Women’s sport in Ireland: a lot has been done but a lot more to do

Sarah Rowe, Mary Hannigan, Natalya Coyle and Evanne Ní Chuilinn give their views

So this is how 2016 draws to a close. A quiet room in a city centre hotel, a table set for lunch and a tape rolling all the while. Around the table, four unique voices when it comes to women and sport.

Natalya Coyle, the modern pentathlete who finished seventh at the Olympics.

Sarah Rowe, the Gaelic footballer who won a Connacht title with Mayo in the summer and the soccer player who has just completed the treble with Shelbourne Ladies.

Mary Hannigan, The Irish Times sportswriter and judge of the Sportswoman of the Year awards for the past 13 years.


Evanne Ní Chuilinn, the RTÉ broadcaster who covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics in 2016.

Put them all together and it’s about to get a lot less quiet in here . . .

Malachy Clerkin: I was wondering before we came here is it even worthwhile to keep talking about women's sport. Are we bored of it as a subject? Does it get tiresome to keep bringing it up?

Mary Hannigan: I think there's definitely a danger of that. You have to guard against there being a constant theme of complaining about how women's sport is perceived or covered. I find, when I talk to female sportspeople, they're sort of fed up talking about all that and they just want to talk about what they're achieving.

Natalya Coyle: I think that's a great thing, though, the fact that people have got bored of it. Achievements overrule everything. To improve upon anything, you can't be complaining all the time. You definitely need to make people aware that there are issues but then you have to put them aside and go and work your ass off to achieve.

MH: That's it. I found that with a lot of people. Absolutely, those issues have to be raised because they're there, as you talked about. But also, the focus has to be on some of the great things these people are doing. Instead of this sense of women being whiny that can come across, can we not just talk about how, dammit, this team is amazing? So I do kind of try and steer away from it a bit.

MC: The other side of that coin, though, is that issues can disappear very easily. People don't engage with everything so it's easy for them so say, "Ah great, 2016 was a mighty year for women's sport. That's that sorted, let's move on."

Sarah Rowe: Exactly, that's why you have to keep talking.

Evanne Ní Chuilinn: We need to keep these events and these people at the forefront. Natalya's still going to be going to two World Cups, the women's rugby World Cup is still going to be coming here, the football and camogie championships will be still going strong. Success drives success – it's not always about complaining. Absolutely, there are points to be made and just because they've been made a million times doesn't mean they can't be made again.

MH: Sarah, you were an unusually loud voice in bringing up concerns earlier this year. Generally people are quite slow to do that openly.

SR: Yeah, I did something in the Independent on the back of the Lidl sponsorship. And I just said things that I presumed everyone knew. I didn't realise it would come as a surprise to anyone. I thought it was well known that we trained on pitches with one floodlight during the winter and that we didn't get showers and we didn't get food. I thought that was common knowledge.

NC: I would totally have assumed you got the same things that the men's team did. It blows my mind that you don't.

SR: We started to get food after training then. But we only got it once a week and we train four times a week. So then we got it twice a week. And then coming up to big matches, we got it every night. But it took a while. The money was there, it was a matter of using it. I think the county board were a bit embarrassed but the thing was I wasn't slating them, I was just talking for all women footballers in the country.

MC: And were the rest of the team going, "Thanks, Sarah"?

SR: Ah, sure they were taking the piss out of me big time.

ENíC: Do ye use the facilities down in MacHale Park?

SR: Oh, no, we don't use them really at all.

NC: Not at all?

SR: No, we use whatever pitch is available in Mayo. It could be the worst pitch in the world and we have to use it. We train in different places all the time because we can't get one set place to use consistently. The odd time, we get MacHale Park once a year. That's just for the Connacht final.

NC: For me, that's so foreign to hear that kind of thing. In the Institute of Sport, everything is evenly spread. There's no distinction made whatsoever. So I hear that and am going, 'Oh, but why can't you use the same facilities as the men use?' I would always expect to be given what the men get.

ENíC: It's just so foreign that you wouldn't be.

NC: Exactly, that's what I mean. It is mad. I guess in individual sport or Olympic sport, everything is seen as being even. So I've never really seen the bad side of it.

SR: I think a man's point might be that okay, we play the same sport but the women's teams don't live the same lifestyle as the men's teams. They might think that a girls' team might not train as hard as a boys' team. And in some cases that's actually true.

MC: Not that it should matter.

SR: Up until recent years, we probably didn't put in the same sort of work they did. Individuals like Cora [Staunton] and I and a few others maybe did but not everyone did. In general, on a panel of 30 girls, not everyone does everything correctly. The men's set-up is a lot more professional but we always said that if we got the things they got, the professionalism of our set-up would increase a lot. Now, we put in so much more work so it's not a lot to expect the same amount of support.

NC: What was the big sponsorship deal, Aldi?


NC: Lidl! Yes, Lidl. That deal has brought it out into the open so much more. It is chicken and egg. What comes first, the promotion or the work? Like, do you work just as hard as the men do and keep going doggedly on for years and years and years without making a fuss about it or do you go, 'No, this isn't right'?

MH: Things have changed in the last year, haven't they?

SR: Well, in my case, that's what I've found in Mayo anyway. It all depends on having a good manager, a good set-up, the more money that's available. The more of that that you see, the more you're going to want to put in the work.

ENíC: I think it's deeper than that though. It goes down to club level. I've been on teams where you turn up to play a match and you're sent out onto the back bog to play. And it's, "Oh, the lads have a match on that on Saturday so you can't play on it". This would be on a Thursday night but it would still be out of the question to play on the good pitch. That's not senior intercounty, that's second division club camogie.

MC: Why doesn't that change? Who doesn't rise a row or who doesn't get listened to there?

ENíC: I don't know. Everyone rises the row. I've seen screaming matches about not getting onto the good pitch and worse when someone inevitably turns an ankle on a bobbly field. You get told, "Sorry, that's just the way it is". Some of the time, you just turn up to a field and there's no dressing room. We've all undressed in the back of a park behind the trees, which is ridiculous.

NC: I find that mad. You have to have an incredible passion to play your sport. Men have to have it too but it's probably a bit easier to have to when you know you're going to get a shower after training. I couldn't imagine going for a run and not be able to jump in the shower afterwards. And women who are teetering on the fence of whether to stay involved in sport or not, something like that can be the deciding factor. It takes very little for girls to walk away, especially younger girls.

ENíC: That's why it's so crucial. You have that drop-off.

NC: At 16.

SR: Yeah, 16 is the age they go.

ENíC: There's this cliff and they just fall off the side of it.

SR: That's when they get into boys and they get further and further away from sport.

ENíC: You won't keep them by not giving them showers.

SR: It's also the fact that the GAA and the LGFA aren't together. If we were under the GAA umbrella – which I'd say the GAA would hate and the LGFA would kind of hate as well because it's a pride thing – but if they joined together, the GAA and the county boards would have no choice. They'd have to allow equal access to the good pitches and the good facilities.

ENíC: I understand striving for independence. And I understand wanting to stand on your own two feet. But sometimes you cut off your nose to spite your face. I have this exact same argument with the Camogie Association. I have huge respect for the members of that association, I played for years and was a member myself. But this pride that Sarah's talking about, sometimes it just doesn't make sense. Joining forces doesn't make you weak. And it doesn't mean you are relying on the male game. It just means that you get access to better facilities and more of an audience. It goes back to what comes first – the promotion or the performance.

NC: Plus, if they join together and you start playing matches on the same day as the big men's matches, on the same bill, you will definitely get more women involved. If they saw women playing before the main game, the idea gets planted that they might then give it a shot themselves. Look at rugby, it's growing and growing amongst women. They did amazing things with no support.

ENíC: The big difference there is that they're in the IRFU. They're looked after and they have access to the same facilities and all the peripheral things like PR and communications. They're just very well run and that comes from being under the same umbrella.

MC: Look where Irish women's rugby was only seven years ago. It was nowhere. The IRFU were shamed into giving it proper treatment and look what happened.

ENíC: Now it has superstars.

SR: I was in on trial for a fortnight with the rugby sevens teams last year and I couldn't believe how professional it was. It was unreal. It was so individualised, so focused.

NC: Everything they do seems to have a touch of professionalism and organisation to it. They take what has worked over years of work in the men's programme and apply it and adapt it to their own sport. That's how it should be.

MH: The speed of progress of women's rugby is incredible. It's an example for all women's sport. If you talk to Fiona Coghlan or any of that original crew that were around when nobody cared, they talk about the young girls coming through now with skills that they never had. Because they've been coached since they were young girls.

ENíC: It's great that it's not ad-hoc anymore. That's the way all the sports should be at the top level. Hockey is going the same way, it just isn't as visible. Rugby has a ready-made following but they're using that to their advantage. Even something like hosting the women's World Cup will help the men's bid to do the same. They're holding each other's hands and bursting through these challenges together.

MH: Ali Donnelly for Scrum Queens, I'd say six, seven years ago she was the only person in Ireland even taking note of the results of the women's rugby team. She talks about being at squad announcements where she was the only one there to ask questions. Literally the only person in the room. Her website was the only place you could go to find out the result of a match. So she's just blown away by how it has exploded. There's no doubt the success of the Grand Slam and everything else has helped. But being under that one umbrella is a big thing and the example is there.

MC: Sarah, have players found an impact from the Lidl sponsorship?

SR: Yeah, definitely. There's definitely been more people at games, more people taking an interest. You'd walk down the street and you'd get people going, "How's the team going?" Stuff like that that you wouldn't have had before. But apart from that, they've done so much work in the background.

ENíC: They've gone out with kit-bags and gear to schools and underage teams.

MH: Noelle Healy was talking about this. Even just in her own club in Castleknock, they got more out of one cheque from Lidl than they would have from a fundraiser.

MC: Must say, I worried they were going to spend a big wedge on advertising and that would be that.

MH: Yeah, you had to be sceptical of that happening. I remember at the launch talking to a woman who was involved with a girls' team in Tipperary and she was just so sceptical about money making its way down to that level. She had daughters and granddaughters playing for years and she was just going, "It won't trickle down to us.' It will go on TV ads".

MC: And whatever they spent on LadyBall. . .

ENíC: Which, by the way, was an excellent campaign.

MC: Did you think so?

ENíC: I just think it did everything it needed to do.

MC: I thought it was so stupid.

ENíC: Well, it was. But it woke people up.

SR: It was stupid but everyone was talking about it.

ENíC: It drove everyone bananas. I know a few people who fell for it.

SR: I wasn't sure myself but they rang me and said, "Look, just go along with it now for a few hours and see where it goes."

MH: I couldn't believe the number of players I've talked to since and the division that exists between them on it. Some just hated so much, some really liked it.

ENíC: See, I hated it – but it worked. That's why it was brilliant. Everybody knew about it, everybody was talking about it.

MC: This cliff that people talk about, of girls falling away from sport at 16, what can be done?

NC: Sky do a great thing called Sport Live where they get lots of NGBs to come into the schools and bring the equipment for their sport and let kids try it out. And then they give tokens for their local club so they can do it for free afterwards. And kids will try anything, they don't care. So if you give them a cricket bat or boxing gloves or even like a bow and arrow, they're mad to give it a go. There was an archery club that came down to the schools recently and they loved it.

MC: When you lose them at that age, you lose them for life. You don't just lose people from being active but you also lose a huge swathe of potential sports fans. They become people who when they get to their mid-20s, sport just doesn't exist for them.

MH: Aisling Thompson talked about the frustration of that too – not enough women come out to support you. Did you find that with Mayo, Sarah?

SR: Oh yeah, exactly. Women, a lot of them, will just go: "Ah sure I don't have a clue about sport, why would I go to that?" But if they do go, it will be a social thing. They'll go to a big match because that's what everybody's talking about. And if they're only going to be sociable, they'll say, "But sure why would I go to a women's match and not the men's match? That's where all the crowd are going". Men go for the social reason but they go for the sport as well. They'd go and actually watch the game and see what they thought of it. I think women should support women but I can see why it doesn't happen.

ENíC: I don't know how you change that culture of not watching women's sport. I brought my four-year-old boy to his first All-Ireland hurling final this year but I've had him at camogie matches and women's rugby internationals. I've deliberately just brought him to women's matches.

It’s a sports-mad house but he’s never been to a Leinster match, he’s never been to an Ireland rugby match. He got to the hurling final between Kilkenny and Tipp this year because he’s obsessed. I’ve only ever brought him to women’s matches because I want him to know that this is normal. I wanted him to put them on a pedestal. That’s the only way I can see him when he’s 20 or 30 thinking it’s just natural to go to all the camogie matches because his mam used to bring him. Will he then be able to put women’s sport on a level with men’s sport for the rest of his life? I hope so. Other than that, I don’t know how you do it.

NC: Creating people to watch, sportspeople actually playing sport is fantastic. Someone pointed out before – I think it was Arthur [Lanigan-O'Keeffe, her training partner] – that whenever we were photographed, he would be shown in action and I would be shown standing.

ENíC: Really? No way.

NC: Yeah, for a long time. It's not as if we weren't in action, maybe running or swimming but it would always be something like that, more of a girl's shot, more sleek or whatever. Whereas any photos of him always had him grimacing and sweating and really going for it. That's changing now. You see pictures of the rugby players being really physical, putting massive power tackles and you think, 'Woah'. This is a cultural change that is coming about. I think creating people is important. Creating athletes and getting them out there looking like they're actually involved in sport and not just standing posing for a photo.

MH: That's so interesting because it presumably wouldn't be deliberate or even a conscious decision by whoever chooses the pictures.

NC: It has definitely changed a lot in the last two years. There's been a massive culture change. Even just this year, with it being such a big year for women's sport and women's minority sport, things are changing. Annalise doing so well, the two rowing girls doing so well – some of the stand-out stories out of the games were women. And that changes the culture and it changes perceptions. It definitely used to be that the shots used were the pretty shots. There would be no toil in them. Whereas this time after Rio, there's a shot of me at death's door.

ENíC: That was a great photo. You're on the ground and you're completely wrecked.

MH: That was like a piece of art, that photo.

ENíC: That was the first time I really understood what you did. Even looking past you in it, you could just see bodies all over the place. It was like the aftermath of a bombing or something. It was a beautiful photo.

NC: I think people's attitudes are changing. In interviews when I was younger, I would get asked more things, much more feminine questions than the boys would. For a long time, I would notice that Arthur would get asked performance questions whereas I would get asked about my nail polish.

MH: You're joking.

NC: No, definitely. After London, I was asked a load of times why I painted my nails pink.

ENíC: What?!

SR: Good Lord.

NC: I got asked it a good few times and I think it was after the third or fourth that I just went, "This is hardly relevant, is it? Are you going to ask Arthur why he does his hair before he goes fencing?" Because that's the same thing. But I think it has got a lot better.

MH: Why do you think there's been a change?

NC: I think it's because there's just so much more publicity about women's sport. There's a massive change. The initiatives for women's sport are huge and there's more women role models going into schools and clubs giving speeches and being pushed out there.

ENíC: Momentum is a big thing as well. Women's sport always does well in an Olympic year because there's parity of coverage in the Olympics and just in general when it comes to funding and facilities and everything else as well. So 2016 was good. But you have to build on that too.

Next year is a quiet year in terms of sport. We’ve got the women’s rugby World Cup in August but aside from that, it’s quiet. The challenge is to keep that momentum going. Role models are easy to find in an Olympic year but a young lad who was born in 2013 isn’t going to remember this year so where is he going to get his female sports stars from? That’s the challenge.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times