'I was told if I got in the way, I’d get f***ed up against the wall, camera or no camera'
Roller derby is a bruising sport played by ‘women who are unafraid and totally outspoken’
Roller derby is an unholy union of many things: speed, bruises, passion, adrenaline, rivalries and punk energy. Little wonder, then, that film-maker Laura McGann saw fit to turn her camera on Ireland’s fledgling roller derby scene, which only started in Ireland around 2010 but has roots in the Great Depression in the US.
Charting the rivalries between Cork and Dublin teams (and Team Ireland’s first journey to the World Cup in 2011), McGann’s documentary Revolutions is a valuable insight into one of the few contact team sports originally played by women, and one that is fiercely aggressive. If anything, roller derby rubbishes old cliches and mindsets about women and participation in team sport. There’s a high level of women both playing and in coaching positions: in a neat gender role reversal, Irish male roller derby teams originated later. Yet the women have, and still do, enjoy top billing.
“I saw something about Irish roller derby on Facebook, looked into it and thought, ‘No way is this happening in Inchicore’,” says McGann. “It looked totally fearless, played by very interesting women who were unafraid and totally outspoken.”
She’s not wrong there: things can get pretty gnarly on the track and breaks, black eyes and bruises are not uncommon. Filming was a challenge in itself: “I was told that if I got in the way, I’d get f***ed up against the wall, camera or no camera,” McGann recalls. “I was in the way constantly, getting roared at. One day I brought a takeaway coffee – the stain is still on the wall.”
Roller derby teaches women and girls to value our bodies for what they can do, not what they look like”
When Jemma Flynn (aka Zola Blood) of the Boomtown Rollers in Dublin got married, she went “off contact” during games for a couple of weeks. “I still had bruises all the way down my legs,” she smiles. “Still, you start to learn how to fall properly and not get hit.”
What’s a jammer?
For the uninitiated, the sport is played by two teams of five members skating in the same direction around a track. Game play consists of a series of short match-ups (jams) in which both teams designate a scoring player (the jammer) who scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. The teams attempt to assist their own jammer while hindering the opposing jammer – in effect, playing both offence and defence simultaneously.
One of the biggest draws of the sport, for McGann and others, is its diversity and inclusiveness. And you’re not likely to find as broad a church elsewhere in sport. Roller derby and queer culture are cosy bedfellows, for a start. Erica Tremblay’s 2014 documentary In the Turn takes a closer look at the link between the two. The focal point of the film is the journey of Crystal, a 10-year-old transgender girl from Canada who is not allowed to play sports at her school. Crystal finds a place for herself in the world of roller derby, one of the only organised sports with a trans-inclusive policy that prevents discrimination. The policy document, which was written up by the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association in the US, has also sought to facilitate those who are transgender, are transitioning or who identify as female to play on the female team.
American derby payer Margot Atwell, author of the Color Jam Roller Derby Coloring Book, told the Huffington Post: “The roller derby community is such a healthy, positive place for women and queer women, especially. Roller derby teaches women and girls to value our bodies for what they can do, not what they look like. Skaters are supportive of others with wildly different senses of style, gender presentations and sexualities. As long as you’re a good teammate and you’re working hard, you’re part of the family.”
“Roller derby was born out of a lefty, countercultural space,” says Rhona Flynn, aka Crow Jane, a founding member of the Cork City Firebirds. “The sport doesn’t have the baggage to shake off, like football, baseball or GAA. It’s probably fair to say that as a sport, roller derby is much more aware of and inclusive of different identities, but that’s probably a matter of timing.
It’s long been a sport popular with those picked last for PE at school, and yet elite athletes are now hearing its siren song
Adds Jemma: “Roller derby is very open, and those who felt vulnerable in another aspect of their life, like their sexuality, can turn up, join in, and feel like a member of a club.”
Fresh meat welcome
Roller derby is diverse in many other ways. At Firebirds’ training meets in Cork, for instance, 13 languages were spoken at one point. Players of all sizes, ages and levels of athletic abilities are not just welcome, but actively sought out in the name of strategy. The teams may be tight-knit, but there is always room for what is termed “fresh meat”.
Many come to the sport in their 30s: the Boomtown Rollers in Dublin boasts members in their 50s. It’s not unusual, as in the Dublin Roller Derby team, to have mothers and daughters play the sport together.
To paraphrase Dublin Roller Derby coach Violent Bob, it’s long been a sport popular with those picked last for PE at school, and yet elite athletes are now hearing its siren song.
Ellie Beating of the Dublin Roller Derby team had swum competitively in her native Terenure, with an eye on the Olympics. After putting on eight stone when she dropped out of competitive swimming, she turned to roller derby and lost five stone within three years.
“It’s not that different body shapes are ‘accepted’,” says Flynn. “Different body shapes are an advantage in roller derby. Whether you’re a size six or a size 20, five or six foot, we have a great use for you.”
For all its inclusivity and camaraderie, rivalries in roller derby are rampant. In Revolutions, tensions simmer between players on the same team, and teams facing each other. In Revolutions, viewers watch as Jemma, struggling within the Dublin Roller Derby team, strikes out on her own to form Boomtown Rollers. Elsewhere, Cork City Firebird Rhona Flynn has a few choice words for the way the Dublin Roller Derby team is run.
“We call it ‘derby drama’,” smiles Jemma Flynn. “The good news is that a lot of people speak their mind. The bad news is, a lot of people speak their mind.”
The origins of roller derby have been traced in the US as far as 1884, when a six-day competition was staged at Madison Square Garden in New York. Thirty-six skaters competed for $500 prize money. Two deaths resulted from the six-day race: both the winner, William Donovan, and skater Joseph Cohen died shortly after the race was completed.
Where once roller derby players wore tutus, fishnet stockings and face glitter, now those traditions are ebbing away
In the decades since, roller derby has gone through many bust-boom cycles: 1935 saw the inauguration of the first Transcontinental Roller Derby. Much like wrestling, the action was often exaggerated and dramatised for effect. After a fallow period in the 1960s and 1970s, interest was reignited in the 1990s.
The Noughties saw a sea change: in 2000, Texas musician Daniel Eduardo “Devil Dan” Policarpo recruited women to skate in what he hoped would be a rockabilly, circus-like roller derby spectacle. The women involved then self-organised as Bad Girl Good Woman Productions (BGGW) in 2001, creating a new generation of roller derby, open to women only. The American revival then began in earnest, with more than 50 similar all-female leagues in existence by late 2005, more than 80 by February 2006 and more than 135 by mid-August 2006. The rest of the world wasn’t far behind. By mid-2009, there were 425 amateur leagues, including 79 in Canada, Australia, the UK, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium and Sweden combined.
In more recent years, however, roller derby both here and abroad has shape-shifted, moving from a countercultural hobby towards a more polished, professional sport.
“When it started in Europe, it was a subcultural, alternative thing,” says Rhona. “It’s certainly retained some of that, but things have advanced. The level in the US, for instance, is really high – the team is full of former Olympic skaters and athletes. In places like Waterford or Limerick, you wouldn’t have a huge alternative scene or a big countercultural environment, so I’m not sure there’s a ‘type’ of player: just someone who wants to play a team sport, really.”
Where once roller derby players wore tutus, fishnet stockings and face glitter, now those traditions are ebbing away. The tradition of using on-track sobriquets – Malibruise Stacey, Katniss Everman, Dashing Trudy Snow, Countess Mark Ya Bitch – has also faded, ostensibly in a bid to encourage the public to take the sport more seriously.
“The names tradition is something that’s been there from the start,” says Rhona. “It’s partly in fun, partly a way to shake off your own ego a bit. But there has been a little shift away in that regard, perhaps with people wanting it to be seen as a legitimate sport. Maybe the fun names stop the sport from being taken seriously, but then how much do you let go of? It makes the sport unique, and sometimes this is what draws people to it.”
If you want to get to the Olympics, you probably don’t want a situation where you’re cheering for ‘Betty Swollocks’ from the sidelines”
The benefits of roller derby, according to its players, are plentiful. For many women, the adrenaline and aggression offer a form of escape. In Jemma Flynn’s case, roller derby was the antidote to completing a research PhD. For Rhona, a textile artist, roller derby was something to help take her mind off the vagaries of the recession.
“A couple of years into the recession, the whole team was struggling to stay afloat,” Rhona recalls. “I’d get calls from people saying they couldn’t make it to training as they couldn’t get petrol in the car.”
Despite modest conditions at home, international glory is very much in the players’ crosshairs. At the World Cup tournaments in 2011 and 2014, Team Ireland finished 10th. The international teams to beat, incidentally, are the US, UK, Sweden and Finland. There has also been a wider push for roller derby to be considered as an event in the 2020 Olympics.
“Ultimately, the US will lead the way on this one, as they’re the ones with the money to push it,” says Jemma. “Their players are high-profile, and the Flat-Track Derby Association has the marketing [clout] to do that.
“I have noticed that as things have become more professional in the sport, there have definitely been fewer swear words in the players’ names,” says Jemma. “If you want to get to the Olympics, you probably don’t want a situation where you’re cheering for ‘Betty Swollocks’ from the sidelines.”
Revolutions is at the IFI, Dublin, from June 30th (for one week) and July 2nd-5th at Triskel Arts Centre, Cork. facebook.com/irishrollerderby