After four months away from her classroom in St Mary's in Clondalkin primary school, Longford footballer Aoife Darcy returned this week.
The detritus of half-made St Patrick’s Day decorations was scattered around deserted lunchboxes, maths copies and stray belongings, but at least next week she’ll get to say goodbye to her third-class students.
"We thought we were only going to be out for two weeks but we haven’t been back since 12 March. It is a bit odd," said Darcy (24), who is facing into her ninth inter-county campaign.
"I don’t know what the story will be in September and what way we’ll go back, but we’ll have to wait and see I suppose.
"I teach nine or ten year olds; they are grand little ones. They still kind of like their teacher and are not too cool for school at that stage.
"I went back in this week to sort out their copies and stuff and there were half leprechauns left around the place. The copies will be given out to the kids next week when they come in to collect their lunches and stuff, but that’ll be it then until September for them. It has been a very strange few months."
It has been a difficult quarter for teachers and students alike, and Ms Darcy still isn’t sure what a return to school will look like. But one thing’s for sure, she’ll be ready for inter-county football at that stage.
For the first six months of 2020 Darcy has been battling her way back from shoulder surgery. It was a heart-wrenching – but timely – decision to finally go under the knife after six years of dealing with a dislocating shoulder.
She knew she would miss all of Longford’s Lidl National Football League Division 3 campaign. Her participation in the TG4 Intermediate Championship was touch and go, while playing for her beloved Clonguish was also put in doubt due to the surgery. She is one of few sports stars to benefit from this Covid-19 lay-off.
"It all started when I was playing for my club in a league final against Killoe, our rivals. I dislocated my right shoulder. It has been at me ever since, it pops in and pops out again.
"It only ever came out twice and I couldn’t get it back in and had to go to Mullingar hospital, but all the other times I could just do it myself. You get used to it, I could pop it back in and out.
"It is obviously in the family because my little sister Niamh, her shoulder is the same, and my Dad, Fergus, was the same when he used to play football for Na Fianna back in the day.
"I was being a bit stubborn because I knew I’d be out for ages if I had the surgery. There was always something, but last year I wasn’t myself with it, I was so conscious of it. If I put my arm out to tackle at all it was coming out. I had to bite the bullet.
"It was a long process. If there was a match at the weekend I’d still have to get the go-ahead from the surgeon that I’d be fit to play. I’m not out the gap yet. It’s still fairly stiff but I’m almost there."
The 24-year-old is one of the more experienced players in the Longford team and was named joint vice-captain last season by new manager Enda Sheridan. Despite her injury, she has retained that role this season.
While it was tough to miss her first string of games for the county since she debuted as a 16-year-old, Darcy says the worst thing was not being there for Sheridan’s future stars.
"I haven’t missed a year for Longford since I started. Even the year I went on my J1 in 2016, I came back and we were in the Junior final in Croke Park. So it has been weird for me to be sitting on the sideline, that I couldn’t do anything about it.
"Longford didn’t go great in the league this year either. We have a lot of young girls in from the minor and U16 that they won last year. I felt sorry that I wasn’t there to help them settle into the team.
"There is a core group of us: myself, Michelle Farrell and Emer Heaney. We’re the oldest on the team and we’re only 24. With me out, they had to step up even more this year. There should be more older girls playing with the county really.
"It was hard looking on and me not being able to do my bit. The young girls are great and in a few years it’ll be absolutely brilliant at senior level. But now we are lacking a bit of experience so it was hard with me having that and sitting on the sideline."
By the time the inter-county game returns in the autumn, Darcy is hopeful that she'll be back to her best, sharpened by kicking scores for Clonguish in the Longford championship.
She says missing out on the ultra-competitive TG4 Leinster Intermediate Championship this year will be tough, but the possibilities of a redrawn All-Ireland championship are endless.
"Even last year we played Meath in the group stages of the All-Ireland championship. They were red-hot favourites but they only beat us by four points. That game could have went either way.
"If the championship turns out to be a knock-out format, you could get a few surprises, a smaller county could very easily knock out one of the favourites. The only thing is if you lose on day one, that’s it.
"But we have an exciting few months ahead again. Hopefully now our gang can stay together, and we can help the younger girls to come through the next couple of seasons. They are serious footballers. Give it a year or two and hopefully we’ll be back motoring as good as we were when we all started off."