Untold stories: Sportswoman of the Year Awards

The battle to elevate women’s sport to where it deserves to be is still ongoing

It was 2005, the second year of the Sportswomen of the Year awards, and the memory still raises a chuckle.

Briege Corkery had won the double with Cork that September, starring in both their Gaelic football and camogie successes, the start of an extraordinary sporting decade during which she has won 14 All-Ireland medals.

That’s 14.

And she was only 28 on Tuesday.


She was sitting at a table with her parents Michael and Kitty at the awards ceremony, enjoying her dinner and having a chat, when then minister Mary Hanafin took to the stage to announce the overall winner.

Corkery put her cutlery down in readiness to applaud the victor.

“And the 2005 Sportswoman of the Year is,” said the minister, “ . . . Briege Corkery!”

And with that the Cork woman nigh on choked on her bread roll. And almost had to be lifted to the stage in her chair.

Later, she laughed about it. But she was still stumped by the honour of the award.

“I wouldn’t consider myself much of a sportsperson at all,” she said, while her mantelpiece at home creaking under the weight of All-Ireland medals.

“It’s a bit of craic for me, no more than that. I’m no role model.”

Greatest players

This was one of the greatest players Gaelic games has ever produced talking.

It was at that moment, really, that any misgivings about having a set of awards solely for sportswomen, leaving the lads out in the cold, evaporated.

And there had been plenty of objections, some of them pretty persuasive. So, lots of chin-scratching. Right thing or not?

But Corkery’s reaction to having her brilliance acknowledged was telling – she was simply unaccustomed to it.

Dual All-Ireland medal winner and fellow Corkonian Teddy McCarthy had reams written about him, and was showered with awards. Deservedly, too.

But Corkery and her dual winning team-mates were, back then, more often than not left in the ‘Sport in Brief’ sections. Barely a whisper about what they had achieved.

Occasional nod

And when it came to end-of-year sports awards, there was hardly a look-in for our sportswomen, just the occasional nod to household names like Sonia O’Sullivan.

There's a danger of straying in to Fr Ted's 'Lovely Girls' speak here, but without fail, the most common observation after every awards ceremony since 2004 has been about the modesty and humility of the sportswomen honoured.

Not least with three-time Sportswoman of the Year Katie Taylor (2007, 2008 and 2012), who is as humble now as she was in 2005 when she won her first monthly award, despite the most remarkable record of success.

No bravado, no swagger, no ego, just a gentle modesty, but a determination to succeed that is anything but. And a very lovely sense of camaraderie with ‘fellow’ sportswomen, no matter how different the discipline.

The sight of, say, Taylor and Nina Carberry, our 2011 Sportswoman of the Year, hugging and chatting and comparing notes back then was a beautiful thing, the chief bond between them their gender.

Lovely too, the mutual admiration between Hall of Fame winners such as Mary Peters, Rosemary Smith and Maeve Kyle and today's finest sportswomen.

Plenty has changed since their halcyon sporting days, but as the old slogan put it, ‘lots more to do’.

Not least with the media, ourselves included.

But the last decade of the awards has been a joy, judges Lindie Naughton and Greg Allen helping highlight women from sports rarely acknowledged, the disputes over monthly and overall winners usually settled after a week or 26, numbers unblocked followed by apologetic emails for those 'you're a worthless worm' messages.

And all because of a difference of opinion over whether, say, a jockey or surfer should prevail.

Same gusto

The gist: The Sportswomen of the Year awards will probably reach their goal when they no longer need to exist, when our greatest sportswomen are hailed with the same gusto as the lads.

And when the likes of Briege Corkery no longer feel the need to say: “I wouldn’t consider myself much of a sportsperson at all.”

This year's monthly winners, all 15 of them, represent 12 sports and 10 counties, some of them, like Katie Taylor and Stephanie Roche, household names at this stage, Taylor for being Taylor, Roche for being the biggest sportswomen story of the year following her amazing goal.

The rest went about their business quietly, like squash professional Madeline Perry, another of our 2004 monthly winners who is still ranked in the top 15 of the world list, rower Sanita Puspure, who ended Ireland's eight-year wait for a medal in an Olympic event at a major rowing Championships, and Derry's Aileen Reid, the eighth-ranked triathlete in the world, despite having to recover from a bike accident that left her with a back injury.

Largely untold stories, which is, largely, what these awards are about.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times