On a mid-October Saturday in Ireland we could have been forgiven for expecting less than perfect weather conditions. The gods were shining down on us though, and it was a glorious morning when more than 600 young girls descended on Clontarf GAA’s magnificent rose garden pitches in St Anne’s Park in Dublin for the Leinster Women’s Gaelic Football LGFA U10 Blitz.
The volunteers were out in force early; the light frost had barely left the grass when pitches were lined out. After last-minute hairband and ponytail adjustments, the hooter sounded and the games began.
The spectacle was something to behold, more than 30 clubs creating a multicoloured sea of jerseys, comprising 48 teams, scattered over 16 pitches.
The blitz, organised by the Leinster Ladies Football Association, is one of the largest gatherings of 10-year-old girls in team sports across the country and reflects the significant growth in Women’s Gaelic Football in recent years. In fact, it is one of the fastest growing female team sports in Europe.
To passersby, the accumulation of so many girls playing what until recent years was seen as a predominantly male sport, may have seemed strange. Not to the girls of Clontarf, though.
In the past decade the girls’ section of the club has blossomed, with the club fielding teams from under-eights through to adult. Clontarf GAA is now one of the largest clubs in the country in terms of female membership. The number of underage female members has risen from 145 in 2005 to 531 in 2015.
The foundation for this success is the apple of the club’s eye; its nursery programme. This takes place every Saturday morning from September to June. More than 400 children between the ages of four and eight take to the field each week to start their journey in Gaelic games.
The schools also play an important part, with the local Belgrove and Greenlanes schools getting GAA coaching from the club’s games promotion officer every week. The Belgrove girls have won honours at the highest level in the Cumann na mBunscoil competition in recent years, representing their school in Croke Park.
The club is also closely linked with Holy Faith girls’ secondary school on the coast road, which fields teams at all levels in women’s football and camogie. The transition year students are trained in the GAA foundation coaching award, and they volunteer their time on Saturday mornings to help coach at the nursery.
As well as the obvious health benefits of female participation in sport, there are a host of others. Sport can be a major driver of increased confidence and higher self esteem in teenagers, with research suggesting that sport ultimately leads girls to a fundamentally healthier lifestyle.
With the current trend of adolescent girls dropping out of sport across the country, it is testament to the commitment and dedication of the volunteer coaches in Clontarf that the female section continues to grow.
As the club strives to improve across all levels, I can only see this trend continuing.
Stephen Behan is games promotion officer with Clontarf GAA Club