My father has a little red notebook in his possession for the last 40-odd years. It includes the date of birth of every player who came under his care as a juvenile football coach for decades with our local club, so suffice to say it’s a relic of pre-GDPR days.
The notebook existed purely to facilitate handwritten team sheets. Rather than going around before every game asking 13-year-olds what their name in Irish was, and how it was spelt (the sort of question that might give a few of them palpitations in any case), the notebook meant they were all in one place, ready to be referred to at a moment’s notice.
I opened it for the first time in about 20 years recently, and what really struck me was the most obvious thing in the world – it was all boys. It basically took until the 21st century for the idea of girls playing football to take hold in the village.
Now the notebook seems a relic of a bygone age. How could 50 per cent of the children of the parish have been ignored for so long by its most powerful community group?
This weekend, the GPA motion to expedite the merger of the GAA, the LGFA, and the Camogie Association is in front of Congress. It will pass close to unanimously, as it has become clear in recent years that any hesitancy towards this appears to be coming from the LGFA and Camogie Association.
The exact details of how such a merger will proceed at a governance level when it eventually happens, is perhaps for another day – seats on executive committees, rotating presidencies. All of those are details that can and will be sorted out once the will is there.
Two examples are more urgent than any of that. First of all – why it must happen, as illustrated so powerfully by the All-Ireland senior club camogie semi-final last week.
Sarsfields of Galway and Slaughtneil were due to play in Breffni Park in Cavan last Saturday evening. When that pitch was deemed unplayable, it was refixed for Gorey – yes, that Gorey, the one in Wexford – on Sunday afternoon.
To sit down and think of all the GAA pitches that both of those teams drove past to get to their final destination boggles the mind. But those are GAA pitches, they don’t belong to the Camogie Association. They’re still asking for favours, and Gorey stepped up. Certainly not Gorey’s fault, not the two teams’ fault, not the GAA’s fault, and not strictly speaking even the Camogie Association’s fault – just our fault for letting the situation arise over the course of 100 years.
A merger will not stop female sportspeople from being discriminated against, at least not right away, but it will make it squarely the GAA’s problem. And if the GAA were in charge of that fixture, a more suitable venue would have been found.
The other example worth retelling in relation to this is that we already know what this will look like on the ground. The ‘One Club’ initiative brought in at an ever-widening number of clubs by the GAA works – it just works. In short, the participating GAA, LGFA and camogie clubs form one executive and work in partnership to deliver games programmes, share training facilities and pool their resources.
All the talk about governance and shared sponsorships and media opportunities is very worthwhile, but this is one of those problems where the devil is nowhere in the detail. The deeper you look, the more the simplicity of the answer reveals itself.
And in many ways, it just boils down to fundraising. If you live in a small parish with a GAA club, a women’s football club, and a camogie club, then all three will have to fundraise separately. Each club will end up going back to the same families, asking for the same thing, time and time again. That inevitably puts a strain on relationships between the different clubs, and between the clubs and those families.
That might be a more powerful agent for change than any talk of cultures and ideals and identities. But as men, we’ve had cause many times in this country to ask ourselves – what small thing can we do to help promote gender equality? When I asked my friend, the journalist Sinéad O’Carroll, something along those lines a couple of weeks ago, she told me the GAA club is a good place to start.
What message does it send to the girls under-14 team if they never get to train on your main pitch, and they see their brothers on the under-12 team doing it all the time? And what message does it send to the boys, more to the point? That their efforts are more worthy than their sisters’? If that’s the situation in your club, you can at least ask the question.
Raise money together, build infrastructure together, train together, move forward together – and can we please bin forever use of the word ‘ladies’ in this context as well, while we’re at it. For all the welcome GPA-led discussion this week, this is a bottom-up revolution. Clubs are doing it already, the associations just need to follow.