Women's code has grown into powerful competitor
Ladies football was a late starter in Gaelic games but is making up for lost time, writes Marie Crowe
In the early 1970s, the men and women of the Offaly Association in Dublin came together at the 15 Acres in the Phoenix Park to play Gaelic football. At that time there was no organised structure, but in pockets around the country women were getting together to play amongst themselves.
Offaly man Brendan Martin was involved in the sessions in the Phoenix Park and he noticed that the women partaking in training had a huge appetite for Gaelic football. So much so that female players from other counties were coming along to join in. The numbers increased and very soon the players wanted more than just training and a run-around. They wanted games, competition, and, ultimately, a championship.
In 1973, Martin heard through his brother that there were women playing football in Stradbally, Co Waterford. He got in touch about a potential match. Stradbally were interested so he hired a bus for his group and made the trip down to play against them. By that stage he'd nearly formed a full Offaly team so after the success of the game he went about organising the first ladies football inter-county match.
It didn't take long for his plan to come to fruition. Through another contact, he learned that Kerry were also playing together so he got in touch with them. By August of that same year, the fixture was made and on the bank holiday weekend the Kerry team travelled to Tullamore to take on Offaly. Some 1,500 spectators watched the historic game play out in O'Connor Park and Martin still has the match programme, which cost five pence.
"Once we played that game in Tullamore, word started to filter through to us about other counties such as Galway who were also playing football," says Martin. "We knew then that there should be something formed. We gathered a few people together in Tullamore and decided to organise an All-Ireland."
In early 1974, he called a meeting for Hayes Hotel in Thurles. His choice of venue was deliberate – it was where the GAA was formed so it was the perfect venue to start the Ladies Gaelic Football Association. On July 18, they met in the iconic hotel, set up an executive and did a draw for the first championship.
They started off with eight counties playing in the knockout competition and Offaly and Tipperary contested the final in Durrow. It was a very close encounter and Tipperary were crowned the first All-Ireland ladies football champions.
However, the new Association had very limited funds so Martin, who was training Offaly, bought the cup himself and the losing captain, Agnes O'Gorman, presented it to the winning captain, Kitty O'Brien. It has since become known as the Brendan Martin Cup.
Although the Association was off the ground, there were still plenty of challenges to overcome. Getting media coverage was next to impossible as many people expected the game to fizzle out. Access to pitches was and still can be very difficult, with teams relying on the generosity of clubs and county boards to get a venue. For the likes of Marina Barry, who won ten All-Irelands with Kerry, playing in Croke Park in the 1986 All-Ireland final was a dream come true.
"Having an opportunity to play in Croke Park was the be all and end all for any person who played football," says Barry. "And to win there was extra special. A few years before that we'd played in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, it was like all our birthdays had come at once. To play in a field where you would have gone to see the Kerry men playing was amazing. There was no women's team before us so we'd always supported and followed the men's teams."
Back then training was usually twice a week with a match at the weekends. Some players, like Barry, were working in Dublin and travelling home for training. Even in those early stages playing inter-county football was extremely demanding. As it is now.
Michael Ryan, who managed Waterford to All-Ireland success and also was in charge of the county's hurlers, sees the dedication levels between the men and women he's trained as being on a par. "Women train as hard as men but the problem is they don't have the same resources," says Ryan. "They don't get mileage, travel expenses or any of the things the men get. But still the commitment from both of them is identical."
Cora Staunton, who has been a Mayo inter-county footballer for 19 seasons, has spent much of that time training five days a week to keep on top of her game. Her club Carnacon are also very successful and as a result she plays for 11 months of the year. And although she has a demanding schedule, she won't complain because playing football is what she loves to do.
"I really enjoy the competitive side of football," says Staunton (pictured, inset). "I like trying to prove myself every year. I want to make myself five per cent better, whether that is possible or not I don't know but it's what I try to do. And you want to reach the top, especially when you have won an All-Ireland, you want to get back there again.
"Playing a team sport is also an enjoyable aspect of it. These are girls that you have been friends with for 14 or 15 years. It's a lot of commitment but you make good friends and have fun too."
However, there are aspects of the game that Staunton feels need working on such as the sin-bin.
"I think it has ruined the game a bit. The idea of it is good but the rules around it aren't very well defined. We don't know why some players are sin-binned. For example a player can consistently foul and no action will be taken but another could just foul once and be sent in.
"Also ten minutes is too long for a 60-minute game. It was taken from rugby which is an 80-minute game. I don't think it has done anything to help the development of the sport because all it has done is confuse referees." Over the last 15 years participation in the game has increased at a rapid rate and currently there are 152,000 registered members.
"We are still a relatively new Association," explains Helen O'Rourke, chief executive of the Ladies Gaelic Association. "We started off with eight teams at senior level and then grew gradually as the underage structures were put in place. The bulk of our growth came about then in more recent years."
But even though it is a new Association a lot of work has already gone into the development of the game. As well as the national committee implementing underage structures, the areas where the game was losing players were also examined and action was taken to increase participation.
For example, many older players were giving up the game when they started having families so Gaelic for Mothers and Others was introduced to entice them back to the sport. Another area where there was a drop-off was after minor level so an under 21 competition was created.
Currently 40 per cent of females in Ireland partake in sport and 170,000 women volunteer every year. And although these figures are encouraging for those involved in team sports there are still areas of concern. After minor level participation levels fall and once these women leave the sport it is very hard to get them back into the game. It is also a challenge to get adults who haven't played before to take it up. However Gaelic for Mothers and Others caters for those who are new to the game as well as those returning. There is a fun element to it and it is very much about participation.
Financially, the Ladies Gaelic Association is in a strong position; they generate the majority of their income themselves and are only eight per cent dependent on the Sports Council. They have benefited from being a young association because they have always had a compulsory registration fee for members.
And they also have a compulsory injury fund for members which they administer from headquarters in Croke Park. On top of this they are an attractive proposition for potential sponsors as over 20 of their games are broadcast live on TG4 every year.
Across the board the Ladies Gaelic Football Association has been progressive, from rule changes to marketing and the results are visible in the popularity of the game. It's only going one way.