Monday 16 September 2019

Darragh McManus: 'If you mean to empower your daughters, then go camogie'

'It’s cool to see small girls wielding the hurley, learning skills, getting hit, crying it off, laughing it off, toughening up, having fun.' (stock photo)
'It’s cool to see small girls wielding the hurley, learning skills, getting hit, crying it off, laughing it off, toughening up, having fun.' (stock photo)
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

WHY is camogie so unheralded, and uncool? I've never understood this. For me, it's the most bad-ass sport a girl can do, anywhere in the world - but for some reason, the world doesn't seem to appreciate this.

Fewer people play camogie, attend matches or watch on TV than its closest (and fairest, in terms of comparison) sport, ladies' football. This Sunday, an All-Ireland triple-header takes place at Croke Park, and camogie chiefs are urging people to attend and break the 25,000 mark. That's only happened once before, in 2009. Last year's crowd was 21,467, the third-highest ever. Four years ago, numbers had slipped below 17,000.

These are actually decent figures, compared to women's team sports in most countries. But look at ladies' football, which smashed past 50,000 last year (a record) after hitting 46,286 in 2017 (another record). Yes, we have to factor in the population size of Dublin, but still: roughly twice camogie's numbers.

It's the same in terms of TV audience: camogie gets about a quarter of a million, half women's football's viewership. Which, we might add, is as Gaeilge on TG4, not 'The Sunday Game'.

In terms of participation, we find a similar story. Despite camogie being as old as hurling (roughly 2,000 years) and formally organised since 1905 - the Ladies' Gaelic Football Association (LGFA), by contrast, was only founded in 1974 - the former's total of registered clubs, 536, is around half that of ladies' football.

Not that there's anything wrong with that game. The last two finals were cracking matches; the last few camogie finals, sadly, were grim, tedious death-matches.

I speak more in general terms. And I don't seek to bury women's football, which is fine, but to praise camogie, which is a far superior sport, not just to its Gaelic cousin but all others. It gets less publicity, and has a far less cool image, than many of those. Again, I can't understand that.

Outside of combat sports, camogie is the most kick-ass pastime a woman can have. These players are hammering a hard ball, at head-height, 110-130kmh. They tackle each other with wooden sticks. They dip their hands into whirling melées where, as the saying goes, angels fear to tread. They lunge through the air to block, hook, parry. They fear the strike of neither ball nor hurley.

And unlike martial arts, great as they are, camogie is every bit as skilled as tennis, hockey or squash. Their technical proficiency is off the scale, what these players can do with sliothar and stick - all while being tackled by opponents.

Camogie is daring and exciting and slightly dangerous. Like hurling, it's the perfect fusion of technique and guts, training and instinct, the cerebral and the visceral, art and war.

Yet it's regarded as this tepid sort of curiosity, done by nice country girls, like knitting or hill-walking or coffee mornings.

Maybe that's due to its perceived rural roots. Maybe it's the technical difficulty of learning the sport. Maybe it's a distaff version of hurling's alleged snobbery: the game restricting its own growth, even unconsciously. Maybe it's those old photos of camogie pioneers playing in blouses and long skirts. (No helmets, not to mind faceguards - I am in awe.)

Whatever the reason, camogie is long-overdue reappraisal. Unesco's already done it, listing the game as "an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage" in 2018. Even more pleasing than that honour, though, is bringing a six-year-old to camogie training every Wednesday. It's very cool to see all these small girls wielding the hurley, learning the skills, getting stuck in, getting hit, crying it off, laughing it off, toughening up, having fun.

People drone on about teaching our girls to be "strong", "empowered", "fierce" and all those other vaguely meaningless buzzwords. Well there's something empowering anyone can do: bring your daughter to the local camogie pitch, where she can channel her inner warrior and inner poet all at once. Face the puck-out, lads.

Irish Independent

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