Thursday 19 September 2019

'A lot of the barriers are down now'

Camogie chief Sinéad McNulty is determined to help her sport take its place at the GAA table

Sinéad McNulty. CEO of the Camogie Association. Photo: Arthur Carron
Sinéad McNulty. CEO of the Camogie Association. Photo: Arthur Carron

John Greene

Sinéad McNulty has been around sport all her life. So, when she starts talking about her time playing football with her club, the easy assumption is that she began playing at a young age. Not so.

Her football career, she admits, was "quite unusual" as far as the usual path of women in sport is concerned. The typical problem in society is that the fall-off rate from sport as girls get older is alarmingly high. McNulty, though, only took up Gaelic football when she was 24.

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She had played a little camogie ("to absolutely no level of talent") and also played - among others - soccer, basketball and softball, ran a lot and did gymnastics. And then, at 24, came football.

"I was playing softball," she says, "and we'd train and play matches. I was also doing Irish classes part time down in Áras Chrónáin cultural centre down in Clondalkin, I'd always an interest in the Irish language and didn't excel in it in school . . . you just don't get the fluency. So I went back to work on spoken Irish and there was a chap in the class and we used to have a ciorcal comhrá - conversation circle talking Irish - and one of the chaps in the class was involved in the club [Round Towers]. He was the camogie manager, and he kept at me, 'Come on, come on, come out and play camogie' and I was like, I haven't played in a while, but he kept on at me week after week and he said, 'Right if I can't get you to play camogie straight away will you come and play football. We'll get you into the club'. He probably had the intention of transferring me over after a while!

"So that's how it started. He persuaded me to go down, gave me a contact number and I went into the dressing room and met a girl who I'd coached at gymnastics and she'd also done Irish classes previously and I'd kind of known her so I met someone I knew and I just kept going."

In fact, she kept going for 15 years.

"I wasn't by any means the most talented but I loved the crack with the girls," she says. "We had a really good team, really good group of people from very mixed backgrounds. We had some people who came up from the countryside and were working in Dublin, and some people who'd grown up in Clondalkin and played football since they were 10 and played for Dublin . . . so we'd a real mix of people and a real mix of age groups as well. We had people maybe when I started who would have been 10, 12 years older than me, right down to the minors playing up."

Sport is a lot more than a hobby for McNulty, who has been CEO of the Camogie Association since June. Having studied leisure management, she has always worked in and around sport, in various capacities. While working as a consultant with Holohan Leisure her range of experience in the world of sport was broadened considerably because the group have so many different arms. It was, she says, "a great grounding". From there, McNulty moved into the local authority system, first with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and then with Dublin City Council, as sport and active living co-ordinator.

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This brought her in direct contact with sports clubs, but working more with community groups targeting children, youth at risk of getting involved with drugs, older adults, minority groups, young girls . . . "all of the key target groups that have since been acknowledged within the national sports policy".

Prior to joining the Camogie Association, McNulty was head of sport at TU Dublin, formerly DIT.

"That," she says, "was anything and everything to do with sport, so participation for individuals, supporting the sports clubs, managing the facilities and grant applications for new facilities, high performance athletes and strategic planning for sport . . . and anything else that didn't fit anywhere else."

All of which, she feels, brought her nicely to this point in her life and prepared her for a new direction. "It's bringing together everything I've ever done but allowing me to focus in on one particular sport and really see change, growth, development," she says of her new role with the Camogie Association.

Aside from meeting the team at the association's HQ on Jones's Road, a short step from Croke Park, working with the GAA and Sport Ireland was a big priority for the Dubliner once she got her feet under the desk. She believes strongly in the idea of the 'Gaelic games family' and says that although the benefits of ongoing co-operation might not yet have been felt by members, it is only a matter of time before they are.

"We're also learning from each other," she says of the interaction with the GAA. "They are a bigger organisation so there are things they support us with. The one that's going to be visible for club members over the coming months is going to be the IT membership system, that's something tangible. If you're a club member going in to play or going in to training you don't care if someone's sitting on a committee with the GAA or a GAA person is sitting on a camogie committee.

"But when they see it starting to impact, and when they see the service that they are getting improve, or they see the synergies actually benefit them as individuals or in clubs that's where we're going to really show it."

Having three separate organisations running the 'Gaelic games family' is in ways the last great anomaly in Irish sport - the last sports divided on gender grounds since men's and women's golf united under one umbrella.

"We're all moving," says McNulty. And indeed it is only a matter of time before it is resolved, but she sounds a timely note of caution too: "It's about doing it right as well. There's no point in rushing for the sake of rushing to sign off on a piece of paper to say, 'Yes we're integrated'. It's got to be respectful of tradition and history, and respectful of everyone's aims and ambitions."

Another priority for McNulty is in the whole area of volunteerism - the backbone of every sporting and community organisation in the country. But as camogie, and most sports, are finding out, these are challenging times in terms of connecting with people and getting more help. There's a sense that there are almost too many obstacles for new people to get involved; too many reasons to say no, rather than yes.

"I suppose the nature of things at the minute is that everything's fast," she says. "We couldn't run without volunteers. We need to really thank them and tell them how valued they are because we couldn't operate.

"People think, 'If I get involved I'll be doing everything', and it doesn't have to be that way. You can get involved and do one thing every four weeks, but if you do that somebody else only has to do it every four weeks as well and all of a sudden the whole place is stronger. That's a big priority.

"When you work in the sports industry you get used to filling in application forms, you get used to filling in budget applications. But if you're coming from a different industry that mightn't be your first skill so people might need support to do it. Yeah, putting support in place for our volunteers is the next biggie."

Typically, as a woman who has always been immersed in sport she is passionate and outspoken about continuing to find ways to make it more accessible for all, regardless of gender, or socio-economic background.

"I love sport. I love being outdoors, I love all that, and I genuinely believe there's something for everyone from a sporting perspective, and if you're saying you're not good at sport then you just haven't found something that suits you yet.

"When I was in school we had hockey, or social basketball or social volleyball, just out in the car park, so it was weather-dependent. But if you weren't particularly good at hockey then there wasn't that much for you. A maths teacher took us for soccer in fifth an sixth year and that would have been the start of the team sport for me. There hadn't been as much of a tradition and certainly in our school at that time there wouldn't have been Gaelic games and now there is, so that's progress.

"Women's sport is now a common topic of conversation. I used to talk about Title IX in college and I'd be educating students about Title IX in college, telling them what happened when every sport had to be offered equally to men and women and the transformation that that brought.

"If you go back through the history books, and the numbers of women who have participated, having just not been allowed initially, so the movement of women's sport right now is really strong and sometimes as a women-only sport because people might have spent a long time fighting systems and processes.

"I think a lot of those barriers are down or are coming down so there's opportunities for us to grow it and for camogie just to be another sport within the Gaelic games family, it's not just that women's sport over there in the corner, we're front and centre."

And Sinéad McNulty is determined to keep it that way.

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