Women in Sport: Slowly but surely barriers are being broken

As part of The Irish Times/Irish Sports Council Sportswoman of the Year awards we look at the current state of Irish women’s sport

There’s a line in Anthony Daly’s book that fairly jumps off the page. And maybe it shouldn’t but it does so there we are. Daly had his Dublin team wedged into a small dressingroom in Parnell Park after a training session and he wasn’t happy. It was January and it was cold and the year was only waking up but he needed more from his team than they were giving him.

The previous Tuesday, they'd beaten UCD in a Walsh Cup game. They were the better side but they only ended up winning by five points, 2-20 to 2-15. Daly stewed for two days about it and decided they were getting both barrels the next time he had them in front of him. And the bullet he chose to load came with the name of Ireland's pre-eminent sportswoman attached.

"When Katie Taylor is fighting a poor opponent," he asked them, "does she win 19-17? No, she performs. It's about how Katie performs. I know it's the one word that kills ye but ye were amateurish on Tuesday night."

Daly could have picked any number of people or teams to make his point. Man City had walked four goals past Cardiff on TV that Sunday. Leinster beat Ospreys 36-3 in the Heineken Cup on the Friday night. Even on his own patch, Kilkenny handed DIT an old-fashioned 5-23 to 1-9 thumping just two days before Daly’s side met UCD.


Instead he reached for Taylor, who at that point hadn't fought on camera since London 2012, almost 18 months previously. And you might say yes, of course, and quite right too. But let's not pretend that's not interesting or noteworthy. By itself, it isn't evidence of any huge leap forward when it comes to women's sport in Ireland, but it's another tile in the mosaic all the same.

Ideal scenario

“The ideal scenario,” says

Lyn Savage

, national development officer for the Ladies Gaelic Football Association, “is that there’s no such thing as women’s’ sport. It’s just sport. We’ll hopefully eventually get to the point where the title is taken away and that sport is seen for what it is.”

Or, as Claire Egan of the Camogie Association puts it, "We never talk about women's music or women's farming or women's medicine. Nobody uses those terms."

These are fair and sensible points. Made by people who have walked the walk. Egan played underage soccer for Ireland, won All Ireland football titles with Mayo and Carnacon, heads up the Camogie Association’s communications department and only last weekend played for Blackrock in the women’s AIL Division One final. It would be hard to find anyone better placed to assess the gains made by women’s sport here, however clunky a phrase it might be.

“I think culturally a lot has changed even just in our lifetimes. I don’t just mean in sport. It was only 1973 that the marriage ban was lifted. Like, to me, that’s the most crazy thing ever. You got married and you had to give up your job? That’s nuts. But that’s really not so long ago and that’s where society was at the time.”

“The profile of women’s sport is changing all the time,” says Savage. “Because females in general have come to the fore much more in Ireland, and society in general has changed. Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese changed how women were seen. Women came to prominence in business and in public life. And as society changed, sport changed with it.

“We run a programme called ‘Gaelic For Mothers’ and there are women in it who have never kicked a ball in their lives. And when you ask them why, they say that when they were girls they didn’t dare ask their father or mother could they play. That was for boys.

“Now, that probably sounds silly these days but switch football for rugby in that scenario and go back five years. What would the response from parents have been then if their little girl said she wanted to play rugby? And what would it be now? It’s changing all the time.”

Ongoing study

The success of the Ireland women’s rugby team makes for an interesting and ongoing study. They backed up the Grand Slam of 2013 with the victory over New Zealand in the

World Cup

this year and eventually finished fourth. In doing so, they put it up to the IRFU who had resisted for so long to provide them with structures and backing worthy of the name.

Lynne Cantwell retired at the end of the World Cup after 13 years and 87 caps and several lifetimes of false dawns. She banged her head against all the walls, raised all the issues and heard herself dismissed as an emotional woman for her troubles. After the World Cup, she sat back and waited to see what the IRFU would do next. And waited.

The World Cup ended in mid-August. Cantwell and captain Fiona Coghlan weren't the only ones to walk away after it – coach Philip Doyle and most of his backroom team moved on to pastures new as well. September came and went without Doyle being replaced, October and November too. Tom Tierney was finally appointed only last Friday, seven weeks short of the Six Nations opener against Italy.

Younger compatriots

Cantwell is still in constant touch with her old team-mates. Their World Cup WhatsApp group still tings and pings away and herself and Coghlan speak just about every day. All through the waiting period, she held her breath to see what the IRFU would come up with and how her former, younger compatriots would handle it.

“I’ve lived through three or four of these,” she says. “Times when we’d be told that this was a turning point and we’d get the backing we needed. I just never trusted that it would be done because we were told it a million times. And all through those times, we probably protected the younger ones from it a bit. But now it’s their turn and they have to push it.

“Thankfully, even though it took a while, the IRFU have come up with the goods. David Nucifora came in and looked at everything as an outsider with fresh eyes and now the whole thing has been brought in under the high performance umbrella. That’s massive, it really is.

“All along, we were being told to try and defuse things because this would be worth waiting for. And I think it is. The right thing has happened. And for a few of us who were around for so many years, it’s nice to be able to walk away knowing that it was all worth something in the end. It will be so hard for them to turn back now.”

In many ways, the rugby team’s story is Irish women’s sport in microcosm. Initial disarray – it was so small time when Cantwell started that she was an Ireland international within 18 months of her first time ever picking up a rugby ball – followed by years of struggle to be taken seriously before the gains and breakthroughs of recent times. Bit by little bit, they’re getting there.

The small, thoughtless slights of everyday life still afflict women’s sport though. It’s a sad fact that for each of the wondrous Cork footballers’ nine All-Irelands, the only flat part of their homecoming has always been the return to Cork city. They always enjoy the return to the captain’s clubhouse far more than the trip down the South Mall because the turn-out is invariably paltry.

"You're elated one minute," says five-time All Star Valerie Mulcahy, "and then you get back into Cork and there's no real crowd there.

“It can be a bit deflating. But we’re used to it. I think you have to get used to it. Not accepting of it but used to it.

“I do question it though. Being a woman in sport, there are a lot of boundaries and a lot of obstacles and it does make you question why you’re not getting the attention we should. But we all have our own reasons for playing and they’re fulfilled long before we go back to Cork and stand on the stage in front of a small crowd in the city. Our satisfaction is something we get throughout the whole year.”

But it’s changing. Quietly, imperceptibly, slowly. Everyone involved in women’s sport would change a hundred things more but they know what reality looks like and how it feels and sounds. The eternal bugbear of column inches and broadcast minutes will always be an issue. But the sports make and do as best they can.

No point crying

“I have worked in newspapers,” says Egan. “I know reality. The vast part of the readership is opening the paper to read about the Allianz Division One final or the big Premier League match or whatever.

“There’s no point crying about that. Our job is to present our games as professionally as possible and to run them in an organised way.

“There’s no doubt that coverage creates perception. If women’s sport positions itself as always playing catch-up with men’s sport, then that’s how it will be. The big three of men’s GAA, rugby and Premier League soccer will always be the big three, so trying to make out that women’s sport is in competition with them is pointless. You will always be behind and you will never catch up.

Audience is growing

“I don’t believe in complaining. I don’t believe in ranting. I believe in coherent, fact-based arguments put forward in a professional manner. And the facts are that camogie, ladies football, women’s rugby and all the rest of them have an audience. That audience is growing and we have to make it grow further.”

Around 10 years ago, Lyn Savage was playing on the highly successful women’s team in her club at a time when the senior men’s side were in a slump. When it came to the end of the year, the women’s team were invited en masse to the dinner dance to be presented with their medals from winning the county championship.

In what may well be the only recorded event of men refusing to go to a social event because there would be women present, some of the more disgruntled male members stayed home. This is, to repeat, only just over a decade ago.

Society is changing. Sport is changing. Not before time.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times