Cora Staunton still determined to break down barriers
Mayo great is adamant women’s game deserves more from GAA
Cora Staunton won her 10th All Star in November. Her 2-10 against Tyrone was the undoubted highlight of another excellent season. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
It wouldn’t be fair to put this question to Cora Staunton but the more you mull over the cloudbusting career of football’s original child star it can quickly be reduced to this: why do Gaelic games continue to treat one its finest ever players as a second-class citizen?
In October, Staunton found herself with the first free winter she could remember when her club, Carnacon, was defeated by Kilkerrin-Clonberne in the Connacht club quarter-final. She collected her 10th All-Star for another superb season – the 2-10 she registered against Tyrone a high point – and will wait until the new year before deciding whether she will wear the green and red of Mayo for a 20th season.
She is still only 33 years old. You can Google the staggering list of honours and achievements Staunton has amassed or just YouTube the various highlight reels.
As a football player, there is no easy comparison: the left-right felicity for which Tyrone’s Frank McGuigan is revered is there in abundance; present also is the low, jinking solo style reminiscent of Michael Donnellan in his pomp; and any scoring forward would recognise the chilling composure behind her marksmanship. You can know see these things without understanding just how badly she wanted to play the game and how much she fought for it.
On a recent radio interview with Newstalk, she ruffled a few feathers by alluding to some of the realities of life in the women’s game. It is an ongoing struggle. On a dismal afternoon in Castlebar – hot soup in high demand in the restaurant – she laughs out loud when asked if the Mayo women’s team get to train in MacHale Park very often.
“No! God no. We might be lucky if we get it before a Connacht final.”
Nor do they get any mileage allowance. The players organise a food rota for training. “So each player will end up bringing along food for everyone maybe three or four times over the season. It might be sandwiches or a curry or scones.”
The Mayo women’s team fundraise for the gear they wear – or else just contribute the equivalent themselves. “The older you get, I suppose you feel apprehensive or just bad about looking for money from people every year.”
Last winter, they were stuck for a training pitch and were grateful for temporary use of a facility near Ballyhaunis which was a good five minute walk from the main pitch and changing areas. It had two floodlights and no toilets. There were no hot showers afterwards.
She lists all of these obstacles cheerfully. It’s not intended as a gripe, just an honest appraisal of what the players in ladies football put up with. The Mayo ladies board does not have the funds to change that. The overall body, the LGFA, does its best under difficult circumstances.
Like everyone, Cora is aware of the emphasis on the need to improve the lot of players in the men’s game – and she supports it. But she also thinks that, comparatively speaking, they live like kings.
When she was a kid playing Gaelic football along with boys in Carnacon and Ballinrobe, she understood deep down that even though they were playing the same sport, they were headed for different worlds. To understand how fiercely she fought to play a game that was established as a male-only preserve, you have to go back to the late 1980s, to the national school in Carnacon and to the constant encouragement they all heard in the voice of their teacher, Arthur Ó Súilleabháin, to go and play and to be whomever they wanted.
“We had 15 in the class and it was half boys and girls. He pushed the idea of all sports. I was the only one who picked up Gaelic football and ended up being quite good at it. And he pushed me all the time to go out playing with the lads.
“ Some of the girls had no interest in football and that was fine. So I ended up as the only girl on the team. And that made it a mixed team.”
All of which is part of established educational and sports practice now but 25 years ago, in the west of Ireland, the notion of girls playing Gaelic football was still regarded by many as somewhere between a novelty and an outrage. Undeterred, she began training with the local under-10s team, cycling the three miles from home to the pitch with her older brother.
After that, she began to play on the Ballinrobe team. Michelle McGing, her future Mayo team-mate, was the other girl on the team. She always felt sympathy for whichever boy happened to be playing corner back in games: the mortification on his face when he saw he was going to have to mark a girl and, 10 minutes after throw in, the terror when he understood that he was going to be bettered by her.
“It was always me and Michelle. We would have to go to a different dressing room to change. And then none of the boys would want to mark you. So I would go in and the defender wouldn’t want to mark you and then he would see you were good and he wouldn’t want to be shamed. So it was tough. You’d get called tomboy and stuff like that but sure . . . I was a tomboy. I was the youngest in a house full of brothers. There was no mercy!”
The boys on her team treated her as if she was just another player; as though they forgot she was a girl. Alan Dillon, the future Mayo player, was in the forward line with her and was always supporting her.
As an adult, Cora is tall and sinewy but when she was a kid she was a whippet of a thing, reliant on speed and evasiveness to keep out of harm’s way. Her parents were slightly uncomfortable with the idea of their youngest daughter as a Gaelic footballer and were too busy trying to run the family farm and organise a household of six boys and two girls to see her play many matches. Beatrice Casey and Jimmy Corbett, two of her Carnacon coaches, ensured she made it to training and to matches so her folks knew she was in safe hands.
“From the age of 11, Jimmy and Beatrice just brought me everywhere. My father’s a farmer and my mother worked in the local hospital in catering. They were trying to provide for everyone else, so they wouldn’t have had time to go. And then mum died when I was 16. She had been ill for three years before that. So all of that was going on in home as well.
“When I was in first year she got sick and she died at the start of my transition year. There were only 11 years between the eight of us, so trying to provide for us – looking after us and getting us to school and to college . . . going to football games wouldn’t have been a high priority. I didn’t have to work too much in the farm and I was kinda lucky because I was the youngest in the family and I got away with going off to play sport. I’ve another sister Collette who was very good at basketball and football and would have been really good if she had the opportunity to pursue it. So I was lucky to have people like Beatrice and Jimmy and Sean Hanlon around me.”
Mary Staunton died in 1998, a year before Mayo won its first senior women’s All-Ireland. Cora can see now that the way she dived into Gaelic football was something of a response to the three years of her mother’s illness, when the family had to become used to long absences for treatment.
“It was a turbulent enough time because she was diagnosed in 1995 and I was playing football and she would have spent a lot of time in hospital. Football I suppose was an outlet and Dad wouldn’t have to worry because he knew I was off playing.”
She was invited onto the Mayo senior team in 1995 when she was just 13 and played just 90 seconds of the 1999 All-Ireland final because she broke her collarbone in training a week before the final. The team elected to start her anyway, as a ceremonial gesture. She nods at the idea that apart from that misfortune, she has been fairly blessed with injuries.
“Broke a few bones along the way all right,” she shrugs. “Broke a few fingers. Broke my nose a couple of times lately. I tore my cruciate in 2003 but didn’t have the operation until 2008. I had my jaw broken in a college’s game. That was it, really.”
Source is a mystery
She has begun to play rugby in recent years and wishes more than anything that boxing had been an option when she was a child. Vincent King, her second cousin from Ballintubber, always claimed that she inherited her athleticism from his gene pool but its source is a mystery. She sometimes wonders if it came from Mary’s side of the family.
“See, we don’t actually know. My mother was adopted . . . her adoptive parents were from Clonbur and that’s where she was raised. But she wasn’t adopted until she was seven. She wasn’t fully sure of the story.
“We weren’t told this as kids . . . it only all came out after our mom had died. So her adoptive parents were dead when I was born because they were quite old when they adopted her. So I wouldn’t have seen that side of my granny and granddad.”
In Mayo, she is simply ‘Cora’ in the same way as Crossmolina’s totemic figure was, by the end, simply ‘Mac’: the fond familiarity earned from sustained achievement and the more prosaic fact of showing up year after year. Plus, lest it be forgotten, Mayo is half-daft for Gaelic football. The sport is a language there.
For the past seven years, she has worked with the HSE as a liaison officer with women from the Travelling community in Mayo and across Connacht. It is rewarding work and demanding work. The women are employed part-time; the idea is that they front a peer-led education service. She has come to feel passionately about the lot of the Travelling community; about the lazy stereotyping, the stigmatisation, the hardships, the shocking statistics on life-expectancy and adult male suicide and the difficulty of trying to belong.
On the Monday after Tyson Fury won the world heavyweight boxing title, the women were buzzing, proud, thrilled that someone from their tribe had gone so far in the mainstream world, asking Cora if she had watched the fight. She had. Many of the women had never formally worked before they started this initiative and even the idea of showing up for set hours was new and strange. They have thrived.
They have used Gaelic football, too, to try to make the local Traveller community feel less isolated. The Parkside estate in Ballina has a big Traveller constituency but few kids played football even though it is located near the Stephenites ground.
“So Stephenites coaches went into Parkside to train the kids for a few weeks,” she explains. “And plenty of them were very, very good. And from that then, kids went into play in the club. And they have stayed with it. So we are planning the same with other clubs.”
It is about baby steps and patience.
“Some days you feel like it is three forwards and eight back.”
But she is used to that. In a way, her work life mirrors her sporting life in that it is about busting down perceptions.
Of all the women who have excelled at Gaelic football, Cora Staunton has had arguably the highest profile: her appearance alongside Colm Cooper in a Lucozade television campaign was a commercial acknowledgement of her status in the game. She is not long back from an ambassadorial role in Shanghai at the Asian Games.
In many ways, the game has been good to her. But as she debates whether to keep the flame lit for year 20, she can’t help but wonder about the overall profile of women’s football. The obvious discrepancy is this: the ladies game does not fall under the care of the GAA. If women’s football is still on the edge of things, then placing it under the care of the last remaining pillar of 20th century Ireland would surely make sense. Isn’t that something all women footballers would welcome?
“I imagine that they would. I really can’t understand why we were not.”
In the summer, Mayo played Tyrone in an All-Ireland match in Ballinamore. The team bus drove past Sean McDermott Park, the Leitrim county ground, as it sat there looking fabulous and completely empty. It is a joke they are all used to: playing ‘big games’ at obscure grounds at peculiar times.
As it happened, the Tyrone women requested that the game be scheduled for Croke Park, as the Tyrone men were playing there on the same weekend. The GAA was agreeable but as it turned out, the arrangement wasn’t possible because of television rights. So she racked up 2-10 in front of a handful of people: another shimmering display all but unseen.
When Cora goes to see the Mayo men play – and like most of the county she is an ardent fan – she can’t help but feel envious when she hears that roar. To wonder what that feels like; to run through that explosion of noise.
“Of course you envy it. Sometimes for the football you wonder if you’d not been better off been born a man,” she laughs.
“But you have to be happy with what you have too. And people ask me: ‘ah, but what if you were to play in a man’s game. How would you get on then?’ Look, we are built differently physically. You cannot say how we would be able to compete.”
She is restless during these down days of winter but at least the quiet weeks give her enough time and clarity to decide if she wants to come back. Cork, who have eclipsed Mayo as the standard-bearers, may well entice her into another winter. For now, she keeps busy.
But there is still something deeply wrong and stupid about the fact that if Cora Staunton does return for a 20 season, she will still be more heard about than seen.
“I would love to sometime see the day when an All-Ireland women’s final is played before the men’s. And I can understand; yeah, a lot of people aren’t going to want to go to a certain standard of match. But a lot of the senior games now are quite good. It is more of an expansive open game.
“If more people even happened to see our game before one of the men’s game they might actually look at it and think: Jeez, this is not bad. And maybe then they would show up half an hour earlier for the next game. What can be done to change it? I dunno.”
But, of course, Cora Staunton has been changing it from day one in national school, simply by showing up and smashing barriers – and by playing the game like very few can.