Joanne O’Riordan: Athenry setting precedent for women’s sports grounds

Camogie club are aiming to become first in the country to buy, build and develop facility

Those within LGFA and camogie circles know there are weird hurdles to jump to be seen as equal to their male partners. This weekend was historic when Meath LGFA and Meath GAA opened up Páirc Tailteann for the senior men and women’s games, an obvious occasion but oddly the first of its kind. While intercounty league double headers are a novelty unto themselves, clubs aligning men and women will only happen when that bit of bob has to be collected.

On top of that, one main question that I have heard repeatedly within board meetings is an explanation of how the money will be divided up. Those with goodwill suggest a 50/50 split. Those who are that bit more cynical would argue more come through the gates for the men, so why should that pot be taken? Either way, one bruised ego can almost equate to hundreds of disappointed girls who have to go searching for a pitch anyway.

And yet, among those disappointed are incredible innovators and doers, those who view one door closing as an excuse to look for an open window. Sinead Reel and Armagh LGFA did it with the backing of multiple grants, including Community Finance Ireland. So far, they have put £120,000 of their own hard-raised funds into completing their pitch at McKeever Park, Killeen. Add to that, Cork camogie have a pitch in Mahon, outside Cork city, while Waterford LGFA have recently bought ground to be developed in Dungarvan.

But now, Athenry Camogie Club are aiming to become the first club in women’s Gaelic games to buy, build and develop their official grounds for the girls in the community. Athenry Camogie Club will be turning 50 years old in 2023, and, all going well, as well as being incredible pioneers for the women’s game, they’re also hoping to build history. The end result will be a camogie centre of excellence, the first of its kind and will be spearheaded by a Win A House and Car Draw. The club has found how helpful sponsors and people are when it’s for the betterment of the community.


Equal opportunity

The bold idea was initially launched right in the middle of Lockdown 3.0, but that has not had an effect on the demand for tickets. To date, a massive 90 per cent of tickets have been sold, with optimism levels high for the main draw on December 18th this year.

But first, let’s look back. Despite planning for the future, Athenry Camogie club developed when Fr Martin O’ Grady, through coaching the game in the Presentation College, gave girls an equal opportunity. Add to that, the girls were given an outlet outside of school by another teacher in the school, Gilbert McCarthy.

Gilbert, alongside Christy Kelly and Anthony Poniard, decided in 1973 to try and create another outlet for camogie players and girls by forming the Athenry club. Success was pretty much imminent through school and club. The Presentation College had a historic year in 1974 when they won both the Junior and Senior Colleges All-Irelands and in 1975 won the Senior Colleges All-Ireland again, all running out in Croke Park and along the way even beat the queens of camogie in the Downey sisters.

In 1976 came the historic All Ireland semi-final against Creggan, when Athenry Camogie club chartered two small planes to fly the teams from Carnmore Airport to travel to Antrim at the height of the troubles. Driving by bus was, for GAA players, obviously not an option.

The past was trailblazing, but the present is just as healthy. After the first lockdown and ready for action, over 110 girls under the age of eight came out for the first camogie training session. If that isn’t a sign designated grounds are needed, then what is? Fortunately, the committee set up to bring this dream to life boasts some impressive names, including former Athenry and Galway hurlers like PJ Molloy, Brian Feeney, Brendan Keogh, Joe Rabbitte, and Cathal Moran.

So, that’s where Dervla Higgins, All-Star nominee, Galway back and All-Ireland winner, explains how important it is. “I think it’s going to be huge. We are one of the largest clubs in the country and are growing every year. It’s always a struggle trying to get pitches. We could be the first on or the last on because the men have priority when it’s their own ground. It can be very difficult to organise training and get pitches for us, and going forward, this venture is going to be huge”.

Currently playing on what’s known as the Pres pitch, plenty of stars have shone and developed under the watchful eye of club officials, from Therese Maher, Gina Glynn, Jessie Gill, Noreen Coen, along with Higgins, who all play with Galway.

Future generations

Along with developing stars of the future, Higgins knows this is also one step in allowing a multipurpose centre to hone the skills and talents of future generations, not solely in camogie but also the wider GAA circles. “Maybe even this could be an opportunity to give back to the local GAA club as we are so appreciative of how much they have done for us and how much space they have allocated for us down through the years. The venture will open so many doors for our younger girls and boys coming through”.

Athenry manager and two time All-Ireland winner in the 1980s PJ Molloy agrees that the development of the grounds could genuinely change the game. “This is important for ladies sport, you talk about equality in life and the same goes for equality in sport. It’s only in the last couple of years we’ve seen how much coverage the Irish soccer women’s team is getting, and the Irish rugby ladies team is getting. Camogie is getting fantastic coverage also, and rightly so. The game is very skillful and is every bit as skillful as the men’s game. If you look at the likes of Therese Maher, Gina Glynn, Jessie Gill, Noreen Coen or Dervla Higgins - their skill is amazing. This venture is huge and will be a legacy going forward.”

The club is hugely grateful for what has happened in the past but realise the task ahead will need more work and collaboration from those within and outside women’s sports. Monthly prize sponsors have been more than generous, but there’s a big push to urge people to buy their tickets and be in with a chance to win a house and a car. Not only would it be the best Christmas gift courtesy of Athenry, but you could also give Athenry the gift of a solid future and stability for players to grow and develop.

You can purchase a ticket online on the website or at Athenry Camogie Club’s pop up shop in Athenry every Friday morning 10am-2pm.