Equality, and the rise of women in Irish sport

With the importance of women to the 1916 Easter Rising to the fore, Mary White takes a look at Aoife Coughlan’s thesis on the growth of equality in women’s sport over the last century

IN the past few weeks, numerous writings and television programmes have documented the importance of Irish women in the 1916 Easter Rising.
However, a thesis by former Gabriel Rangers and Cork ladies footballer star Aoife Coughlan came to my attention a few weeks ago, which very much looks at the growth of women’s sport in Ireland, and how it developed following the Rising.

Former Cork player, Aoife Coughlan, right, who wrote a thesis on the equality of women in Irish sport.

Former Cork player, Aoife Coughlan, right, who wrote a thesis on the equality of women in Irish sport.

Entitled ‘Women in the Gaelic Athletic Association: Equality, Culture and Society’, Coughlan peels away the layers of the fair sex’s contribution to both the GAA and LGFA over the last 100 years.
“The social and cultural positioning of Irish women is central to understanding their level of participation and involvement in the setting up of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Women’s involvement in the setting up and establishment of Gaelic sports in Ireland is limited and undocumented. To comprehend why this was the case, it’s important to understand women’s role and position in Irish society at that time, and in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, women were seen as second-class citizens within Ireland’s patriarchal society,” says Coughlan.
“It was simply assumed that a woman’s enduring role would be part of the scenery, rather than at the heart of the action. Women in this era were socially conditioned by Church and State influence to believe that sport was a men’s-only club. The bond between the Catholic Church, the Irish State and nationalism was most evident in the establishment of the 1937 Constitution of Ireland.”
The Constitution itself was exclusive to the men of Ireland, and both the Church and State gained control over women by marginalising them and setting them social boundaries within this legal State policy document. The Church and State shared the view that women should remain in the home and take care of the family and household chores, and the 1937 Constitution of the Republic of Ireland provided a legal basis for this limited role of women in Article 41.2.

REPRESSED BY CATHOLIC CHURCH AND STATE

“Irish women and repression were intertwined for most of the twentieth century. Social constraints at that time, controlled by the Church and State, led people to believe that women would not be able to produce strong healthy offspring if they were to participate in sport; and many attempts by women to organize sport for themselves were belittled, trivialized, or simply ignored. There was a common assumption too that women were too weak and unfit to be brought onto the field of play,” says Coughlan.
“Golf, archery and croquet were the first sports to gain acceptance among women because they did not involve physical contact or strain, and were considered ladylike sports. In relation to more physically demanding sports, such as Irish Gaelic games.

Ireland's first female Olympian, Maeve Kyle.

Ireland’s first female Olympian, Maeve Kyle.

“But, in 1934 the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland (NACAI) suggested hosting a women’s hundred-yard sprint as part of their national championships; prior to this, women were banned from taking part in meetings or events conducted by the NACAI. The Catholic Church strictly opposed this motion. The one-off race did go ahead but the reality was that it was the attire of sportswomen that was a major factor in the opposition to their participation in public sport.
“Society supported the views held by the Catholic Church and also played its part in stagnating women’s participation in sport, by obeying the dictates of the Church’s beliefs.
When Maeve Kyle was selected to be Ireland’s first female Olympic athlete, running in the 1956 Games in Melbourne, a letter to the editor of the Irish Times in September of that year, written by a member of the public strongly condemned her selection,” said Coughlan.
It read: “A sports field is no place for a woman. Selecting a woman to represent Ireland at the Olympics was most unbecoming, unseemly and degrading of womenfolk, it must not be countenanced on any grounds”. The writer identified himself or herself only as Vox Populi.
“The advancement in communications, education and technology led to a transformation from a traditionalist Catholic past into a more modern liberal Irish future. A new wave of social thinking began to generate in Ireland and women started to become more liberalised within Irish society. Gradually they started to participate in sporting life in Ireland. By the early 1970s, women began actively considering a position for themselves within Gaelic games with the help of some of the more enlightened men involved in the GAA at the time.

LADIES FOOTBALL IS FORMED

“Jim Kennedy was the founder of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) in Ireland and the first male president of the LGFA. I interviewed Kennedy for the thesis with the view to discovering more about why he set up Ladies Gaelic Football in the early 1970s. It was vital that I recorded this interview to hear him describe the foundation of the LGFA. I was interested in acquiring the reason as to why Jim, an ex-army sergeant, would have any interest in establishing ladies football.
“Kennedy’s interest in ladies football stemmed from watching women playing local charity games for crowd entertainment, which were held in his home area in Ardfinnan, County Tipperary. He further explained that Clonmel is the home of Ladies Gaelic Football as women began to form teams and establish themselves there in 1969. The man responsible for the original introduction of women playing Gaelic football was Dan O’Mahony of the drinks company Bulmers, as he had organised a local factory league charity event. The event had several women’s teams entered to play. It was unusual to see women play Gaelic games and therefore many people saw it as a novelty, but this was the first instance of ladies Gaelic football in Ireland.”
Kennedy then decided to approach Dan O’Mahony with the intention of taking women’s football to the next level, and in 1974 in Hayes’ Hotel in Tipperary, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) was officially established, with Kennedy its first president.
“The Ladies Gaelic Football Association was founded on the brink of social change for women in Ireland,” says Coughlan.
“Jim Kennedy built up the organisation from a novelty act to an association which today has over 150,000 female players in Ireland and internationally. Nevertheless, many obstacles and challenges faced Irish women in their venture into sport. These obstacles ranged from overcoming social stigmas, to gaining social support, recognition, funding and media attention.
“Today, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association is one of the fastest growing female sporting organisations in Europe, but it would take several decades of dealing with those obstacles before this success would be achieved.
“Ireland developed from a conservative, traditionalist past to a more liberal, modern and open economy in the 1970s. This was thanks to three factors in particular the formation of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the rise of feminism, and Ireland joining the European Economic Community. These combined three factors gave women more opportunity and say within Irish society. Social and political change in Ireland transformed women’s position within its society.

Mary Peters in action at the Munich Olympics.

Mary Peters in action at the Munich Olympics.

“Women began to create new attitudes and demanded equal opportunities, funding, and facilities for women in sports. Ireland had many distinguished and prominent national sportswomen in the 1970s. Those who were successful included Maeve Kyle, who was Ireland’s first female athlete, and competing in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics was a real eye opener.
“However, Maeve Kyle battled for her place in the Melbourne Olympics and paved the way for female athletes to follow. Mary Peters was the first woman from Ireland to win an Olympic medal; she also achieved a gold medal in 1972 when she won the pentathlon at the Munich Games. Peters was also the first recipient of the ‘Irish Times/Irish Sports Council Lifetime Achievement Award’ for her contributions to sport as a competitor, coach and administrator.
“At national level, twin sisters Angela and Ann Downey had great success with their county in camogie playing throughout the Seventies. By the time they’d finished their camogie careers, the Kilkenny twins had amassed an extraordinary 24 All-Ireland medals between them. Another successful Irish athlete was swimmer Deirdre Sheehan who competed in the summer Olympics in Montreal in 1976. In golf, Mary McKenna made her international debut in 1968 and won her first Irish Championship a year later. These women were monumental in helping to get rid of the negative stigmas attached to Irish women in sport.
“They had to overcome many challenges however, including the public perception that women should not be involved in sport, a lack of funding, and a significant lack of recognition publically. The gradual shift away from conservative thinking, thanks to the liberation movement as well as the economic improvement after joining the EEC, aided the transition of women playing sport on a national and international scale.  Women were gradually finding their voice and becoming visible within Irish society throughout the Seventies and Eighties. In these decades, both rural and urban women were also emerging from a background role within the GAA.
“The GAA was no longer the great impregnable male domain that it used to be. Women were not just there to make sandwiches and tea after each game, or act as spectators, instead of washing jerseys, they were now getting ready to wear them. Since the establishment of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association in 1974, the women of the GAA began to advance and develop the organisation.
“Great advancements had been made throughout the Eighties regarding the status and position of women in Ireland. The election of Mary Robinson as president in 1990 was also an important moment for Irish women,” reveals the UCC graduate.

Cork's Roisín Phelan in action against Dublin's Niamh McEvoy in the 2015 All-Ireland final, at which a record was set for attendance at a women's sporting event in Europe. Picture: Sportsfile Online

Cork’s Roisín Phelan in action against Dublin’s Niamh McEvoy in the 2015 All-Ireland final, at which a record was set for attendance at a women’s sporting event in Europe. Picture: Sportsfile Online

“The issue remains that women do not get enough recognition by the media to attract investment however. Investment is key to developing sport for women. Without investment or sponsorship, female sporting organisations do not get recognised. The lack of financial support for a sporting club does not attract media attention. Funding creates a spin-off effect; if a club is appropriately sponsored it will attract people to get involved and the more people involved, the more media interest it generates. Sport in Ireland still relies to a great extent on the goodwill of thousands of volunteers, but adequate finance is usually the most valued commodity.

TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGING 

“Women’s sport in Ireland is still considered by the media and prospective sponsors as a minority sport. Due to the relatively low coverage of women’s sport in the media (print, audio or televised), it is still perceived as a minority interest. Irish women have the ability to dominant in every sport; yet, however well they do, they do not seem to be recognised for their achievements as well as men.”
Hopefully Lidl’s recent sponsorship of ladies football is the start of a dramatic change for women in sport in Ireland.
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