Sunday 22 April 2018

'Maggie Farrelly doesn't want different treatment, but can it happen in a male-dominated sport?'

Referee Maggie Farrelly gives some final instructions to her team of officials before last week's Fermanagh v St Mary's University game in the Dr McKenna Cup (SPORTSFILE)
Referee Maggie Farrelly gives some final instructions to her team of officials before last week's Fermanagh v St Mary's University game in the Dr McKenna Cup (SPORTSFILE)
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Probably never before in GAA history did a referee's introduction to senior inter-county level generate as much publicity as Maggie Farrelly's appointment for the Fermanagh v St Mary's Dr McKenna Cup tie last Wednesday.

It attracted attention before, during and after the game, with the focus firmly on the Cavan woman's arrival into what has always been a male-only environment.

Maggie didn't want any fuss and, apparently, had to be encouraged to do interviews by the Ulster Council.

From her perspective, it was no big deal but, given the novelty factor, a wider public interest had to satisfied by the media.

Obviously, the Ulster Council regarded it as such a progressive move that it should be highlighted. Consequently, Farrelly found herself facing interviews, most of which were carried on Friday, while RTE had an extended version last Sunday. Already, she has been quoted at greater length than most male referees who have been on the top circuit for many years.


All of which is understandable: she has made GAA history. And yet, there's a blatant contradiction in the reaction to her emergence as an inter-county referee.

"I'm not trying to break down barriers or anything like that. I'm no different from any other referee, apart from gender obviously.

"As soon as you cross that white line, you are the referee and when you cross that white line again after 70 minutes, you are Maggie Farrelly," she told this newspaper last Friday.

That was also very much the tone of her interview with John Murray on RTE last Sunday, especially when queried about her ambitions to climb the refereeing ladder, possibly to All-Ireland final heights.

From Murray's perspective, it was an obvious question, yet it wouldn't have been asked of other rookie referees. But then, they wouldn't have been interviewed because they are all male and not regarded as especially interesting.

So here's the nub of the issue about Farrelly's emergence as a woman in the male-dominated world of refereeing.

If it's to work for her, she has to be treated in exactly the same way as her male colleagues who are trying to make it up the ranks.

She also has to treat herself as being the same as them - which, in fairness, she has done so far.

However, it also means no more interviews about being a woman in a traditionally male environment, because once the distinction is made between her and other referees, it won't disappear.

In fact, it will become more clearly defined, with increasing interest on how she is faring. She appears quite happy to treated like any other referee, but will she be allowed if her career progresses?

Pre-season warm-ups are altogether different from Ulster senior championship clashes, which even top referees regard as the ultimate test. Indeed, it appears they can be career-defining.

"Ulster makes or breaks you. It can be a graveyard. The games are different. There is an extra dimension and intensity. If you aren't prepared mentally and physically, the chances are you will be caught out.

"But when you are appointed for your first (Ulster) championship match, that's making progress," said David Coldrick last year.

Coldrick didn't mention the constant challenging of decisions by players (that extends all over the country) or the abuse, some of which can be deeply personal, which pours down from the stands, followed by crazy stuff on social media.

It all comes with the job and, if anything, is becoming nastier and more personal. Maggie Farrelly knows that's what lies ahead if she reaches the higher echelons. She also appears to be a sufficiently strong personality to cope with it.

However, how will others react? If she eventually makes it on to the elite panel of officials which referee all senior championship games, will her performances be assessed on precisely the same criteria as male colleagues?

If she's subjected to the same level of vitriol from spectators as male referees, will there be an outcry that the GAA should "do something about it"?

And if a player is heard passing a comment to her in the course of a game that wouldn't draw any attention if directed to a male referee, will there be calls for sanctions?

No referee should have to listen to some of the stuff that's hurled in their direction but, unfortunately, it happens all the time. For as long as that prevails, there should be no differentiation in how it's dealt with, depending on whether the referee is male or female.

Also, if Farrelly doesn't make it onto the elite inter-county panel in the next year or two, will there be claims that it's down to gender-based discrimination?

Given that Ulster have welcomed her aboard, that's unlikely to be the case, but some will still argue that it was a factor.

Farrelly wants to be treated on her merits as a referee but it's not going to be that simple. She already knows that following the surge of publicity for her first inter-county game.

Basically it comes down to this: it's great to see her move into a male bastion but, once there, it has to be equality all the way, even when that involves the negativity that all referees endure from time to time.

Otherwise, it won't work.

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