First woman chair of Cork GAA urges other women to apply for top level positions

Tracey Kennedy hopes her election will dispel notions that Cork GAA is a conservative organisation

“It’s an emotional time for anyone for who’s been in that situation when you see the poor women who have died and are dying as a result of errors - at the same time, I hope the scandal doesn’t deter women from having smear tests as in my case, it meant my cancer was detected early.”

Facing into her first championship weekend as Cork County Board Chairperson as Cork take on Clare in the Munster Hurling Championship, Tracey Kennedy is in a reflective mood as she recalls how she herself was diagnosed with cancer in early 2015 when a cervical smear test came back positive.

Kennedy (43) reveals that when she first got the test result, her reaction was one of "complete panic" but talking to veteran Cork GAA medic Dr Con Murphy brought a welcome reassurance that she wasn't going to die as the cancer was still at a very early stage.

"My cancer was Stage 1A1 so it was very early, so I had surgery and have been healthy since but listening to remarkable women like Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathúna, I realise how lucky I am - if I hadn't had smear tests, my cancer would have far more advanced before it was detected."


Kennedy’ s cancer diagnosis came just a month after she was elected Vice Chairperson of the Cork County Board but now that she has ascended to the top role in Cork GAA.

She says that experience from three years ago gives her a sense of perspective whenever her new role threatens to overwhelm her.

"At times when the Cork GAA chairperson job is getting on top of me, which it does from time to time -and life is busy too with my day job as deputy principal of Carrigaline Community School - there is a sensation where you go, 'At least I'm here to be dealing with this situation'."

The first female Chairperson of Cork GAA and only the second woman ever to hold the highest office in a county GAA hierarchy, Kennedy comes from a family steeped in the association even though her own playing career was stymied at an early age due to simply a fear of the ball.

But growing up in Killeagh with Cork All-Ireland winning hurlers, Joe Deane and Mark Landers as contemporaries and one uncle, Danno Kennedy, after whom the Killeagh pitch is named, and another, Patrick O'Mahony who made hurleys for Christy Ring, the GAA was central to her youth.

Kennedy's path to GAA officialdom began by serving on Killeagh Community Council while still studying for a BA in English and French in UCC, followed by a stint as Killeagh GAA juvenile secretary before becoming secretary to the adult club that led to divisional involvement with Imokilly.

That in turn led a role as Imokilly PRO and Imokilly secretary which, in turn led to becoming Cork County PRO where she enthusiastically embraced new technology and set about revolutionising Cork GAA’s communications strategy with such innovative ideas as Twitter match updates.

Elected Chairperson unopposed late last year, Kennedy sees nothing unusual about becoming the first woman to hold the office given that she has always seen her involvement and that of other women in the GAA as a normal and perfectly natural occurrence.

“I didn’t think there was anything that different about me coming in as a woman given our club in Killeagh. I was the only woman at the East Cork Board and I was younger but I can never say that at east Cork level or County level, I was ever patronised or made to feel uncomfortable.”

While Cork may have a reputation for being one of the more traditional, counties, with a record of opposition to lifting the ban of foreign games and opening up Croke Park to rugby and soccer, Kennedy rejects the idea her election marks some sort of seismic shift in the county's philosophy.

“We may be seen to take conservative positions on certain things but we do oppose some things because they should be opposed or that’s because what our clubs think - I am delighted and others are delighted that my election has helped dispel any notion of Cork as a conservative place.

“I prefer to think of my election as symbolic of a growing openness in Cork. I had significant victories in my elections for PRO and Vice Chair so there was overwhelming support and I was unopposed for the chair so that shows perhaps an openness in Cork that people didn’t realise is there.”

An avid reader but an introvert by nature, Kennedy has nonetheless no hesitation in describing herself as a feminist and quotes one of her favourite writers, American Maya Angelou as she tackles the question of women in the GAA, not just in Cork, but nationally.

“As Maya Angelou said ‘I’ve been a woman for many years, I would be foolish not to be on my own side’. -I’m part of that generation of women that might be a bit nervous about using the word ‘feminist’ - we would have been a bit nervous about using it for a long time.

“But I’ve come to see feminism as simply being about equality and what is wrong with equality? To me, that is all feminism is - do we want different things for our daughter than for our sons, do I have different expectations for my girl pupils than for my boy pupils? I don’t.”

Accepting being single and not having children affords her a latitude not available to all women, Kennedy quotes American Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg that "women belong in all places where decisions are being made", as she reflects on whether her gender confers extra pressure in her new role.

"It was not something I ever thought of at the beginning of my journey - even when I was elected, there were four women PROs in Munster - Kerry, Waterford, Limerick and Cork and that tradition goes back to when Liz Howard was elected PRO in Tipperary so it wasn't that unusual.

“It really was only when I was elected vice-chair and women started to say it me that it’s great to see women represented that I began to realise that I have a responsibility to other women and I love Madeleine Albright’s quote about a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

One of Kennedy’s first projects was to conduct an audit of Cork’s 167 clubs to establish levels of female involvement and the results have been positive with more than 200 women involved in key roles across both adult and juvenile clubs but she hopes that such a state is only a starting point.

“Looking back, I hope I won’t be referred to as ‘The woman chair’. I don’t want someone looking down the Roll of Honour in 25 years time and saying ‘Ah look at her - the woman’- I would like there would be other women who came along and I know women who are capable of doing that.

"I have said and it's become a bit of a cliché of mine. 'There's no point in being the first if you are the only one' and I don't really want that to be the case and we have had cases recently here in Cork of clubs elected women chairs in Clyda Rovers and Dungourney, which is very encouraging.

“I was happy with the results of our audit on women involvement so I am hoping to run an event later in the year to work with those women where we will have speakers into Páirc Uí Chaoimh to talk about what can be done to encourage women within the GAA to step up to a higher level.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times