia.
After all it was the year of the great plague; the ultimate annus horribilis, the year from hell.
Yet, for Walterstown woman Ruth Chambers - or Ruth O'Brien as people knew her when she worked as a sports journalist for the Offaly Independent - the year contained at least one moment she will never forget, and with good reason.
Shortly before Christmas she made history by becoming the first woman to be elected chairperson of Walterstown GAA club in Meath.
There were a number of other subplots surrounding her election that also made it highly significant. For starters the club AGM was held through Microsoft Teams - the first time that had happened - and by getting elected Ruth followed in the footsteps of other members of her family who have held the position; she sustained a rich family tradition.
"My grandfather Christopher O'Brien, or Kit as we all knew him as, first took over as chairman of Walterstown in the early 1960s. He was always heavily involved and he was later elected President of the club," Ruth explains in an interview with the 'Meath Chronicle'.
Later, Ruth's father Aidan O'Brien was to also fill the position for a year as did an uncle, Sean O'Brien.
"I just figured now might be the time to go for it, I was heavily involved, I would like to think I would get along with everybody and have the respect of the members so I said yeah, why not? There's never a good time or a bad time to do something like this."
She takes over a club with a rich tradition. Its origins go back to 1902 and for a time in the late 1970s and '80s Walterstown was not only one of the top clubs in Meath but among the elite in the country.
They reached two All-Ireland club finals, in 1981 and '83, losing both to Cork sides St Finbarr's and Nemo Rangers.
Ruth, 38, is married to Galway man Mike Chambers, who works in Intel. She is also a mother of two, Aidan (7) and Sarah (6) and she now belongs to what is still an exclusive group indeed - young mothers under 40 who are chairpersons of their local GAA clubs. Maybe she's the only member of that particular select group in the country?
While there are an increasing number of women who are members of club committees and executives, relatively few have taken that extra step and occupied the top job - and she knows what she wants to achieve as she sets out on a journey into the unknown.
"Going forward for the chair didn't really have anything to do with family history, it's just something I wanted to do and I have a vision. It's a vision held by so many others in the club and it's to provide football for as many people as we can in Johnstown and Walterstown.
“To have as many kids come through the gates as we can and make sure they enjoy themselves no matter what their ability is. That's what it's all about, the club is there for the community."
Ruth O'Brien grew up close to Lismullin school where she also attended before going on to St Michael's, Loreto in Navan. For as long as she can remember sport played a huge part in her life.
She became well aware as a youngster the very significant role family members had played in helping to turn Walterstown from a small rural club into one of the powerhouses of the Meath club game in the 1970s and '80s.
Her uncle, Mick O'Brien guided the fortunes of both Walterstown and Meath and was seen as an innovative coach. Other members of the O'Brien clan played for the Blacks, including Oliver, Eamonn (who also became Meath manager), Aidan (who sadly passed away in 2010) and Dermot.
"All my uncles would have played and served at committee level," adds Ruth whose mother, Kay, also came from a family with a fine tradition in the game. "Her mother’s brother Larry Drumm played for Meath. Larry was a great Walterstown player as well, so there was football on both sides.”
There was another reason that ensured as a youngster Ruth was very familiar with what was going on, not only in GAA but in the world of sport.
"I was an only child and my father took me to just about everything when it came to sport, international soccer, Gaelic games, boxing, athletics, League of Ireland football, everything."
She tells the story of how father and daughter joined the hordes of Irish supporters who travelled to the 1994 World Cup in America. They shared experiences that are now treasured memories.
Recalling Ireland’s match against Mexico in the searing heat of Orlando, Ruth said: "It was so hot the suncream I had put on myself melted and ran into my eyes. I couldn't see a thing, my eyes were stinging and burning. I nudged my father and I said: 'Dad I have to go under the stand I can't handle this heat, I can't see anything.' He was engrossed in the game, but I went under the stand and after the game he realised I was missing. I ended up in a room, I think it was a doctor's room, with first aid responders. I'm not sure how he found me, but he eventually did, it was funny the way it all worked out."
It was on another trip with her father, this time to the 1997 World Youth Championships in Malaysia to see how Brian Kerr's young side performed, that Ruth came to realise what she wanted to do in life.
"I was only a youngster and there was a journalist there from ‘The Sun’ I think and I said: 'Dad what's he doing?' He explained what his job was and I realised you could make a living from watching sport. I worked for years as a sports journalist and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Ruth trained to be a journalist and worked in the Athlone Topic and the Offaly Independent in Tullamore. She later spent over ten years as deputy sports editor of the Leinster Leader, based in Naas.
In time she met and married Mike and they and their children lived in Newbridge for a time before moving back to Meath over two years ago.
"It just felt like the right time to move with Aidan due to start school, I wanted him to go to Lismullin. I wanted to be close to my mam as well. I'm so glad we did move back, the community in Johnstown and Walterstown is brilliant, it's a great area to live, we love it."
Not content in just returning back to her native parish, Ruth was eager to play a role prompting her to become chairperson of Walterstown GFC.
She also fills in as club PRO, a position she also holds for the Meath Minor Board. Mother, chairperson, PRO, it all ensures a busy time for Ruth, but she's up for it.
“When the kids are at school, I can do a lot of that kind of work. I'm also a night owl so I'll be working at it at night, but there are plenty of people in Walterstown willing to roll up their sleeves, it's not just me," she adds.
- Jimmy Geoghegan