Camo­gie has sur­vived but has yet to tri­umph

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Diar­maid Fer­riter

In 1934, the Na­tional Ath­letic and Cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion sug­gested host­ing a women’s 100-yards sprint as part of its na­tional cham­pi­onships.

In re­sponse, the Rev John Charles McQuaid, then pres­i­dent of Black­rock Col­lege, sent a let­ter to the na­tional news­pa­pers. He as­serted: “Mixed ath­let­ics and all cog­nate im­mod­esties are abuses that right-minded peo­ple repro­bate, wher­ever and when­ever they ex­ist.”

There was a sim­ple, com­pelling rea­son for this, McQuaid de­clared: “God is not mod­ern; nor is his law.” Women shar­ing sports are­nas with men were “un-Ir­ish and un-Catholic”, and would be par­tic­i­pat­ing in a “so­cial abuse” and a “moral abuse”.

The 30-year-old Camo­gie As­so­ci­a­tion sup­ported McQuaid’s con­tentions. Seán O’Duffy, its or­gan­is­ing sec­re­tary, an­nounced the as­so­ci­a­tion “would do all in its power to en­sure that no girl would ap­pear on any sports ground in a cos­tume to which any ex­cep­tion could be taken”.

By 1950, the fo­cus had shifted from the cos­tumes and “im­mod­esties” to the health ben­e­fits of women play­ing sport. Re­tired pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Ir­ish in UCD Agnes O’Far­relly, who at the begin­ning of the cen­tury had ar­gued suc­cess­fully for co­ed­u­ca­tion at UCD and presided at the 1914 in­au­gu­ral meet­ing of Cu­mann na mBan, the fe­male aux­il­iary of the Ir­ish Vol­un­teers, was adamant that, in re­la­tion to camo­gie, “this na­tional game of ours can­not by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion be called un­wom­anly or in any way un­suited to the dig­nity of our sex. We have had, time and again, the best med­i­cal opin­ion on the game and it is de­cid­edly favourable . . . the play­ers are bet­ter Ir­ish women for hav­ing played the game, bet­ter cit­i­zens and in time they be­come bet­ter moth­ers for the race”. Nu­mer­ous doc­tors, sportswomen and “games mis­tresses” sup­ported her com­ments. The healthy “moral ef­fects”, O’Far­relly con­cluded, were in­dis­putable.

These camo­gie women were still, how­ever, seen as a breed apart as they al­ways had been. The GAA had been es­tab­lished with the in­ten­tion that it would be open to “men of ev­ery class”. Women were not wel­come and as Paul Rouse has out­lined in his Sport and Ire­land: A His­tory (2015), it was mem­bers of the Gaelic League in Na­van who in 1898 came to­gether to play “ladies’ hurl­ing”.

Five years later, Dublin mem­bers of the Gaelic League de­vised a code of rules with the con­ven­tions of hurl­ing amended in ways con­sid­ered to make the game more suit­able to women. The game was named camó­gaíocht, re­veal­ingly trans­lated as “junior hurl­ing”, and “unique among the rules was one that cited as a foul the de­lib­er­ate stop­ping of the ball with the long flow­ing skirts then fash­ion­able with early play­ers”. The as­so­ci­a­tion was es­tab­lished in 1905 but it strug­gled to make head­way. It was re­vi­talised by the re­launch of the as­so­ci­a­tion in 1911 and, by the fol­low­ing year, camo­gie matches were be­ing played reg­u­larly in each of the four prov­inces, but there was no un­hin­dered up­ward tra­jec­tory.

Camo­gie sur­vived, but this is not a story of tri­umph against many his­toric, hos­tile winds be­cause camo­gie has not tri­umphed. By the end of the 20th cen­tury, the game grew to un­prece­dented pop­u­lar­ity but, sep­a­rately or­gan­ised to the GAA, it was, like the Cu­mann na mBan of Agnes O’Far­relly’s era, de­cid­edly sub­or­di­nate.

Shoddy treat­ment

Camo­gie play­ers are still the Cin­derel­las of Gaelic sport and their sta­tus needs to be high­lighted not least over the de­ci­sion an­nounced last week that hurl­ing and camo­gie have been granted spe­cial cul­tural sta­tus by the United Nations Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion (Unesco), a move widely wel­comed as an im­por­tant ac­knowl­edg­ment of the role Gaelic games play in Ir­ish so­ci­ety.

In truth, how­ever, there is no equal­ity be­tween hurl­ing and camo­gie and the pur­ple prose of those who wor­ship at the al­tars of the male hurl­ing gods could do with be­ing punc­tured by an ac­knowl­edg­ment of the dis­dain­ful treat­ment of camo­gie play­ers.

Unesco notes that hurl­ing is con­sid­ered “an in­trin­sic part of Ir­ish cul­ture” as in­deed it is, but camo­gie is not treated as such. Se­nior All-Ire­land and In­ter­me­di­ate Club Cham­pi­onship camo­gie fi­nals have been shunted to lesser grounds to pro­tect the pitch sur­faces for men; women have some­times been re­duced to get­ting changed in car parks and, ear­lier this year, Cork camo­gie cap­tain Aoife Mur­ray, a nine-time All-Ire­land win­ner, noted that the women’s games are merely cur­tain­rais­ers to the men’s: “I have played se­nior camo­gie when we’ve opened up for un­der-21 hurl­ing matches . . . I’m a grown woman and I have to open up for them. They’re the main stage!”

Like­wise, in last month’s RTÉ documentary The Big Pic­ture: A Woman’s World, Clare camo­gie player Chloe Morey com­pared her ex­pe­ri­ences with those of her cousin, hurler Séadna Morey, high­light­ing the gulf be­tween sup­port for men and women.

Those who have vol­un­teered to keep the camo­gie show on the road have been show­ered with UN plau­dits while hav­ing to make do with shoddy treat­ment and worse on their own doorsteps.

‘‘ Camo­gie play­ers are still the Cin­derel­las of Gaelic sport

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