Women referees overcome gender barrier to top level

Landmark senior county-level men’s GAA fixture on Sunday to have first female referee

That history is being made – again in the GAA – seems something to celebrate and perhaps a reminder that equality of women in all sport is still a work in progress.

Some associations are better than others at encouraging gender equality and getting women into the system, regardless of what they end up refereeing or umpiring.

But in several of the bigger sports women officials are beginning to move closer to officiating at the top level whether it happens to be men’s or women’s matches.

This month Maggie Farrelly was historically appointed to a male senior county-level GAA football match between Fermanagh and St Mary's in the Dr McKenna Cup. Her career, like that of rugby referee Helen O'Reilly and the FAI's Michelle O'Neill, has been breaking new ground.


Farrelly was the first woman to officiate in a men's match at Croke Park in February of this year, when she ran the line in a National League game between Dublin and Kerry. Then, in the summer, she took charge of a male championship match for the first time, a minor game between Antrim and Fermanagh.

In rugby, O'Reilly was promoted to the IRFU's "A" panel after a season on the "B" panel, and had been refereeing in the men's All Ireland League before being appointed as a line judge for her first professional rugby match this summer – Leinster's pre-season friendly against Moseley in August.

O'Neill, regularly an assistant referee at male Premier Division football matches in the Airtricity League, became the first Irish woman to be selected to officiate at a Fifa Women's World Cup, which was held in Canada last June and July.


All have reached benchmarks in the men’s game and are top officials for women’s matches. All have also shown that the gender difference is longer a barrier to anyone who can reach the appropriate levels of fitness and technical expertise.

In top level men's basketball, Emma Perry is a regular top official, as is Sadie Duffy in amateur Irish boxing, while hockey's Olympic Games and World Cup retired umpire Carol Metchette is now a top official in the TMO review part of the game – a whole new area that has opened up for referees and umpires.

Cavan’s Farrelly first refereed men’s games at club level in 2006 and has long been regarded as one of the top female officials in the GAA. She continues to tog out as a player with Glenfin in Donegal.

Like most, she took up officiating when her club asked her to consider it, and from those modest beginnings it has been steady progress, and early next year she will step into the middle of the park for her first Dr McKenna Cup match.

“It’s no different. You prepare the very same way and it starts as soon as you get the text message that you have been selected. From then its counting down until the game starts,” says Farrelly.

“It was a massive opportunity to be in Croke Park. But you don’t over think it. It has been steady progress for me. My development has been no different from that of the lads in the academy. I’m no different.

“Everybody is treated in the same regard and in Cavan the support I get is fantastic. When you cross the line you are a referee. When you come back you are Maggie Farrelly, an ordinary woman doing her day job.”

Wexford’s O’Neill’s career has taken a similarly steep trajectory although the global reach of soccer takes her further afield than Ireland. She dipped her toe in the international side of the game last November when she was asked to attend an assistant refereeing course in Doha.

Then in March she was confirmed as one of the 44 assistant referees appointed for Fifa Women’s World Cup 2015 in Canada, which began in June. As part of her preparation she attended a week of assessment and instruction in Zurich in April.

“I did the first round World Cup match between Costa Rica and South Korea and I also got a quarter-final match between USA and China,” says O Neill.

“That was amazing. The game involving the USA was like a home match because they all just came across the border. It was stadium sell out of 35,000 and full of USA supporters.

“You don’t hear anything if you are really focused. I work a lot with a guy on mental focus. You really have to be in the zone and present, the same as the players

“I’ve been a player, so I know where players are coming from,” adds the Fifa panellist, who has the 2017 European Championships in her sights.

“You can man manage players on the pitch. It does take a thick skin, a certain type to be a referee. You do develop that but I have a passion, a love for the game.”

Running touchline

At international level, football referees specialise in becoming either a match referee or an assistant running the touchline and in the World Cup O’Neill ran the line. In all there were 16 assistants from Europe and eight referees, from a total World Cup panel of 63 officials.

“We have different training for assistants and referees,” she says. “We are specialists now. For the Euros I’d be aiming at assistant. You chose your path. They have different traits.

“As an assistant your mistakes can be just inches for an offside. I’m specialising as an assistant referee. They train differently both physically and mentally. It’s like players in a way.”

O’Reilly has been in the middle of men’s rugby matches for a few years now, with her promotion to the “A” panel ensuring that the games she does are in the upper levels of the All Ireland League divisions.

At international level in the women's game, she officiated at England's match against France in the Autumn international just outside Marseille, and is looking towards a new Six Nations Championship, where she has been appointed to the Scotland versus France game in March.

“I’m mixing time between the AIL (men) and international (women),” she says. “It maybe sounds more glamorous than it is. I fly in the day before, do the match and fly out the following day and back to work on Monday morning.

“I love it. It has been a great year, a huge learning curve, working closely with Dave McHugh, who is a full international referee with lots of experience.”

There have been various questionnaires done and discussion forums conducted, largely in the USA, on how women referees cope with both men and women as part of their regular requirements, particularly in soccer.

Statistically there are fewer fouls in women’s soccer, and while men tend to gather in the face of a referee, women players deal with it more often by having a quiet word. Men are also likely to retaliate immediately, while women tend to store it up and wait.

There are fewer fouls because women fall over fewer times faking injuries. While women’s sport generally is less explosive, in soccer it is seen to be more pure, with a different style and tempo. There is also less cynicism from players and fewer violent fouls.

“We disallow goals,” says O’Neill. “We give goals. Aggression is in football. All you can do is referee what you see on the pitch. Starting out I had to earn respect and I’d hear comments ‘Oh no, we have her today’.” But men have given respect over the years.


“I gave a decision [as assistant] in a league match between Bray and St Pat’s. The ball hit the crossbar and came down and hit the ground and went back into play. I saw it was a goal because when it came down it bounced on the ground behind the goal line. You have to have the courage to stop the game and say ‘it was a goal’ . . . yeah there were a few yellow cards to the Bray lads for dissent.

“But as an assistant those are the calls you are asked to make and you have to have the courage to do that.”

Neither Farrelly nor O’Reilly – apart from O’Reilly’s involvement in Leinster’s pre-season friendly match this year – deal with professional or semi-professional players. Whether that makes a substantive difference or not is not clear.

“The Leinster match went well, I think,” says O’Reilly. “They didn’t bat an eyelid. I got the same respect as the lads did. It was a faster game but the work I’ve put in . . . I knew before hand . . . the ball just recycled quicker than in AIL. Guys get annoyed, but they won’t hold it for the next 70 minutes. I find that okay.”

Farrelly’s experience is similar and there is view that a woman’s presence in a men’s game may have a calming influence. There are gender differences to the way people might react, although mapping what they are may not an exact science.

“I can’t say men are more belligerent than women,” says Farrelly. “It’s no different. No, I really couldn’t say that. The respect you get, both male and female, is good. There is a time they might not agree. But you strive to get it right. Players will react. I suppose if you are not happy, you are not happy.”

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times