Gen­der equal­ity is still an up­hill strug­gle, but last Sun­day the final frontier was crossed

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT -

ON Oc­to­ber 13, 1974 the teams of Tip­per­ary and Of­faly trav­elled to play the first All-Ire­land ladies’ se­nior football final on a pitch in Dur­row with, in the words of The Ir­ish Press re­porter Dan Coen, “An in­cline that would put the heart cross­ways in a trainer.” Tipp led by five points at half­time de­spite play­ing up­hill and just held on against a spir­ited Of­faly re­vival to win by 2-3 to 2-2.

The Ladies’ Gaelic Football As­so­ci­a­tion, founded just a few months pre­vi­ously in Thurles, was glad to see a re­porter there. In the week lead­ing up to the game they’d wor­ried about a lack of cov­er­age and held a press con­fer­ence in Hayes Hotel on the Thurs­day which re­sulted in The Ir­ish Press run­ning a pre­view piece on the Satur­day. “It’s not just a gim­mick or a flash in the pan. Ladies’ football is catching on and the girls are tak­ing it very se­ri­ously,” said As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Jim Kennedy after the final. “Some of the lads might come along for a bit of a laugh at the girls but I think most of them now re­alise that we can play good football,” de­clared Biddy Ryan, the first All-Ire­land win­ning cap­tain.

That pitch in Dur­row seems like a pretty apt venue for that first final be­cause for many years those in­volved in the pro­mo­tion of ladies’ football faced an up­hill strug­gle. The game strug­gled to find public­ity or to be given ad­e­quate con­sid­er­a­tion when county boards drew up fix­tures. It is strik­ing that the great Cork team which dom­i­nated the game in the last decade never got to play a match in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Yet last Sun­day, 46,286 at­tended the All-Ire­land final in Croke Park be­tween Dublin and Mayo, mak­ing it by some dis­tance the most pop­u­lar women’s sports event in Europe and one of the big­gest in the world. Just as no­table per­haps is that this at­ten­dance was big­ger than that at this year’s Mun­ster hurl­ing final, the PRO12 final, all the pro­vin­cial football fi­nals ex­cept Le­in­ster, and Ire­land’s home World Cup qual­i­fier against Ge­or­gia.

Per­haps the most telling stat of all was that the crowd at the final was big­ger than the at­ten­dance at ev­ery game in the re­cent Women’s Rugby World Cup fi­nals put to­gether. I owe this statis­tic to Cliona Fo­ley, a fine sports­writer who ploughed a pretty lone fur­row in this game for years. When I started out, sports jour­nal­ism seemed like the ul­ti­mate male pre­serve. That Fo­ley, Sinead Kis­sane, Marie Crowe, Mary Han­ni­gan, Joanne Cantwell, Mary White and oth­ers have bro­ken through re­quired, I sus­pect, an enor­mous amount of de­ter­mi­na­tion and per­se­ver­ance as well as a great deal of ta­lent. You only have to see the na­ture of the crit­i­cism which fe­male jour­nal­ists re­ceive to re­alise how much tougher they have to be.

The in­creased fe­male pres­ence in sports jour­nal­ism has, I think, had the ef­fect of mak­ing the rest of us more aware of our past fail­ures in the cov­er­age of women’s sport. And fail­ures there have been, plenty of them. I’m sure I’ve been as, or even more, guilty of un­think­ing sex­ist as­sump­tions as any­one else. The move away from an all-male model of sports jour­nal­ism has brought with it the ben­e­fits that di­ver­sity al­ways brings, it makes ev­ery­one see the story dif­fer­ently. Any­one who wants to bang on about ‘po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness’ should con­sider how cold a house Ire­land has been for women for much of its his­tory. In 1934, for ex­am­ple, Pres­i­dent of Black­rock Col­lege and fu­ture Arch­bishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, re­acted to the de­ci­sion of the ath­let­ics body, the NACA, to hold women’s events at its sports meet­ing by de­scrib­ing it as “Un-Catholic and Un-Ir­ish. The Chris­tian mod­esty of girls must be, in a spe­cial way, safe­guarded for it is supremely un­be­com­ing that they should flaunt them­selves and dis­play them­selves be­fore all.”

The Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent weighed in with an ed­i­to­rial pro­claim­ing that, “The in­tense cul­ti­va­tion of stren­u­ous ath­let­ics by women is un­de­sir­able from the health point of view.” The NACA caved in. This kind of at­ti­tude per­sisted long past the ’30s. What were we like?

So last Sun­day’s final was not just a tri­umph for the LGFA but for ev­ery wo­man who ever in­sisted that there was more than one side to the Ir­ish sport­ing story. That at­ten­dance is on one level al­most as sig­nif­i­cant as the tri­umphs of So­nia O’Sul­li­van, Katie Tay­lor, An­nalise Mur­phy and Der­val O’Rourke.

There’s no room for com­pla­cency. I still think real equal­ity in Ir­ish sport will only come when you have some­thing like the Amer­i­can Ti­tle IX leg­is­la­tion which man­dates that ev­ery bit of fund­ing for male sport must be matched by fund­ing for fe­male sport. The over­whelm­ingly male make-up of the govern­ing bod­ies in the country’s main sports high­lighted by Pa­trick O’Dono­van dur­ing his brief ten­ure as Min­is­ter for Sport has to be tack­led too. But last Sun­day was some­thing to cel­e­brate. We’re get­ting there.

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