Banbridge Cemetery sits overlooking the town’s rugby club. It is a curious resting place for possibly the greatest Derry rugby player never to represent City of Derry.
Rosie Stewart (nee Gallagher) lost her battle against cancer on Saturday, August 16th 2003. The daughter of John and Kathleen Gallagher of Hayesbank Park on the city’s Waterside, Rosie was just 33 when she tragically passed away but her impact on the sport she loved is still being felt across the country.
Capped four times by Ireland as an accomplished flanker; a former Chairperson of the Ulster Ladies Branch as well as a captain and chairperson of Cooke RFC - Ulster’s most successful ladies club - with whom she achieved an All Ireland League and Cup double in 1999. It is not over-stating her impact to say Rosie is one of the people most directly responsible for the current healthy nature of the Ladies game in Ulster.
“It was funny because she didn’t particularly excel at sport when she was at Thornhill College but then again there wasn’t that much choice for girls in terms of sport when she was growing up in Derry,” explains Rosie’s mum, Kathleen who continues to raise money for cancer charities.
“She was just a gem but her life was too short. I think we only had her on loan.”
Gifted both on and off the field, Rosie’s love of rugby grew from her university days in Leicester where she would also gain a degree in Geophysics and move into a promising career in engineering. However, her naturally effervescent personality was perfect for team sport and it quickly became obvious she had found her perfect platform with rugby.
She was just a gem but her life was too short. I think we only had her on loan.Kathleen Gallagher, Rosie’s mum.
“She was very much into her sport but boy, did she know how to party,” smiles Kathleen, “She was the life and soul of a party and within minutes of meeting her, you would think you’d known her for years.
“She would burst into any room and if she didn’t know someone she would just put her arm around them and say, ‘I’m Rosie. Now, who are you?’, “What can we do for you?’ She was very good with people.”
It was through rugby that she met and eventually married her husband-to-be, Adrian, himself a rugby player with Ballymena and Banbridge. After returning from her studies, Rosie joined Cooke and set about helping turn the club into the one of the best into the country, despite facing reservations about the women’s game in the early days. Those pioneers were not only helping establish a club, they were helping establish a sport.
But what looked the brightest of futures was cut short in early 2002 by the discovery of breast cancer. Rosie’s reaction to the news is testament to a remarkable person.
Despite a punishing chemotherapy regime, Rosie retuned to work in the weeks between treatments and insisted her condition be kept secret as she didn’t want pity, even resorting attending radiotherapy appointments during her lunch hours so she could continue in as normal a fashion as possible.
All the while she was promoting women’s rugby and using her sporting contacts to help raise money for her new passion, beating cancer. Six months after chemotherapy, she was completing a 500-length swim for ‘Action Cancer’ and raised countless thousands before, in 2003 after doctors found the cancer had spread, she sadly passed away.
“She only got a year and a half after she found the first lump,” adds Kathleen, “It was a huge shock, she was only 33 when she died and I still carry a picture of her around very day with me.”
This weekend the Ulster Ladies Senior Cup which bears Rosie’s name will arrive at Judges Road for the first time in it’s 12 year history. Fittingly the final is being contested by her beloved Cooke who are strong favourites to capture another title when they meet Queen’s University at 2.30pm. City of Derry meet Enniskillen in the Shield final prior to the main final at 12.30pm.
Kathleen will be there to present the Rosie Stewart Memorial Bowl and to collect money for Cancer Focus NI for whom Adrian helped set up the ‘Forget Me Not Fund’ in memory of Rosie. It remains a fact that every year in Northern Ireland around 12,000 people are told they have the disease and more than 4,000 still lose their lives to it annually.
“That’s the thing about cancer, it effects almost everybody at some stage. I believe Rosie is working though me to try and raise as much money as we can to try and beat cancer.
“I could write a book on Rosie. She was a very strong but lovely girl as anyone who met her will tell you. She left a wonderful legacy and packed so much into her life. What happened does makes you wonder what life is about but we all have to do our best to beat this disease.”
Through Kathleen, Rosie’s fight to beat cancer continues and there can be no better legacy to a player and person whose impact far exceeded a life that was taken too early.