The GAA needs to be more proactive in recruiting women and people from minority groups if it wants to be a truly community organisation in a changing Ireland, according to former Cork County Board Chairperson, Tracey Kennedy.
Kennedy (45), who stood down as Cork GAA Chairperson last December after three years in office, said that she believed the GAA needs to look at ways of encouraging more women to take on leadership roles in the association.
"Women are often slower to put themselves forward than men are, and may need to be convinced that they have the skills for a particular role, and they are still also the primary caregivers in many families," said the Killeagh native.
“Women feel that they have to meet all the criteria at job applications whereas men will apply even if they only meet one or two . . . the only people who are surprised by the fantastic performance of women, are men.
Kennedy is only the second female county chair in Ireland after Roisin Jordan was elected in Tyrone in 2014 and only the third internationally after Eileen Jennings was elected European County Board Chair in 2006
She told The Irish Times she would never be foolish enough to suggest women make better leaders than men but she firmly believed having differing views and approaches was important in any organisation, including the GAA.
“Having a balance is so important - 50 per cent c of our population are women and yet in all the higher echelons of our society, there is nowhere near that level of representation so something is wrong there and that needs to be addressed.
“I am sorry that I was not able to do more on this during my term, and while we have certainly made huge progress in our relationships with camogie and ladies’ football at local level, we are a long way from achieving diversity.”
She pointed out that Cork GAA, being almost exclusively made up of men, led to her feeling a sense of isolation and she felt she had no alternative at times but to make her presence felt to let people know it wasn’t a uniform body.
“When I first started going to county board meetings, those addressing the meeting would frequently refer to ‘Gentlemen’ at which point I used to give a little cough so it became ‘Tracey and Gentlemen’,” she said with a smile.
“It’s still a very male dominated body and I know people may say it’s a men’s sporting organisation but that’s really only half the picture because if you look at fans, we must be approaching a 50/50 split in terms of gender balance”
One of the goals, Kennedy set herself upon taking office was carrying out an audit on the number of women involved in Cork GAA clubs and it revealed that more than 50 women held officer positions among the county’s 259 clubs.
But Kennedy’s plans to bring all these women together for a seminar in Páirc Uí Chaoimh to hear their experiences and come up with proposals to involve more women in the GAA were scuppered by the Covid 19-pandemic.
Looking back at her term of office, Kennedy said she believes that Cork GAA didn't get enough credit for opening up Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the Liam Miller Testimonial back in 2018 when a Man Utd XI played an Ireland/Celtic XI.
The near sell out game, when 43,000 packed into Páirc Uí Chaoimh, raised funds for the family of the former Glasgow Celtic and Man Utd midfielder who left behind a wife and three young children when he lost his battle with cancer.
Initially, the GAA rejected the idea of Páirc Uí Chaoimh hosting the game, saying it would require a rule change at Annual Congress but after calls from several politicians and sportspeople, the GAA gave the game the green light.
But Kennedy rejected the idea that the GAA was opposed to the idea of hosting a testimonial for Liam Miller and said that the issue for many in the association revolved more around how to facilitate it than opposing it.
“I’m not sure it was as big a struggle as it may have been portrayed to be - I was very open to it from the beginning and it was a very emotive situation, a young man, who a lot of GAA connections himself, dying so young.
“And it was being organised by developer, Michael O’Flynn who has been a great friend to Cork GAA, a member of the stadium board, somebody who has given so much as a GAA volunteer and he was leading the organisation of it.
“When it came to my notice, I said this would be a brilliant thing if we could do it but obviously I was aware of the rules that the GAA has so I knew, it wasn’t just a question of me saying ‘Yes’ - that wasn’t going to be enough.”
She said suggestions the GAA only agreed to host the game after pressure from Government over withholding funding were well wide of the mark and she believed the association made the decision for the best of reasons.
“I think it may have appeared that way (that the government pressurised the GAA) and there was a lot of politics and some politicians jumping on bandwagons but I don’t think that was a factor in the decision making.
“I think it was a question of it being the right thing to do and then finding the mechanism to do it - I think the GAA was courageous in agreeing to it but it was the right decision morally and the right decision for the GAA.
“It was a wonderful occasion, it allowed us to showcase Páirc Uí Chaoimh in a way we might not otherwise have been able to do and it fitted in with my belief that we have a stadium that is capable of successfully hosting huge sporting events.”
Kennedy is similarly open to the idea of Páirc Uí Chaoimh hosting rugby games - she was supportive of Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World which would have seen the Cork ground as one of the chosen stadia.
And she said she is equally open to the idea of Páirc Uí Chaoimh someday hosting, say a Munster v Leinster Heineken Cup semi-final as she feels it would meet the criteria required of the GAA to open the ground for a rugby match.
“It has to be ‘a game of national significance’ so you certainly could see Munster v Leinster as ‘a game of national significance’ - obviously there are approval processes to be gone through but I certainly would be open to it.”
Principal at Carrignafoy Community School in Cobh, Ms Kennedy identifies issues with the surface at the new €96 million Pairc Ui Chaoimh when the pitch started cutting up badly in 2018/19 as arguably the lowest point in her tenure.
"The failure of the pitch was definitely one of the most depressing days for me - I remember one particular day early in 2019 when we had a double-header - Cork v Kildare in football and Cork v Wexford in hurling and it cut up badly.
"But the stadium board showed great leadership and I have to compliment GAA president, John Horan and those on the stadium board who moved very quickly to resolve the pitch situation and there was money spent on it.
“SIS Pitches completely replaced the pitch surface and it is phenomenal - I’m probably the only chairperson who can say it but I could have walked across it in high heels in November and not sank - it’s a superb surface now.”