Ciarán Murphy: GAA leading the push for gender equality in sport

Fixing double bills of men’s and women’s football another step in right direction

The Dublin v Mayo women’s All-Ireland final attracted a record crowd of 46,286  to Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

The Dublin v Mayo women’s All-Ireland final attracted a record crowd of 46,286 to Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

In my class in National School, there were 12 boys, and five girls. In my older brother’s class, the numbers were reversed – 12 girls, five boys. One of these classes was deemed a bountiful harvest for our GAA club, and there are no prizes for guessing which one.

I finished sixth class in 1995, and I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem that long ago.

None of the five girls in my class ever showed the slightest interest in playing football with us at break-time, or at underage with our club, or contributing to the club at all, and suffice to say that didn’t surprise us in the least – in fact, if they had, it might have blown our young minds.

For 12- and 13-year-old girls growing up today, that sounds about as anachronistic as tales of my parents bringing sods of turf to warm the school fire sounded to me at that age.

And the news this week that eight games in the ladies football national league are to be played before men’s games in their national league is further evidence that there now exists a pathway for our women to perform in front of big crowds – not just on their All-Ireland final day but throughout the year.

The LGFA have been pushing for this for years, and with the Dublin, Cork and Mayo ladies football teams all now marketable entities in their own right, this has no downside and quite a bit of upside for both the GAA and the women’s association.

Dublin and Mayo will replay their All-Ireland final meetings in both men’s and women’s football on February 24th in Castlebar, while the Dubs will also play Cork and Kerry in Croke Park before the men’s team plays Donegal and Kerry. Galway and Mayo will meet on the double as well in Pearse Stadium on February 11th. Double-headers featuring Armagh, Cavan, Monaghan and Tyrone are also scheduled.

Those five girls in my national school didn’t deserve to be ignored by the GAA back then but they were. It required the sort of strength of character you shouldn’t be asking of 12-year-olds for them to be even considered as a footballer back then.

But I can’t help but feel that the growth – the explosion – of popularity in camogie and ladies football in the last 20 years has been minimised relentlessly.

Our games have been opened up to a whole new constituency, to a vast swathe of Irish women that we had closed them off to, but that seismic shift isn’t quite so easy to write about as it is to pontificate about the end of volunteerism, or the unfair demands we place on amateur players (demands that Olympic athletes willingly accept, for a fraction of the glory), or why we think it’s important the new GAA director-general has a head for business.

Gender equality

I once suggested in these pages that the women’s final was far more deserving of a spot as the curtain-raiser to the men’s All-Ireland final than two minor teams, but 2017 proved beyond a doubt that it must stand alone, and should share a bill only with the junior and intermediate women’s finals.

But everywhere else we should be looking for opportunities to aggressively promote the fact that the GAA has in 20 years become an engine for increased gender equality in Irish sport. Is the GAA ahead of, or merely riding the wave of, societal changes, though?

We worry about the death of volunteerism, the creeping march of late-capitalism into the organisation, and in some ways these are valid concerns. But the fact remains that, for all that we talk about the GAA as a force for good in Irish life, it is still just a sporting organisation, and is as prone to the winds of change in society as any other part of Irish life.

Fifty years ago the ban on the playing of foreign games by GAA members was still in place. Twenty-five years ago Croke Park was a building site. Women as active players have been minimised or patronised for almost the entire history of the GAA but, as interest grew amongst women who wanted to play our games, the GAA has been able to give them a platform, and this week is another positive step in that direction.

Change happens all the time. Sometimes the GAA are ahead of the curve, sometimes they’re behind it. But the games, the central plank of the thing, endures. The next 20 years is an unopened book – it’s not a fait accompli that the changes coming down the track will be the death of us. The way in which the influence of women on and off the field has grown in the last two decades suggests that the new day on the horizon can be a bright one indeed.

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